Friday, 1 July 2016

The Boar’s Head

On 3 March the 13th (Forest of Dean) Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment departed from Southampton, arriving at Le Havre around 6:30am the following morning. From here they moved to Thiennes in northern France, arriving on 6 March.

As Pioneers for the 39th Division they were kept busy. Moving around the region through March and April their work included making roads, constructing strong points and barbed wire entanglements, reclaiming old trenches, building dug-outs and making breast works. By 14 April they billeted in Essars and engaged in draining, making and reclaiming trenches to the rear of the front line.

On 12 April 1916 William Britton of Hotwells, Bristol, was posted to the 13th Battalion. The battalion War Diary records a draft of men arriving at Essars on 20 May and it appears highly likely that William was amongst these men where he joined D Company (an additional draft of 3 other ranks (O.R.) also arrived on the 29th).

The Battalion remained at Essars until 16 June, when they moved north east to new billets at La Couture. Here work continued on road, repair and breastwork. At the end of June there was to be a trench attack and on 25 June a party of 9 officers and 285 men moved to Pacaut to practice pioneer work in connection with this. The attack took place on the night of 29/30 June on the ‘Boar’s Head’ section of German front line near Richebourg l’Avoue (seen on the centre of the 1917 trench map below). Two parties of the Battalion comprising B and C companies were ordered to extend communication trenches, whilst A and D companies on the flanks were to construct right and left flank breastworks respectively.

Trench map from January 1917.
British trenches (blue) / German trenches (red)
'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland'
Sketch map that accompanied the
"Notes on attack on German Front Line, North of the BOAR's HEAD"
13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, War Diary

In the face of shelling and machine gun fire the attacking infantry were prevented from being reinforced and were running out of ammunition. The pioneers were able to complete some of their work despite these hostile conditions and attacks from German bombing parties. It is not known if William Britton was one of the D Company men, however illustrative of the difficulties encountered, following is the Company report of their part in the attack:
On looking over the parapet at 3.10 the remnants of the third infantry wave coming back under heavy shelling and Machine Gun fire. They were also being bombed from the German front line. Under these circumstances the work was out of question, and the officer in charge of the party reported to the Infantry Commander and manned portions of our front line till ordered to get his party out of the line between 7 and 8 a.m.
13th Battalion casualties as a result of this attack were 1 officer killed and 4 wounded, and 10 other ranks killed, 57 wounded and a further 13 missing.

The Battalion War Diary notes that on the evening of 1 July “2nd Lieut. Vowles with one Sergt. went out to try to recover wounded reported still alive in NO MAN’S LAND.” The was unsuccessful.

On 3 July, at 9:45am, “The raiding part paraded before General Haking, Commanding XI Corps and were complimented on their work.”

For conspicuous bravery in the action of the night of 29/30 June, one Military Cross, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and two Military Medals were awarded to men of the 13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Further reading: The Boar's Head

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Minia Camp

Cheshire Yeomanry arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on 14 March 1916. The 25 officers and 451 men remained on board HMT Haverford until 15 March, when they disembarked and entrained in open cattle trucks for camp at Beni Salama. This camp in the desert was not popular with the men or officers and it was likely with some relief then that the Regiment moved to Minia, some 150 miles south of Cairo, on 18 April.

The men, accompanied by the Shropshire Yeomanry, travelled by rail again in open trucks. The journey was made at night to avoid the heat of the day and arriving at Minia around 2:00am they tramped three quarters of a mile laden with kitbags to their new camp in a wadi near the Nile. Once the new camp was established field training continued, including rifle fire at targets.

The Nile. Our camp at Minia (T.B. Minshall)

The Regiment had been sent to Minia to prepare for operations against the Senussi, a religious sect in Egypt, Sudan and Arabia, who were persuaded by Turkey to attack the British. A coastal threat had been defeated before the Yeomanry arrived in Egypt, however inland the Senussi had occupied oases to the west of the Nile.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Pioneer Spirit

William Britton, of Bristol, received basic training with the 16th (Reserve) Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. On 12 April 1916 he was posted to the 13th (Service) Battalion (Forest of Dean) (Pioneers) Gloucestershire Regiment with whom he received more specific training on the role of Pioneers. The Battalion had departed for France in March 1916 and William appears to have joined them in May.

As a private in a Pioneer Battalion what might William have expected to experience? The following article published in 1917 gives insight into the role from a Private.

The War Illustrated, 10th March 1917


By a Private in a Pioneer Battalion

THERE is only one decent thing in the life of a soldier in a pioneer battalion; only one way in which he has a better time than the man in the infantry battalions, whose home is in the fighting-line. That is, the pioneer comes and goes to and from the front line, the infantryman stays there all the time.

It is in the winter and the rainy seasons, when the mud comes, that the pioneer battalion comes into its proper prominence, and highly-placed Staff officers have been good enough to say that our work has proved exceedingly valuable during the later stages of the fighting.

We are engineers, without the name; and we are navvies, sanitary inspectors, road-makers, and trench repairers. We have to be able to live in water as well as on land, and no matter if a trench is flooded right to its parapet, we don't despair of making it fairly comfortable, perhaps, before the troops come forward to man it early the next morning.

We have to be able to live in an atmosphere of gas fumes, and to work all the time the grey-green clouds are hanging around us. We carry picks and spades as part of our ordinary equipment, but we're just as handy with our rifles as any soldier who has a “cushy” job in a line regiment.

Take one job we had, for instance, where a series of trenches were daily subjected to the “hate” of the German gunners. All day long we lay up in a barn which had once been an artillery observation-post, and which in consequence had received more than its fair share of shells from both sides, according to whoever held it.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment

Late in 1914 volunteers were being sought to replace battle losses and new battalions were being formed. Labour was also becoming a significant issue on the battle front, with lines of trenches requiring construction and repair and communication links by road to the rear to be maintained. Indigenous labour was in short supply in France, given demands on their own armies. In December 1914 the War Office gave instruction that Pioneer Battalions were to be raised for each Division.

The Gloucester Journal (Saturday, 19 December 1914) reported news of recruiting meetings in the Forest of Dean for such a new Battalion. It was noted that during meetings held in December there was “close interest in the explanation that the Forest battalion would be of special usefulness in that the men being colliers would be well qualified for trench and similar work, which would be acknowledged in that the men of this battalion would have 2d. a day extra pay.”

Meetings in connection with the formation of the Forest of Dean Pioneer Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment continued to be held through January 1915, but recruitment was slow. Up to Monday 18 January only 90 men had been secured towards the required 1,350.