Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 15: Flanders March - July 1916

From Service Record:
11 March 1916 - 23 May 1916: 2nd Division Ammunition Column (2nd section)
23 May 1916 - 22 June 1916 : 4th Field Artillery Brigade
22 June 1916 - 19 July 1917 : 11th Battery, 4th FAB
(England leave c. 22 Jan-2 Feb 1917)

From 2nd Division Ammunition Column War Diary (AWM Microfilm)

April 1 Abbeville. 7.30am Arrived from Marseilles
April 2 Abbeville. Headquarters and No 2 Section taking over horses, mules, harness and wagons. Marched for Blaringhem via Canchy – Le Boisle – Hesdin – Aire
April 5 Blaringhem.Arrived and proceeded to La Belle Hotesse
April 8 La Belle Hoteese. 2nd DAC filled with ammunition from railhead Triezennes
April 12 Marched to Le Petit Mortier. Arrived 1 pm. All gun ammunition handed over to 34th DAC RFA.
April 13 Le Petit Mortier.Relieved 34th DAC RFA. Ammunition (gun) taken over in dumps from 34th DAC
April 18 Route march and instruction in trench disciplines.
April 19 - ditto
April 21 At this period the 2nd DAC were supplying daily an average of 25 wagons to report to 20th Army Troops R.E. at 6 pm? and finishing work (in the fire zone) at daylight also about 20 wagons per day transporting Engineers Stores from ERQUINGHEM and 20 wagons transporting ? from LA MOTTE about every 4 days.
April 23 Marching Order Inspection, Dismounted
April 29 New Syllabus of Training issued
April 30 Le Petit Mortier to Grand Sec Bois
2nd DAC less No 3 Section and 6 wagons of No 1 marched to GRAND SEC BOIS via LE VERRIER-NEUF BERQUIN starting 2 pm arrived GRAND SEC BOIS 5.30pm.
May 2 Grand Sec Bois. Training at Sec Bois – Harness Fitting, Driving Drill, Battery Drill
May 3 -6 Harnessing, Driving and Battery drill
May 7 Le Petit Mortier. No 2 Section plus 6 wagons of No 1 relieved No 3 Section at Le Petit Mortier – keeping up supply of ammunition and transport for Engineers
May 21 60 Other Ranks attached to FA Bdes. Note’ The majority of them were retained permanently and new (less efficient) were transferred to the DAC in their place.

24 April 1916 Postcard from Percy Smith to Mother

Dear Mother
I sent you a letter the other day …there is to say I had a trip to the hot water baths to-day and I can tell you it was acceptable after weeks of "grey-backs". I see by to-day's paper some Russians have landed in France, so things are looking up. What do you think of this card? It is hand worked. Remember me to all. Wishing you many happy returns of your birthday.
Yours Percy.

Letter from Percy Smith to his sister, Maud Lade:

May 17th 1916

Dear Maud

It is quite a time since I have written to you now, but as I write to Mother pretty often it is not so bad.
I have had a splendid time in France (Flanders) up to date, and, with the exception of about three weeks of last month when it rained incessantly. The climate is all that you could desire. These last few days have been absolutely perfect, and it is marvellous how quickly the mud drys.
This is the middle of spring now, and I can tell you the country is beautiful. The trees are in leaf, and all the hedges just a mass of white, and the fields just a mass of buttercups. The farm-houses are quaint old affairs with their thatched roofs and white walls (The thatch is over a foot thick on most of them)
The people are most homely and you just walk into their houses like your own. Of course we pay for everything we get.
One can spend a most enjoyable evening in most places. Nearly everyone can speak a little English, and, between their English and our French (about on a par) conversation is most amusing.
We have not been doing a great deal of work lately. Carting mettle for roads and transferring horses and mules from one place to another is all. I was up close to the trenches with mettle on several occasions last week, and although there are hundreds of guns round about, never saw a shot fired, except the anti-air-craft. Of course one never knows when a shell will come along, and the roads and villages are torn about some. The farmers go on with their plowing just behind the trenches quite undisturbed, and it is nothing to see the shells land quite close to them, but it never worries them.
The Germans have sent gas over on several occasions, but although we had our helmets ready, it did not reach us. It is only a waste of energy sending gas now, as the helmets are so safe. They are funny looking affairs, and go right over the head with two glass places in them for the eyes.
There is a rubber tube to exhale with, and although you can exhale through it no air can come in. It is like the valve of a bicycle tube. There is some sort of mixture inside like tar, that preserves the good air for some hours, and the gas seldom lasts more than fifteen minutes. You can see it coming just like smoke on a damp day - rolling very low along the ground.
It is most interesting to watch the aeroplanes duelling in the air. Most of them are fitted with a machine-gun, and you can hear it cracking away, hundreds of feet up in the air. Some of the 'planes are very daring and fly quite low over the trenches. The German gunners are not nearly as good as ours, and although their machines never come so low, they lose more than we do.
As you know there are all sorts of troops in France now - South Africans, Canadian, West Indies, Aust., New Zealand. Russian and others as well.
I have not had a letter since I landed in France although it is now about eight weeks. The 4th L.H. are pretty slow at sending them along.
We are taking a lot of sick horses to the Vetinary hospital today and it is nearly time to start must close, with love to all

I saw Will Ross the other day. He is now a Lieutenant (first) in the cycling corps.

My address is
2nd D.A.C.
2nd Australian Divivison
British Expeditionary Force

Photograph of soldier wearing a gas mask of the kind mentioned in letter (EZ0051) "The wraparound cloth mask featured a carbon filter (in a unit in the bag attached to the soldier's uniform) that removed impurities from the air. Note the fob watch on the soldier's wrist. "

23 May – Transferred to 4th Artillery Brigade

From Positions Occupied by the 4th A.F.A. Brigade in France

The 4th FAB was In Action at Armentieres in the period April 8th – July 2nd 1916.

22 June 1916 – Taken on Strength, 11th Battery, 4th FAB

From 11th Battery, Australian Field Artillery: Brief History 18 Nov 1915 – 20 Dec 1918 (AWM 224; MSS13)

21 May – 3 June 1916
11th Battery Wagon lines at Just-le-Erquingham, supporting gun positions at Armentieres
4 June – 9 July 1916
Joined 11th Battery 22 June
Wagon lines moved to Menen Gate near Steeuwerch
9 July 1916
Left area for St Marie Cappel (and then on to the Somme in subsequent days)

“From April 2nd until July 2nd we remained in the same gun positions at Armentieres (the detachments from Plogsteert rejoining the remainder of the battery early in April). Our gun position was naturally a good one, and being situated at the foot of a row of poplars, was practically safe from observation. Great care was exercised in (illegible) as much as possible any movement near the pits in daylight, and in using flash screens for night firing, and thus we were able to remain in position for three months without attracting enemy fire. For some time after arriving here, our ammunition supply was very restricted and practically no firing was done, other that for registration. Later frequent night raids were made by the infantry, and in support of these we fired very heavy barrages. It is interesting to note, when compared with all later barrages, that the rate of fire was usually section fire 6 seconds or even at times 4 secs.
There was no heavy shelling in our immediate vicinity during the whole three months and only one man was wounded in the time.

While the guns remained in the one position all the time the wagon lines shifted twice, Just-le-Erquingham on May 21st and later to L’Menengate, near Steeuwerch on June 4th. On the night of July 2nd we were relieved by a N.Z. battery and returned to the wagon lines at L’Menengate which we left on the fifth of the month and moved to a farm some little distance from Baillieul. A few gunners went up to gun pits which we were going to take over but receiving sudden orders to move these positions were left and on the ninth we went to St Marie Cappel . . . “ [Unit moves to the Somme]

From Bill Gammage, The Broken Years (1974) p. 151-52:

"The first months on the Western Front were not severe. The Australians were introduced into the line at Fleurbaix, near Armentieres, where the trenches were
not dug, as it is impossible to dig more than one foot without striking water, sand bag breast works are erected about 5 to 6 ft high & 3 to 4 ft thick which gives very solid cover & protection from rifle shots, but would not last very long under artillery fire…Everything is remarkably quiet on this sector, which is at present being held by an English regiment, very seldom is a shot fired…A considerable amount of movement is taking place all day long to which the Germans apparently take no exception, the idea being 'Don't fire at me and I will not fire at you' these sentiments were expressed to me by a British tommy (de Vine, D 27/4/16)

Photograph of Fleurbaix, covering an area from Bois Grenier to Fromelles.(H15912A)

Their gentle reception relieved many veterans. They contrasted it favourably with the dark days on Gallipoli, and agreed with the new soldiers that war was pleasant in France, because there were no great battles, but short stays in the line, comparative immunity, and comfort in the back areas.

In a relatively tranquil atmosphere, the soldiers manned their breastworks, watched aeroplane 'dogfights', patrolled No Man's Land, sat out the German artillery's daily 'strafe', waited for the victory most thought imminent, and willingly undertook the formal raids to which their leaders shortly introduced them."

From Diary of Gunner Kenneth Sydney Day (10th Battery):

13/4/16 Thursday. 4th Brigade went into action so we are kept pretty busy now, taking up ammunition and rations. The Tommies have a great craze for polishing all the chain work on the harness, so our drivers have got to start polishing theirs. We are under British Army orders now, and therefore, we have to copy the Tommies.

The camp we are at present is mud up to our knees and we have to sleep in tents, which are very damp and muddy. We have only seen the sun a few times since we have been in France so far. It has been raining or dull grey weather all the time.

2/5/16 There is not much to put down for the next week or so, only we see plenty of aircraft; but do not worry much about them as they have to fly very high to dodge our shells. The weather is improving, and the mud is getting hard, so it is not so bad.

We go down and have a hot bath once every two weeks, and wash every day from the drains at the sides of the streets. This water is not very clean but is all we can get…

While in Armentieres an English officer told me not to mix up with the Belgian civilians, that 75% of them are against us, which afterwards I found out to be correct.
During the next week or so, we made a good many trips with ammunition. We do these trips at night, as it is very dangerous to go about in the day time.

Left Le Menengate (this is where our wagon lines were) at 3 p.m. for a new camp four miles away, called Le Petit Mortier (umpteen miles from anywhere). Arrived there at 4 p.m. and were put in billets. Each sub has one of its own. Our sub was a very clean one. The barn next door to us was burned down that night. We were all pulled out to get it out, but nobody was hurt except an old woman.

8/5/16 All the B.A.C.s were turned into D.A.C.'s as the former were not much use to us. They have mules to drive now, and have plenty of kicking matches.

Date unrecorded (July 1916) " Left Le Petit Mortier at 5 p.m. on 4th July 1916, and drove five miles to a camp called Neuve Eglise. Arrived there at 11 p.m. the same night. It is a very large camp with plenty of grass around it, by way of a change from mud. This is a pretty place near the front, and there are plenty of shells flying about. On the second day I had my first experience with death. There is a 12 " Howitzer Battery each side of us, they roar all night. The germans send back 5.9s trying to hit them. I was standing near the road watching them, when a shell landed 100 yards from me, and went in between some A.C.C. men they can thank their lucky stars that it hit a tree first. It cut the tree into matchwood (a very tree at that). Two men were killed and two were wounded. Two of us carried one of the dead men down to their camp, and I must say I never thought a dead man could be so heavy. All the time they were sending over shells pretty thick, and when you are in the middle of the road, carrying a man that you cannot drop too quickly, you feel just a bit shaky in the knees.

Our Battery is in action at a place called Ploegsteert. There are some fine woods round here - one of them is called La Hutte Wood. The Battery had several casualties at this place, but nothing very serious.

It got too hot for us at the camp, so next day we left at 5 p.m. We marched through the towns Bailleul, Cassel (where our Australian head quarters are) and finished up at a place called St Marie Cappel at 11.15 that night. It is beautiful country, and well cropped. Stopped there four days and then pushed on to St. Omer. This is a fine town about the same size as Bendigo, with a fine river running through it. While at this place they took our blankets from us, and left us with nothing but a water-proof sheet and overcoats. I do a perish every night.

From 11th Battery, Australian Field Artillery: Brief History

… on the ninth [July] we went to St Marie Cappel where we remained until the 11th then that day entrained at Arques, detrained at Oeuveus and billeted at Le Chaussee until the 20th and then went to Puchevillers remaining until 27th when we went by road to the “Brickfields” near Albert, camped there until the 30th and went into action in Sausage Valley the same day. . .

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