Prior to embarkation to France, Lord Derby inspected ‘his’ men at Lark Hill on 7th November 1915. Major Whitehead, Lieutenant Sidebotham, 2nd Lieutenant Johnston and 109 other ranks (Including Robin Bailey) and Regimental Transport embarked at Southampton for Le Havre on the same day. The core of the Battalion then left Larkhill in two trains from Amesbury to Folkestone on the following day. They crossed the Channel and spent the first night in Boulogne. It was raining heavily and despite the presence of tents everyone was “soaked through to the skin” (Bert Payne IWM). The journey to the front began at 11.10pm the next evening.
“We went from Boulogne in trucks. “8 horses or 40 men.” Landed and marched many miles. Who was leading us I do not know – but we found ourselves hungry and ate of the apples as we rested. We were later told that we should not have eaten the apples and that the owner had complained and money would be stopped from our pay. As we never saw our pay books, we do not know if this was done how it cost us. Later, we were put into permanent billets, but the companies were not together, being at distances of two or three miles. I know this because my sister’s husband (Pt. Herbert Vernon) was in B [Company] and I was in A. Next day or so we shared some Eccles cakes that he had just received from her.”(1)
Private Herbert Vernon 8923 was a former cashier who joined VIII Platoon in B Company of the 17th Battalion on 3rd September 1914. He had married Arthur’s sister Dolly at St Clement Church, Greenheys in January 1915, prior to the Battalions’ move to Belton Park. Arthur Bell had attended the wedding and witnessed the marriage register. As she was a former resident of Eccles, one imagines the local speciality was intended to bring a feeling of home comfort to Dolly’s husband.
The 16th Bttn. newspaper “The Pull-Thro” had published ironic commentary on the men’s marriages in the 14th August 1915 issue. “Several fellows are getting five days’ leave ‘for the purpose of proceeding to get married’ as the pass form has it. We would like five days leave but it’s an ‘ell of a price!”. Perhaps the authors would have reconsidered their stance if they knew they were to receive the Eccles cakes in France that winter. Records show continuing opportunities for men to take leave from the front for the purpose of marriage. 8077 Richard Bertenshaw was married at Hapurhey Parish Church on 20th June 1916. Richard was a former pupil with Arthur Bell at Manchester Warehouseman and Clerks Orphans’ School. In view of the major allied offensive at the beginning of July 1916, the opportunity for Home leave seems remarkable.
The Battalion had arrived at Pont Remy at 1.30am and marched in pouring rain to Domquer. They then spent the next few months marching southwards down the Western Front to Vignacourt (10 miles on 17th November), Bertangles alongside men of Royal Flying Corps (6 miles on 18th), Montrelet (10 mile march on 28th) and Couin (20 miles on 7th December). Their travels were interspersed with a mixture of fatigues, training and an ended near Couin with introduction to trench life.
Private Bell continued to record accommodation and food during his time in billets.
“We slept on the floor of a barn, which was below the level of the adjoining farmyard. One night, after we had all retired, I heard scuttering noises in the shed and whether I had a torch or it was early daylight I do not remember, but I saw a line of rats making for the bomb-bag which contained our rations drawn earlier in the evening. Disentangling my trenching tool handle I gave a mighty swipe at the nearest rat, and there was peace after that. However, in the morning there was a dead rat mixed with the bread ration in the bag!” (1)
The serious business of trench warfare began when the 17th Manchesters first went into the line in December 1915 attached to 143rd Brigade. The men arrived in Couin on 7th December and spent the night under canvas, the War Diary noting very wet conditions and the camp deep in mud. A and B Companies marched to Fonquevillers on the 8th December with A Company being attached to 1st/6th Battalion(Territorial) Royal Warwickshire Regiment (RWR).
“A particular aspect of training was our first entry into the front line. We were sent to Fonquevillers where the 6th and 8th Warwick Territorials took us for instruction – they were the Birmingham pals [sic]. We went into billets with them and I have to say that what we learnt from them was not in the manuals. I truly admire their spirit and example. That they were primus stove experts and cooks, could wade thigh high deep in gum boots was nothing to the way they befriended us.”(1)
The Battalion continued to meander southwards and re-acquainted themselves with the Birmingham troops. Strictly the Birmingham Pals were the 14th-16th Battalions of the Royal Warkwickshires – rather than the Territorial men. They were certainly Pals from Birmingham though.
After three days instruction in the front line A & B Companies retired to billets at La Haie. The Battalion then practised a trench attack under the command of the OC 1st/6th RWR.
On 13th December, the 17th Battalion suffered its first casualty and sole loss in 1915. The Official History records that 24 year old 2nd Lieutenant Johnston was killed by an anti-aircraft shell at Bayencourt while he was in command of the transport section. The War Diary suggests the his death was caused by a shrapnel shell and this is confirmed by an unknown diarist from the Royal Warks Regiment. “An unfortunate incident occurred at about 11.30 am. Lt JOHNSTON, 17/Manchester Regt killed by one of our own shrapnel cases. Our guns were firing at a German plane at the time.”
Robert Loudon Johnston is buried in the Fonquevillers Military Cemetery. CWGC report his parents Robert and Julia Mary Johnston lived at “Yetna” Park St., Kersal, Manchester. Robert attended Salford Municipal School and is commemorated on the Old Salfordian’s Memorial, now situated in part of Salford University. He had been Gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion on 10th May 1915. See more at Lieut R L Johnston
2nd Lieutenant Kirkwood from IV Platoon of A Company replaced Robert Johnston as Transport Officer, having attended a three week course at Havre from 23 rd December. The men continued to move in and out of billets and the front.
“We did quite a lot of marching in those days and came to a place called Bus. [Bus-les-Artois] Would you believe it, the very same men were there and actually treated us to a glass of beer each! I had stout. We slept about ten in a tent at that place, and although it was an intensely cold night, I never slept better.”(1)
This evening evening was probably 14th December, when the Official History records the Battalion spending the night in tents near Couin – 3.5km from Bus.
The 17th Manchester Battalion moved on to Montrelet for Christmas 1915. The Battalion strength was 29 Officers and 988 men. On 5th January the marching continued for a distance of approximately 50 km over subsequent days through Naours (5 miles on 6th) , Pont Nuyelles (10 1/2 Miles on 7th), Sailly Laurette (10 Miles on 8th), arriving in Suzanne (9 Miles) on 9th January.
As part of assimilation of the New Army Pals with the Regular troops, the ‘Manchester Brigade’ was reorganised on the 19th December 1915. The 19th Manchesters were moved to 21st Brigade, being replaced by the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. The 90th Infantry Brigade then included the new Scots Regular troops alongside City Battalions of the 16th, 17th & 18th Manchesters.
The development into a general Service Battalion was also signified by the withdrawal of the ‘2 City Manchester’ shoulder tabs on 6th January 1916. The insignia of white lettering ‘Manchester’ on a red background was issued as a replacement.
While noting Lieutenant Johnston as the first Officer casualty from the 17th Manchesters, it is worthy to remember 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Evans Townsend, who was the first Officer from the Pals to lose his life, serving with the 18th Manchesters. He was the son of Mrs. S. N. Townsend, of 79, Lansdowne Rd., West Didsbury, Manchester, and the late Mr. J. Townsend. Arthur died on 26/11/1915, following an accident with a grenade at Cardonette on the previous day. Elder brother John Edward Townsend was ultimate beneficiary of his Will. Arthur had originally enlisted as a Private 10848 in the 3rd City Battalion, rising to the Rank of Sergeant by 5/11/1914, before his Commission on 7/3/1915. He had previously been an insurance clerk, prior to enlisting on 7/9/1914. Arthur’s record show he was a time expired Territorial from 6th Battalion. John Townsend enlisted with his brother in the 18th 10849 & then served 22nd Battalion and survived hostilities, having married in Manchester on 1/5/1916. He had also been Commsioned from the Ranks on 17/3/1915. Also See The First Manchester Pals Casualty