With the Trench Mortars in France
Chapter IV Various Actions
Chapter IV Various Actions
The Division moved into the Levante-Flerbaix sector about 10th October and immediately set about to re-establish British prestige in that sector. All three batteries were active, night and day firing being kept up, each gun endeavouring to fire 100 rounds a day. This was a big task, the ground being so soft that it was difficult to find a sound place in which to rest a base plate, and even the putting down of concrete blocks afforded little help. The Saxons who were opposite retaliated vigorously with trench mortars and artillery, but the work of demolishing the opposing lines went on steadily. Tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition were used, and the casualty lists mounted upward. There were days at this time when the only activity recorded in the British press consisted of the words: "The page 30day was marked by great trench-mortar activity south of Armentieres." At the end of three weeks the German front line was practically flattened out and reconnaissance parties penetrated at night freely and unopposed into the enemy lines.
The second Auckland raid on 21st February, 1917, in which over 500 men, under command of Major A. C. Mackenzie, was a most successful show, and one in which the Stokes played a very prominent part. The raiders assaulted the front and support line of the enemy—two companies the front line and two companies the support. There was a tremendous amount of artillery and trench-mortar support to this raid, there being over sixty eighteen-pounders, twenty 4.5 Howitzers, four sixty-pounders, and four 6-inch Howitzers, one heavy and three batteries of medium trench mortars, besides sixteen light trench mortars.page 31
At zero (5.45 a.m.) the trench mortar shells literally poured out in showers on to either flank of the enemy position which was being assaulted, and the trenches being thickly held by the Huns this tornado of shells wrought great havoc among them. The wire defences had been well cut by the trench mortars, and our raiders were in the German front trenches before the Hun barrage, in response to his S.O.S., fell on our front line. There was some very stubborn fighting before the raiders reached the support line, and the enemy fought furiously to drive our men back, but our men remained over half an hour in the Hun trenches, destroying machine guns, war materials and dug-outs, and then returned to our own trenches. Of the Infantry, one officer and 17 men were killed and six officers and 70 men were wounded, but as a set-off our men killed about 200 of the enemy and one officer and 43 of the enemy were captured. The raid was a great success, and 2nd Auck-page 32land was congratulated by the Commander-in-Chief. During the raid the light trench mortars fired 3000 rounds and the batteries worked very hard. Two guns exploded, and all the guns were worked from emplacements exposed to heavy shell fire. However, the men of these batteries worked with great determination and grit, and deserved high praise for their work.
The astounding effect that this weapon had on the morale of the Hun was demonstarted more clearly each time we went into action, for he now knew that the British had a mobile and very deadly weapon far superior in all respects to any that he possessed himself.
The utter hopelessness of troops standing up against a concentrated fire from the Stokes was shown later at the Battle of Messines, page 34where the following incident in the attack bears out the effect on the Hun morale which I have above described:—
Before the Battle of Messines we (4th Battery) were sent up to Le Biset for billets on the 8th May, taking over from an Australian Battery. Many will remember that at this particular time it was infinitely worse in this village for shell fire than being in the front line. Part of our battery was in the Villa de Roses, which was not what it sounded, as it was not long before they were shelled out of it, but luckily without any casualties. The reason for the concentrated fire on this village was the searching by the Hun batteries for a number of Australian batteries of 4.5 Howitzers and English 6in. Howitzers that were dug in behind the village and were annoying him with. continuous and heavy harrassing fire. In consequence of this, Le Biset came in for the biggest shelling it had all through the war, and was almost totally destroyed, and yet, in spite of page 35this, a few brave French families had remained until they were ordered away by the military authorities.
It was pitiful to see this once prosperous and picturesque village, like hundreds of others, battered to pieces by the Hun's shelling.
Our second billet in this village was worse than the first, as no sooner had we moved to it than old Fritz put a solid "straafe" of five point nines on us and followed it up with a gas-shelling at night, which gas shells were very hard to detect, as they burst at the same time as the high-explosive shells.
It was some considerable time before the gas guard realised that the shells were gas shells and gave the alarm, and from then on a most uncomfortable few hours were spent in gas masks.
The following morning (29th) part of our battery moved up to the line in front of Le Biset to cover the front of a composite brigade that was holding the line, and just before page 36moving off, by way of a send-off from the village, Fritz put over a number of well-placed shells into the road outside our billet, where the battery was assembling, badly wounding Sergeant Mitchell, a very fine n.c.o. whom we could ill spare, and also 2nd-Lieutenant Powell slightly wounded in the head, which necessitated his evacuation.
This battery had a pretty rough time during its first tour of duty in the line as a new unit. Le Biset sector, which had been very quiet hitherto, was now becoming a pretty hot place to be in, for all the batteries of artillery preparing for the Messines Battle were moving up behind the line and beginning their registration work.
The writer had a very exciting experience in one of the buildings at the Le Toquet railway station, which had been battered about considerably from Hun shell-fire, but had been left alone for some time. I thought this would make a good central position for a head-page 37quarters, being handy to both the right and left sector, and situated on a trench well known as Long Avenue. About 3 p.m. one afternoon soon after going into the line, the Hun suddenly took a violent dislike to this isolated brick building and started to see if he could level it to the ground. Sergeant Gibbons and myself had just come back from the guns after a long morning around the sector, and were sitting down having something to eat, about 3 p.m., when a tremendous "straafe" began. Luckily, inside this particular building we had built a small sand-bagged position, which, although it stopped us being knocked out by flying bricks, was not sufficiently strong to hold the big pressure of debris that came down when the roof and the walls were blown in on top of us. Shells seemed to be bursting all around the building, with no hope of escape, and suddenly we fully expected to be blown upwards and to pieces, as two shells landed in the cellar underneath us, which was filled with water, page 38but, wonderful to relate, they were "duds." In a little over an hour this building had been practically demolished over our heads, and we were just going to make a dash for the trench when suddenly, just as quickly as it had begun, the shelling stopped. We were not at all sorry, and breathed a big sigh of relief, after a most uncomfortable time.
At the head of Long Avenue, where our front line was, the Hun front line was only about forty yards away from ours, and the consequence was that our patrols were often coming into contact with Hun patrols in "No Man's Land." This resulted in a lot of bomb-throwing and trench-mortar work, as the companies holding the line—the Loyal North Lancs.—would put up the S.O.S. immediately the clash between the patrols took place. The net result was that the Hun's front and support line got a very good pounding from the Artillery and Trench Mortars, which soon had its effect in quieting the sector.page break page break page 39
During the last ten days before Messines a veritable hell of heavy fire from the enemy was evoked through the practice barrages that our artillery and trench mortars commenced at 3 p.m. daily for about half an hour. The reply from the Hun was generally directed with all its fury in and around Ploegsteert Wood, and we suffered a fair number of casualties in consequence. The Catacombs and a number of other places where there was a great number of men were not exactly health resorts, especially at night, when they came in for a particularly heavy gas-shelling by the enemy. This was a great discomfort, as it meant night after night for about a week being for hours at a time in our gas masks. One got used to it after a bit, and some men could eventually sleep in theirs, they had got so accustomed to wearing them.
Then day after day the shelling from behind our lines directed on to the Messines page 40Ridge became heavier and heavier, and one noticed going up to the line that numbers of new batteries were being moved up every day ready for the Great Day which was to come.
Most of the batteries only fired for registration purposes on to known enemy positions and then kept quiet until the morning of the 7th June, which was, as the Tommies put it, to be "Bert's bank 'olliday," "Bert" being General Plumer, the little General of the 2nd Army, who did such great work all through the War.
At last the long-looked-for day came, and our assaulting battalions moved up to the line from billets, thoroughly trained and in the pink of condition, and as they passed out towards the line the villagers wished them God-speed in their favourite words—"Bon chance, messieurs, bon chance."
The gods were good to us, and the day dawned in perfect weather. The whole of the previous night had been calm, and after a page 41short sleep (those that could sleep) everyone was ready long before the appointed time, waiting for the fateful zero hour, which was 4.10 a.m. The tension was great—only a few minutes were left—still all was quiet—now in a moment—it was coming—a terrific roar, and, like a tremendous earthquake, the earth shook beneath us and simultaneously our huge mines—the product of Titanic labour—vomited forth the whole of their deadly force into the air. This was the signal! Had Hell been let loose? Over five thousand pieces of artillery thundered, and the creeping fire of their barrage went forward before our troops and took its deadly toll of the shaken enemy.
At first it seemed as if the Bosche had undermined our positions and set off mines of his own making, but we knew better. The enemy were paralysed. The mines had such an awful effect on their ranks that those who were not killed were speechless and stupefied page 42and outwardly shaking at the knees as they were captured and brought back as prisoners by our men.
Not long afterwards, not more than an hour and a-half from zero hour, we were breakfasting on the much-coveted ridge, for the capture of which we had been preparing for nearly two years.
Captain W. E. L. Napier, M.C. (The Author)
Again, a short time afterwards at La Basse-ville, after very hard fighting, our 1st Brigade captured the village, but as, owing to heavy casualties, we had only a handful of men to hold the village, the Bosches' counter-attack drove us out. With the assistance, however, of the Stokes Mortars, which wrought great havoc among the Germans, we succeeded in again occupying the village by a very successful attack three days later.
The confidence of our Infantry was rapidly gained by these exploits of the Stokes Batteries, and in the trench warfare that followed before the Division went out of the line to train for the Passchendaele offensive, battalion commanders frequently sent for the officer in page 44charge of the Stokes Mortars in the line for the purpose of getting him to bring his guns to bear on enemy machine guns that harassed working parties or became very offensive. In practically all cases in a very short space of time after the orders were given these enemy machine guns were either blown out or silenced, and our Infantry's trouble was temporarily over.
In many cases these sharp bursts of fire on the Hun positions brought retaliation on to our front line, but it was nearly always arranged that a battery of artillery was standing by, and any sign of temper on the part of the Hun in this manner was repaid to him with good interest. The result in the long run was that the Hun found it paid him better to keep quiet.
In cases where our line was thickly held by troops the officer in charge of the mortars always endeavoured to carry out his offensive operations from disused trenches or shell page 45holes, in order that retaliation would not come back on our Infantry.
At this particular time the Bosche was giving us a severe dose of mustard gas shelling every night on to our front, support, and reserve lines, and a great number of men were evacuated through this cause. The writer and several men of the 4th Battery were rather badly gassed, and numbers of men from nearly every unit of ours in the line were being evacuated daily, which was getting a serious thing for the Division.