Friday, 26 February 2016

The Tyneside Irish and the Somme part 2: Training and trenches

In the last blog by John Sheen, we left the Tyneside Irish Brigade (24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers) on 12 January 1916, landing in France and being moved off to the sector behind the front line.  John continues the story.

After landing in France the Tyneside Irish Brigade was given instructions to move to the Blendeques area where on arrival they detrained and marched to billets in various villages, as follows:
24th to Esquerdes
25th A and B Companies to Hallines
25th C and D Companies to Wizernes
26th to Wizernes
27th to Quiestede
Billet locations, France
Billet locations, France
Training was undertaken which included route marches and musketry. Inspections of one form or another were the order of the day. Battalion specialists, i.e. signallers, scouts, snipers and bombers, all began intensive training, with men being sent on courses of instruction to the 23rd Divisional School. The training carried on until the 20th January when the whole of the 34th Division was inspected by Sir Douglas Haig and General Joffre. 

The inspection was timed for noon on a very cold and windy day with sleet showers but it was not until three o'clock that the motor vehicles carrying the inspecting officers arrived and drove slowly along the lines of the assembled troops. 

By the end of the first week of February, the battalions were considered ready for the trenches, and were to be attached to experienced units for instruction.

The 24th Battalion was to be attached to 24 Brigade. The companies were allotted as follows:
A to 1st Battalion, Sherwood Foresters
B to 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment
C to 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment
D to 1st Battalion, 1/Worcestershire Regiment

C and D Companies moved off at 9:00am on 9 February, and marched to Rue Marle where they went into billets. A and B Companies did not move off until 4:30pm and went straight in to the trenches. On 12 February A and B Companies were relieved by C and D Companies. The next day the battalion had its first casualty when Lieutenant Short of C Company was wounded during a trench mortar barrage. That night the two companies returned to billets. 

On 14 February, the battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, with A, B, and C Companies in the front line and D Company in support in the Bois Grenier line.
The trenches in the area of Bois Grenier had to be built up as the water table was so high. [from ‘The Tyneside Irish’, by John Sheen]
The trenches in the area of Bois Grenier had to be built up as the water table was so high. Image from ‘The Tyneside Irish’, by John Sheen
The 25th Battalion were attached to 68 Brigade of the 23rd Division, with the companies attached to various battalions, although the exact allocations are unknown. 

During the occupation of the trenches by A and B Companies on 12 February, the enemy heavily shelled the Bois Grenier line, resulting in the death of 25/1102 Private Joseph March of Teresa Street, Blaydon, County Durham, and the wounding of four other men. Private William Smith of B Company, a stretcher bearer, from Gateshead, and a member of the Battalion band, put pen to paper and wrote a poem about the bombardment.

Twas on the 12th February, on a cold Saturday 
The 25th NFs in the trenches lay 
They had just finished breakfast, and all was bright and gay 
Until that German bully thought he would spoil their play 

He started to bombard us and mind they made it hot 
But our brave lads stood bravely and did not care a jot 
The faithful 23 Northumberlands alongside us did stand 
For we all knew they were eager to give us a helping hand 

First two verses of ‘A Rough Day in the Trenches’, Private William Smith

At 11:00am on 14 February, the Bombing Officer, the Regimental Sergeant Major, all Company Sergeant Majors and Company Signallers of the 25th Battalion began the relief of 1st Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment. At 2:00pm the Company Commanders went into the line. At 6:00pm the battalion paraded, and marched off from the billets, reaching the trenches at 7:45pm. By 8:40pm the relief was complete, and work started on rebuilding the trenches. 

The 26th Battalion received its baptism of trench warfare under the guidance of the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment of the 8th Division, with A and B Companies going into the trenches on 10 February. Two days later on the 12th, C and D Companies replaced the other two companies. 

It was about now that the 103 Light Trench Mortar Battery was formed, with the personnel found from all four battalions of the Tyneside Irish Brigade. The war diary of the 26th Battalion records that Second Lieutenant Brown and 12 other ranks were transferred to the new unit. 

The Company Sergeant Major came from D Company of the 27th Battalion, and Sergeant Richard Madden from Washington was promoted to fill the company’s vacancy. CSM Madden was to be wounded on 1 July 1916 and subsequently awarded the DCM and the MM with a Mention in Despatches. The battery was commanded by Captain DH James from the 24th Battalion.

The Brigade Light Trench Mortar Battery was not very popular with some of those who served in the front line. Captain Jack Fleming, 26th Battalion, described the activities of the battery in a letter:

'My pet aversion, Trench Mortars! Why my pet aversion I'll tell you. 

The TM Officer here it's the softest job in the Brigade. He stays 

well behind the firing line and calls up with his satellites 

occasionally to do a strafe. Locates himself behind a bay and lets 
fly a dozen or so at the Hun and retires not too gracefully to his 
lair. Now the Hun with all his faults is some strafer and he always 
acknowledges receipt. We get the receipt, while the unmentionable 
TMO is taking his tea in perfect safety somewhere.'

At 9:00am on 10 February a party of officers and non-commissioned officers of the 27th Battalion proceeded to the trenches for instruction, under 10th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters and 8th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. 

It was on this day that the Tyneside Irish Brigade had its first fatal battle casualty, Major EA Leather, officer commanding B Company, 27th Battalion. Major Leather was not strictly a Tyneside Irishman but had originally joined the 3rd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers during the Boer War and served with that unit in Malta. On the outbreak of the Great War he had volunteered his services and had been appointed as Second in Command of the 10th (Service) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. 

A bad accident, caused by his horse falling, prevented Leather from embarking overseas with the 10th Battalion. On his recovery, he was initially posted to the 15th (Reserve) Battalion but just before the embarkation of the Tyneside Irish the post of officer commanding B Company of the 27th Battalion became vacant. Leather was appointed to fill the vacancy. Major Leather was one of six brothers who served during both the Boer War and The Great War. One of his brothers, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Leather, commanded the 20th (Wearside) Battalion Durham Light Infantry.
Major Ernest Arthur Leonard
Major Ernest Arthur Leonard killed in action 10 February 1916, aged 48. Officer commanding B Company 27th (Service) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (4th Tyneside Irish). Buried at Rue-David Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix.  Image from  ‘The Tyneside Irish’ by John Sheen

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