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Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.

Chapter VII. — The Battle of the Somme, 1916

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Chapter VII.
The Battle of the Somme, 1916.

After 18 months of patient preparation, the British Armies in Prance were at last able, in the summer of 1916, to undertake an offensive campaign on a large scale. The Valley of the Somme was selected as the scene of operations most likely to yield success, and here, in conjunction with our French Allies, a grand attack was launched on 1st July., In his despatch of 23rd December, 1916, the three main objects of the offensive were clearly set forth by the British Commander-in-Chief: to relieve the increasing pressure on Verdun; to stop further transfers of German troops from the Western Front to other theatres of war; and to wear down the strength of the enemy forces.

To General Rawlinson of the Fourth Army, assisted on his northern flank by troops of the Third Army, was entrusted the task of directing the destinies of the British troops engaged in the combined enterprise. The initial result, particularly in the northern sector of attack, fell far short of expectation, but by steady persistent effort against great odds, an advance of about a mile was achieved in the southern area by the middle of July. A further grim struggle of a month or more saw the enemy now in the last line of his original system of defences, and the main objects of the undertaking successfully achieved. By the end of August it was considered that a further attack in force had every chance of finally dislodging the Boche from his carefully prepared trenches. Once in the open, and shorn of the tremendous advantages borne of his first choice of position and months of energetic and skilful fortification, it was felt that he could be engaged on an equal footing with results entirely favourable to his confident assailants. The New Zealanders were honoured by inclusion in the ranks of the selected British forces detailed for this final grand assault.

In the meantime, in preparation for the coming ordeal, the Division was resting in the brooding peace of late summer among the sequestered villages of the lower Somme. The peasants here seemed curiously out of touch with the stirring march of events their only visible emotion, even at the advent of the troops, found expression in the billeting of large dogs beneath their apples trees, the removal of pump handles, and page 86in similar small courtesies not fully appreciated by their guests. A strain of subdued excitement, due to the certainty of stern work ahead, gave an extra fillip to training operations. In view of the services most likely to be required of them, the Engineers concentrated on the speedy laying out of trenches, the handling of working parties, rapid wiring, and consolidation of captured positions. Constant route marching hardened the men after their recent spell of trench warfare.

It may easily be seen that Engineers faced with the job of providing trenches at a certain spot, and strictly limited as to both time and labour, must work on some definite plan if the necessary results are to be achieved, and the services of each man fully utilised. With this end in view all sappers were instructed how to mark out various types of trench according to the demands of the situation, and how to estimate accurately and quickly how much of the work could be performed by the average soldier in the time available. The amount of digging laid down by British Army Manuals as a fair thing to expect from the ordinary soldier was 80 cubic feet in 4 hours. There were times when this amount was not achieved in a long day, but under good conditions and pressed by motives of personal safety or by a desire to be somewhere else, the New Zealander could cut it out in half the time, or less, and very often did.

By the 27th August, the sappers were on the move again, and proceeded by road and train via Merieourt L'Abbe to a point on the Frieourt-Mametz Road, between Fricourt and Becordel. Here was found the Transport, which had come by road the preceding day, and the whole Engineer establishment went into bivouac on the roadside, with the Pioneer Battalion alongside. The first autumn rains had now set in, and the only shelters available, roughly constructed of pon toon decking, were urgently required. On the evening of arrival, ration arrangements were not all that they might have been, and a temporary shack just opened by the Y.M.C.A. suffered a tremendous onslaught from wet and weary men. An extract from a sapper's letter shows how misfortunes heighten one's sympathy with the sufferings of others:—

Another long march to-day in mud and rain, with the cursed pack weighing a ton long before night. We stuck it out, but were mighty glad to see the sign of the old Y.M. and to get a warm drink and some grub. As I came out of the shed, I saw Captain — with his boot off examining a blister on his foot, and that was as good as another cup of hot coffee!

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All around were signs of a most intense activity. The roads were one solid mass of ordered traffic, waggons, guns, limbers, tractors, lorries, and flashing in and out among them all the motor cycles of the incomparable despatch riders. Mile after mile, ridge upon ridge, lay the congested bivouacs of the British Army. The morning sun could scarcely penetrate the smoke of the myriad fires that hung like a grey pall in the calm air, and by night a thousand camps were pricked out on the dark fields by clusters of twinkling lights. The sound of the guns ran the whole gamut of intensity from the harsh crash of our own heavies, down through the bark and swish of the lighter field pieces, to the far-off throb of the German artillery beating like a pulse in the murky atmosphere. Always the guns, never idle, never, silent, roaring like savage animals eager for their prey. All early impressions of the scale of artillery in modern war, begotten of the now insignificant experiences of the Armentieres sector, were swept away by the mighty flood of continual gun-fire. Nor was any very accurate readjustment possible for some time. The mind was enveloped by the wonder and immensity of the crowded events. Above the chequered scene hundreds of British 'planes flew hither and thither at their own sweet will, and long lines of observation balloons strung out against the hazy sky. A few German balloons were faintly visible, and an occasional enemy aviator made a hasty reconnaisance from a safe height.

The first work undertaken by the Field Companies was the consolidation of the old German Second Line on the Bazentin Ridge. The trenches here were naturally in a broken and battered state, and appeared worse by contrast with recent scenes of endeavour. The whole countryside was sodden with rain, the bottoms of the trenches, destitute of duckboards, were simply a slough of mud and water; the sides, unsupported by any revetment, fell in at a touch, and the whole was soon trampled into a viscous mass of tenacious bog that made all travel a laborious and exasperating pilgrimage of woe.

Engineers and Pioneers were immediately set to the repairing of two trenches known as the Savoy and Carlton. The reconstruction and revetment of selected firebays was put in hand at once, and valiant efforts were made to improve the existing communication saps. In the prevailing scarcity of all material, particularly revetting hurdles and "A" frames these saps were almost a hopeless task. The unfortunate digger, bogged to the knees in slush, managed to heave a certain amount out of the trench during the day, only to find that it slithered in again over night. A certain amount of wiring page 88 Black and white line drawn map of Flers and Longueval page 89was done in front of the new trenches, and several deep dugouts were commenced pending the arrival of the main body of the Division. The first issue of that comforting beverage known as rum took place in these early days on the Somme, and cannot be allowed to pass unrecorded by any account which professes an interest in the simple pleasures of the hardy soldiery.

While the sappers cleared and drained these works, the transport drivers were fully employed in carting 'material from a regimental dump at Mametz siding to two dumps in the forward area known as Green and Thistle dumps. In these dumps were placed large supplies of all material likely to be required in the consolidation and defence of ground won from the enemy, notably wire, sandbags, picks and shovels. Duckboards, revetting hurdles and other more elaborate articles of trench equipment belong rather to later days, when a hold on the captured territory had been definitely asserted.

All dumps belonging to a Division are controlled by the Divisional C.R.E., who obtains his supplies through the Chief Engineer of the Corps to which his Division belongs, with the exception of a limited amount that may be purchased locally if circumstances are so favourable as to admit of local supplies of anything required. Aladdin would have been hard pressed to provide local supplies on the Somme. Each dump is always guarded and controlled by a Sapper or N.C.O., who builds himself a kennel from the materials at his disposal and settles down to await what the Fates may send. Since a dump is always easily picked up by enemy aviators, and is moreover a point frequently visited by parties of troops, the gifts of fortune generally take the form of enemy shells, and the apparently simple calling of a dump keeper is an appointment of considerable uncertainty.

Early in September, the efforts of the Engineers were transferred to the more congenial task of preparing particularly for the advent of their own Infantry. A day or two were spent by all available units on the road from Mametz to Montauban. The surface mud was shovelled off, and a layer of brick rubble put on to give a firm foothold. Side drains and large sump pits to control surface water materially improved the road. Thereafter, in company with the Pioneers, the sappers set about the construction of two new communication trenches for up and down traffic. These were known as Turk Lane and French Lane, and ran from the dumps to the advanced areas. The Pioneers worked on Turk Lane, the page 90Engineers on French Lane. For the first time in France, the sappers were working with their own job all to themselves, spurred on by this fact, and by a friendly rivalry with those redoubtable warriors, the Pioneers, they made a great effort. The two saps were dug throughout to a depth of 3 feet, and by a second operation were lowered to a depth of 5 feet, and provided with duckboards. It was here that the first real bombardment with gas shells was experienced, one Company losing 2 officers and 20 men in one night. Heavy rain hindered the work throughout. Night after night the men came home soaked with rain and mud, with no prospect of drying their clothes, and the morrow saw but repetition of the same conditions. However, on arrival of the Infantry battalions on the 11th, two splendid communication trenches, each some 4000 yards in length, duckboarded and revetted throughout, lay ready to conduct them from the dumps right to the advanced line of posts in Black Watch Trench. Runner posts were provided in both saps. In an area pitifully ill supplied with such advantages, these two saps became quite famous, and were known by envious neighbours far and wide. In fact, they set a new standard for the area, and the increased endeavour consequent upon an effort to live up to them was of great benefit all round.

By the 10th September, the assembly trenches necessary for the assaulting battalions in the coming attack were already under way in rear of the occupied shell holes between Tea and Orchard Trenches. Up to this date, with the exception of two advanced sections, the Field Companies had remained in their original camps, and had overcome the long distances to the various jobs by using the pontoon wagons to give the men a lift. Continuous wet weather had made this proceeding at last impossible, and on the 13th, preparatory to the day of attack, the whole of the 1st and 2nd Companies moved up and joined the advanced sections in dugouts in Montauban. The 3rd Company remained at Fricourt in reserve.

The Tanks, concerning which so many wild rumours were current, that they might have been anything from subterraneans to flying machines, now made their appearance, and while not quite up to extreme anticipation, were a sufficiently diverting spectacle as they lumbered solemnly over or through every species of obstacle. Despite their sloth and clumsiness, they were to prove highly effective on the morrow, when positions which might ordinarily have held up an advance for hours, fell to their insidious assault in a few minutes. Later on, when the Germans took special measures topage 91combat them, they were less successful, and lost much of their initial prestige until 1918, when their greatly increased speed restored them to favour with the fighting men.

During the 14th, in broken weather, final preparations were made for the great assault, practically unimpeded by enemy attentions of any kind. On this day, all Engineer transport, which had already been strenuously engaged in carting material over the heavy roads, moved into a fresh camp at Mametz. Advanced dumps of all materials had, been established ere this, and parties were now detailed to carry up on the morrow whatever stores might be called for by the fortunes of the battle. The main duty of the Engineers was to be the immediate construction of Strong Points in ground won from the enemy. The approximate location of these Points, with reference to the several objectives of the attacking infantry, was fixed by the C.R.E. before the advance, both to save time, and possibly to obviate the risk of a faulty choice of position due to a hasty decision on the field during the strain and stress of the engagement.

By the time of the Somme battle the experiences of modern warfare had firmly established the Strong Point as a definite feature of all operations in attack. It was recognised that trenches won by assault, especially when the lines were of value and importance, were certain to be subject to counterattack just as soon as the enemy could rally his forces or employ his reserves. In the time available, it was impossible to convert the whole captured trench into a position suitable to withstand attack from its previous rear, where wire and cover were absent and numerous saps afforded hidden means of approach. Nor were men likely to be available to defend the whole length of line. Hence a break through in the centre, for example, would mean divided forces taken separately, and rolled up from the flanks, with disaster as the Only end to a promising venture. To meet this type of contingency the Strong Point was evolved, a more or less circular trench system, complete in itself with firebays and sandbag parapets, capable of accommodating up to 40 or 50 men. Two or three hastily sandbagged emplacements for machine-gunners, sited at salient points, were additional items of equipment. Properly selected on commanding positions at convenient intervals apart, these Strong Points constitute a miniature series of minor forts very like the "posts" and "localities" of the established defensive lines of stationary trench warfare, and page 92form an exceedingly powerful nucleus for any system of defence. A further development is the use of enveloping wire entanglement, but since the wire catches the eye of the enemy aviator, who invariably passes on the good news to his artillery, the advantages accruing are questionable.

Though trenches dug on a circular pattern generally provide the easiest means of securing fire command in all directions, it does not follow that the lie of the country is always suitable for that class of Strong Point. Another type of construction often in use was the cruciform system, based on a central length of traversed trench cut towards the enemy with two smaller lengths, running off on either side, approximately at right angles in the shape of a rough cross. Fire from trenches laid out in this form can be trained in any desired direction, and machine-guns placed at the ends of the intersecting lengths ensure cross-fire on the attacker wherever he may be.

The cruciform system of construction was particularly well adapted to circumstances which called for the immediate provision of defensible positions capable of holding back enemy attacks for the time that had necessarily to elapse before a complete trench line could be dug. The side lengths prolonged and joined up became the main-trench line, while the central stem could be extended to the rear to act as a communication sap. In such a case as this, the Strong Points were always maintained as such after the completion of the through trench, and the hasty work of the first few hours was gradually improved and amended with more and better machine-gun positions until the post had attained full development as a centre of resistance. Such points are harder for enemy artillery to range on, and easier to conceal from the sky than closed circular works. Having in view the ultimate purpose of their existence, their final equipment should include stores of bombs, ammunition, food, water, wire and sandbags with the provision of Headquarters, telephone, and other dugouts necessary for a continued and successful defence. It will easily be seen that the general principles underlying the existence of the "Strong Point" remain the same in all cases, and so long as these are satisfied, minor questions of size and shape may be safely governed by the exigencies of each particular situation.

By midnight of the 14th all troops were in position. Each man was supplied with two gas helmets, extra ammunition, a filled water bottle, and extra rations in addition to the "iron" ration. Enemy artillery was curiously silent, and the splendid fitness and zest for battle of the waiting men were not page 93diminished by exposure to the nervous strain of a heavy bombardment passively endured in crowded assembly trenches. Most of them even slept a little, but by 6 a.m. the first faint promise of a fine day found them calm and ready, keen to put their fortune to the test.

At 6.20 a.m. the peaceful air was shattered by an intensity of British fire never before experienced or imagined. The struggling light of the dawn, imperfectly assisted by the stabbing flashes of the belching guns, was almost powerless to contend with the dense clouds of smoke and dust, and in a few moments the shadowy line of steadily advancing figures had vanished into the unknown. As usual, the objectives set for the various assaults of the day were shown on the maps in different colours, and were known by those colours to those concerned. The first objective was the Switch Trench (or Green Line), a powerfully defended line connecting the German Second ano! Third Systems. Behind that lay a Brown line on the farther slopes, with a Blue Line on the German side of Flers village and a Red Line beyond Gueudecourt.

Within half an hour the 2nd Brigade had captured the Switch Trench and intermediate defences on the crest. Following them the 2nd Field Company passed through the enemy barrage with little casualty and commenced to construct a new line of trench with a Strong Point at either end. As a result of previous experience this line was placed some 70 yards in advance of the Switch, and the wisdom of this proceeding was fully appreciated when the German shells began to rain upon the trench they had just lost, the position of which was known of course to a yard. All day and night the bombardment of the Switch continued, and aided by this incentive to action, the new trench sank rapidly. By the time it was noticed and bombarded, it was practically complete, and though there was much redigging and numerous casualties occurred, these were far less severe than would inevitably have followed from any attempt at permanent occupation of the Switch itself. On three separate occasions during the day, Lance-Corporal H. J. Mascall passed through the heavy barrage with wounded men, returning to his work immediately. He remained on the job all night, then, since several senior N.C.O.'s had been wounded, he continued at work all next day in order to complete the post. For this and previous good work under fire he was awarded the French Military Medal.

Second Lieutenant C. W. Chilcott, who had previously served with distinction on Gallipoli, was conspicuous here for gallantry and coolness under fire, and ultimately received a page 94well-earned Military Cross. Sapper D. R. Campbell, of the 2nd Field Company, also came under official notice for his display of coolness, energy and courage during these operations.

By 8 a.m. the Brown Line was in the hands of the 4th Rifles. General consolidation and, the construction of Strong Points were immediately put in hand by the 1st Field Company. Aided by strong working parties from the battalions in reserve, they soon made an improvement in their allotted position. The machine-gun emplacements were at once utilised, and had a satisfactory opportunity of proving their worth during the German counter-attack in the afternoon. By next day all Strong Points and as many other positions as possible were wired, but this appeared to give away the position to the enemy. Thereafter they were subjected to intense bombardment at short intervals—fortunately with high-explosive shells, which sank deep in the soft earth and had a very local effect. Shrapnel would have been much more effective.

Though the Red Line was not finally won on the first day of assault, our position as far as this was. established beyond doubt by the evening of the 16th, and the Engineers were transferred from defensive works to tackle the problems of water, shelter, and communications. These problems were rendered more acute by the pronounced break in the weather which occurred on the 17th September. Now, as happened so often again later on, the unfavourable elements caused serious delays in the British plans of attack, and gave so much more time to the harassed enemy to repair the breaches in his broken defences and to bring up fresh defenders. No experience of the fortunes of war on French battlefields was as exasperating as this. To spend weeks of toiling preparation, followed by the heavy losses inseparable from the preliminary assaults, and then to have all prospect of a final smashing blow washed away by circumstances over which there was no control, was an experience which called for all the fortitude inherent in the British soldier.

Notwithstanding the pouring rain with the consequent superfluity of surface Water in every direction, there was little enough suitable for the use of the troops. The village of Flers was known to have Contained many wells, but was being so vigorously bombarded by the enemy as to put occupation of the area quite out of the question. However, water was essential at once, and the 2nd Field Company was detailed to explore the resources of the village and to render avail-page 95able whatever supplies of water might be found. The wells were not hard to discover, but practically every one had been more or less destroyed or filled up with filth and refuse. The work of restoring them was greatly hindered by the heavy shelling experienced, but within a short period sufficient numbers were in working order, complete with pumps or windlasses, to ensure a steady and expeditious supply.

A series of deep dugouts for the use of Headquarters of Brigades, Machine-Gunners, Signallers, and similar units, was commenced in Montauban, and completed by the end of our period of occupation. One large deep shell-proof dugout, which served as Advanced Brigade Headquarters till the close of our operations on the Somme, was constructed in Ferret trench between the Switch and Flers. Several Dressing Stations were urgently required at suitably positions in the captured area, and the construction of these was naturally given preference. The miserable weather conditions, combined with an absolute lack of shelter in the shell-torn countryside caused a tremendous call for temporary accommodation, such as steel shelters for battery signallers, company headquarters, machine-gun posts, and so on. This call was satisfied as fast as the limits of time, material, and human endeavour would allow. Not that they represented the only pressing needs of the moment. Thousands of men were living the daily round in constant rain, and sleeping under the flimsy shelter of a waterproof sheet or a length of corrugated iron, and for these there was no relief possible. The opportunity for drying clothes afforded by the first fine day was so generally made use of that it is questionable whether as many men in a state of nature had ever been seen in those parts since the Stone Age.

For the whole of the front area occupied by the New Zealand Division, there was but one line of approach for wheeled traffic, up the Longueval-Flers Valley. By day it lay open to enemy observation, and by night it was never neglected by his artillerymen. The question of Engineering supply alone became extraordinarily acute. Construction of a new road from Thistle Dump up to High Wood by the 3rd Field Company gave some slight measure of relief, and a line of Decauville Railway from Longueval to Delville Wood was put down by the 2nd Company for the purpose of running up. shells for the heavy artillery. Ordinary transport was quite unable to deal with these weighty masses of metal in the existing state of the roads. Delville Wood at that moment was fully justifying the sinister reputation associated with it throughout the Somme operations, and 2nd Company men page 96engaged in putting up Regimental Aid Posts and other urgently needed shelters suffered numerous severe casualties.

Decauville Railway, so called from the name of its inventor, consisted of light steel rails laid on a gauge of 60 centimetres. The sleepers were flattish thin steel plates, about 6 inches across. Rails and sleepers were bolted together, and supplied ready for laying in lengths of 5 metres. A fairly level bed was easily prepared for such a narrow gauge article, and the line could be quickly taken up at any time and removed to another locality. For meeting the problem of immediate supply in the early days of an advance before more permanent arrangements could be made, this type of light line was wonderfully successful, and was in use by hundreds of miles.

With an improvement in the weather on 20th September came further opportunities for offensive action. Our initial successes had not been won without heavy losses, but the New Zealanders were far from done with, as the Boche was to learn to his cost before we finally left the Somme. At mid-day on the 25th, in beautiful weather, the attack was renewed. A strong position known as Factory Corner, about 1500 yards due north of Flers, was the first objective, and was carried without serious difficulty. During the next few days, a constant series of attacks was maintained on the strong German positions at The Circus, Gird Trench, and Gird Support, on the higher ground beyond Factory Corner. Determined opposition from the enemy and execrable weather conditions made the work of consolidation particularly strenuous. Gueudecourt had fallen into the hands of our right flank neighbours on the 26th.

During these operations the 3rd Field Company, which had been engaged on reconstruction of the Bazentin-le-Grand-Longueval Road, was detailed for the consolidation of newly-won ground, the construction of covering Strong Points, and to assist the Pioneers in the extension of the existing communications.

By the time a definite hold had been established on the forward positions, Turk Lane and Fish Alley had been pushed forward as far as the Abbey Road. At Factory Corner were found a splendid deep well containing 75 feet depth of good water and a large dump of German engineering material, both of which materially assisted the progress of the offensive in that particular locality.

Second Lieutenant A. O. Glasse showed high qualities of skill and endurance during this period, and his consistent page break
Major D. J. Gibbs, D.S.O.

Major D. J. Gibbs, D.S.O.

page 97 good work was filially recognised by an award of the Military Cross.

This class of work continued in bad weather, in a waste of mud and water, till the 3rd of October, when the sector was taken over by the 41st Division, and the sorely tried but undismayed New Zealanders trudged heavily back to concentration camps behind the lines preparatory to moving northward once more. Covered with the mire of a six weeks' sojourn in filthy trenches permeated by the sickening stench of putrefying bodies, with the ceaseless roar of the guns still ringing in their ears, and the sight of death in a dozen forms still hovering before their eyes, most of them were insensible to any particular sensation save one of relief that it was over for the time being. But all were uplifted and sustained by a sense of a good job well done, and faced the future with the serene fatalism which marks the seasoned soldier. It is later on, when the numbness of fatigue has worn off, and an increased mental activity accompanies renewed physical well-being, that the absence of familiar forms and faces sends regretful memories back to some corner of the stark field they will never leave again. But there is little room for emotion in the soldier's life; yesterday is gone for ever, to-day there is much to do, and to-morrow—who can tell?

The general health of the Field Companies, in common with the rest of the Division, had been considerably lowered by the trying conditions experienced, and in the last few days, sick parades had been largely attended. Dozens of men were casualties in various hospitals, and many more lay buried in the cemeteries of the battlefield. It may be noted here that no grave of any sapper or N.C.O. of the Field Companies, with the exception of those who fell in raids behind the enemies' lines, was ever left unmarked by a reliable record.

A day's rest, with the inexpressible luxury of a hot bath, combined with change of scene, soon put fresh heart into the jaded sappers, but they were weary men who marched away from the Somme to entrain at Albert. The section cyclists and transport did not entrain, but returned to the Abbeville area by road as they had come. Passing through Amiens, the train ran as far as Longpre, still far from the destined billet ing area. Here in the dusk of a cold wet evening, the inscrutable ways of Providence and British Armies decreed that the men should march the remaining 10 or 12 miles, much of it alongside the railway line, to their respective villages. In heavy silence the tired sections took the road, but if the sad truth must be told, very few men reached their destination page 98that night. A few hardy spirits, thereafter known ironically as the "Main Body," managed to complete the trek, but a great number fell out by the wayside, and sought such shelter as they could find. Morning showed them that theirs was no peculiar state. Men of almost every unit in the Division were to be seen on the road, some engaged in cooking a wayside meal, others emerging from the shelter of hedge or hayrick, while others again were holding high festival among the blackberries growing all along the road. By night all were safely within the fold once more. The transport sections came in on the same afternoon, with horses completely knocked up. For two days the horse lines were an unusual sight, with horses lying down in all directions.

The erstwhile cold-hearted inhabitants now suffered a complete reversal of form, and could not do enough to show their appreciation of the heroes in their midst; a commendable attitude of mind of which the heroes took full advantage. But the constant drain of the Somme battle on the strength of the British Armies was still going on, and no Division could be left long in idle seclusion.

On the 10th October C.R.E. Headquarters entrained at Pont Remy, and proceeded north to Merris near Bailleul. Next day the 1st Field Company entrained at the same place, and finally landed at Estaires. The 2nd and 3rd Companies entrained at Abbeville, and found temporary resting places at Bleu and Strazeele respectively, all Companies being now in reserve areas of the Sailly sector on the Lys.