Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 20: The Somme 27 Oct to 31 Dec 1916

From 11th Battery, 4th F.A.B Brief History

24 October 1916 Left Cassel, arrived Polincove

27 October Left by road for Audruicq, entrained

28 October Arrived Lounque (?) Siding (Amiens), road to La Napelle, arrived 6am, left for Albert 10am, arrived Albert

29 October Left Albert

30 October Arrived Longueval where Wagon Lines set up.

30 October-24 November Longueval. Guns in action north of Flers.

25 November Left Longueval by road, arrived Vielle-sur-Corbie

26 November Left Vielle-sur-Corbie, arrived Bonnay

27 November Left Bonnay, arrived Naours.

27 Nov – 21 Dec Billeted Naours

Photo of soldiers in Naours, 12 July 1916, on their way to the Somme (AWM EZ0163)

21 December Left Naours, arrived Buire-sur-Corbie [also Ancre]

22 December Left Buire-sur-Corbie, arrived Montauban. Wagon Lines established there. Gunners to Ginchy

Leaving here on Oct 23rd we went to Cassel and stopped on the outskirts of the town for one night; next day going on to Polincove where we remained until the 27th when we entrained at Audruicq and arrived at Amiens the same day and moved to Berne sur Ancre where we camped for the night. The next day we took up wagon lines at Longueval and gun positions north of Flers. This position was practically under direct observation and consequently was heavily shelled. We had several casualties here, three men killed and others wounded.

The transport conditions were very severe, the roads being muddy and full of deep shell holes, everything had to be packed and this combined with the weather and shelling made things very uncomfortable for the drivers. While in this position Major Derhani (???) was called to England to the 3rd Div. Major (then Capt) Milford took command of the battery.

Leaving Flers on Nov 25th we stayed one night at Ville-sur-Corbie, one night at Bonnay and then arrived at Noaurs where we remained until Dec 12th [perhaps 21st – as per document Positions Occupied by the 4th A.F.A. Brigade in France and 11th Battery Brief History, first part] Left Noaurs Dec 12th [21st] and stopping at Buire-sur-Ancre, one night, arrived at Montauban where our wagon lines remained while the gunners went to Ginchy. The right section being attached to the 12th battery and the left to the 10th to form six gun batteries.

Very little shooting other than harassing fire was done while in this area.

Letter to sister Maud Lade December 1st 1916

Somewhere in France
Dec 1st 1916

Dear Maud

I am writing this in comfort thanks to a young French lady who very kindly invited me into write by the fire. Our billet [Sally: Naours] is very good to sleep in but there is not much convenience for writing.
We have been out of action since last Saturday and although we had a rotten time for three days travelling about I am not sorry to be away, but am afraid it won't be very long before we are back again.
We went into action on the 29th Oct and spent over three weeks in the mud and rain to say nothing about the frost and snow. We only had one day's snow, and I must say it was better than the rain and rather nice once ones feet got a bit warm, although it is hard to see much beauty in anything at four in the morning when your feet are several degrees below zero.
Then one or two mornings when the wind was favourable Fritz decided to make things a bit more unpleasant by sending over a large number of gas shells in addition to his usual supply of 5'9" + 4:2'. However the bad weather didn't affect me very much, as I didn't even get a cold. Some of the chaps suffered a good deal though with swollen feet and bad colds.
After coming out of action we travelled by road for three days and are now billeted in a village well behind the line.
I am beginning to think lately that we are descending into something like the savages - go into the line and fight for a time, then out again and off some-where else to fight again.
Yesterday I spent a most enjoyable day in a large town close by (eleven miles).
? they ? ? got the enjoyment was three good meals and a bath. Also I went through a fine old church which is quite as good if not better than the one I saw in Malta.
I have been getting my mail very regularly lately and the day before coming out of action had one from you, mother, Laura, Bill + Cila. ? ? were all written about the 26th of Sept.
This is the first time I have done any writing for some time so you mustn't blame the postal people if you don't get any letters for a week or two.
During the time we were in action it was quite impossible to do much writing.
Must close now
Love to all
Percy.

Photo of wagon transport at Montauban on the road to Longueval. 21 December 1916. [AWM E00627]
Photo of cleaning off winter mud at Montauban Dec 1916 [AWM E00016]
Photo of Australian Comforts Fund canteen, Longueval, December 1916. [AWM E00034]
Photo of sandbagged Australian cook house. Longueval, December 1916. [AWM E00032]
Photo of driver giving his horse a drink at Australian Comforts Fund canteen, Longueval, Dec 1916. [AWM E00076]
Photo of mule transport in winter mud, Montauban, Dec 1916 [AWM E00036]

From: Gunner Day's diary:

10/11/16 Went back into action again; on our way we passed through Contalmaison, Freicourt, Mametz, Montauban, Bazentin and finished up at a place called Flers. It is a very hot corner and we had to leave our guns several times as the Germans got to know where our battery was located. We also had a good few killed and wounded - horses included.

24/11/16 moved out at 7 a.m. and drove back to the Brickfields again, six miles away, as we only had half our horses left and they were in poor condition.

25/11/16 Moved on the next day…..(Day went to hospital with a cold then had to find and rejoin his Battery)

28/11/16 I met one of our boys and he told me our Batteries were at Naours….

22/12/16 After a stay of a few weeks we went back into action, to a place called Ginchy, or just alongside. We are on the main road between Flers and Ginchy. There are a good few 9.2 and 8 inch Howitzers, and a bit further on there are a few 15 inch Naval Guns, so there is plenty of row (noise) going on.

25/12/16 Christmas day, raining up till 9 a.m., and then by way of a change we had Sun for the first time in two weeks (we usually have grey days). We worked all day on Bully stew and strong tea, and got a Xmas box of an extra dose of rum.

[insert awm pic support line in front of flers dec 1916]

From John Laffin Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front 1916-18. Kangaroo Press and Australian War memorial, 1992, p 83-84

The Australian divisions, except the 3rd, were ordered back to the Somme from the Ypres sector in October 1916 and took over the Flers front. There were dreadful conditions. There was cold, rain and mud. Flers was not shelled as often as neighbouring Gueudecourt and some other places but several units reported it too dangerous for occupation.

Nevertheless the AIF used Flers as a HQ and sometimes reserve troops were sheltered in the ruins. On October 30 a brigade commander in the front trenches reported that his men remained cheerful but were worn out with exposure and that their rifles were covered with mud, despite all efforts to keep them clean. German and British troops, he said, were equally exhausted, hungry and cold and were walking about on the parapets looking at each other.

Conditions steadily deteriorated and men waiting to make an attack were lying in mud and rain. On the night of 4th November three waves of Australian attackers were using a trench at the same time. The first wave of men arched their bodies over the trench to make room for their mates beneath them and lay there strained and uncomfortable in the rain. On the morning of 5 November, short-shooting heavy British or Australian batteries killed ten men of the 3rd battalion and wounded seventeen others. They had been ordered to fire during a gale and the wind affected the flight of the shells.

In the confused and sometimes desperate fighting the 7th Brigade, which was the most heavily involved formation lost 819 officers and men. Four attempts to advance in this sector had failed but Fourth Army HQ ordered another assault. The earliest it could be made was 14 November and as winter wore on life became harder. Heavily, burdened, the soldiers reached the trenches exhausted. The mud was so sticky that men had to be dragged out by mules or horses. A rescue party broke the back of an officer whom they were trying to haul from the mud. It was not unusual for wounded men to be left lying in the mud for twelve hours because not enough bearers were available to carry them out. The trenches were nothing more than muddy drains where the men stood and shivered and waited for their two days in the firing line to pass. After that they spent two days in the support line where life was a little safer but no less uncomfortable.

The attack of 14-15 November was only partly successful and led to the usual German counter-attack. Apart from the casualties, men were being steadily evacuated with illness, trench feet and sheer exhaustion. One soldier of the 24th battalion shot himself dead rather than face another spell in front trench. Some men suffering from trench feet crawled back to the dressing station to allow the stretcher-bearers to carry men with greater need than themselves.

The First battle of the Somme ended on 18 November.

Photo of support line in front of Flers, December 1916. [AWM E00576]

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