“What the trenches were though!”
On 9th January, the Battalion had marched from Montrelet to an area of front close to the river Somme, near the villages of Suzanne, Vauz and Maricourt. 30th Division took over these positions from the 5th Division. The French 3rd Corps continued to occupy the trenches to the south of the Somme near Eclusier and Frise. 17th Battalion first took over the line, from 16th Battalion in A.3. sector on 12th January 1916 remaining in these positions until relief by 16th Manchesters on 16th January.
90th Brigade spent the a large part of the first half of 1916 defending these front line trenches; predominately in trenches close to Maricourt. The 17th Battalion generally alternated their time in the trenches with the 16th Battalion and spent much of the remaining time on fatigues with billets in Suzanne. See Then and now.
In his IWM interview, Scout Sergeant Bert Payne (16th) recounted seeing a light from the tower of Suzanne Church. On further investigation he found this was a spy making signals to the German artillery. Bert also captured a spy dressed as a French priest cycling in Suzanne.
“ What the trenches were though! When carrying dixies – two men to a dixie, from the rear to the firing step – we often went into the open rather than wade through the trench.” (1)
The quagmire of the front was not developed by Arthur Bell. The mud was recorded as being thigh deep causing trench foot to the men in their gum boots. Bert Payne’s IWM interview recounts 6’4″ tall Bert Mills being trapped in between sandbags under the water of No 16 trench and being pulled out leaving his boots and trousers behind. Bert explained how they dealt with conditions “We were standing in that water for four days and four nights. . I told the men to keep your normal ammunition boots on…The feet boiled up like puddings being in gun boots. They were so soft we got trench feet. When we came out, we chucked everything into a river, or pool, or something and washed them….. Dried them out and put them on again.”
Lt Nash’s Diary refers to Private Bell bringing in the rations for his Platoon in 16th Battalion. It is thought this man was James Frederick Bell 6957 who was Arthur Bell’s cousin. It’s intriguing that the cousins took the same ration duties which were described by Sergeant Bert Payne “They went up to the cookhouse which was in Maricourt. That was in the brewery yard. The field kitchens…and came back with tea and bacon and a lid on top. Came back on a stretcher. Another two men brought a sand bag with food. We should have got 20 loaves and got two. A piece of bacon and bread. That was breakfast. We got a lot of corned beef. Frey Bentos. It was so salty we couldn’t eat it. We buried it to make foundations for the trench. It will still be there buried.” (IWM Interview)
The rats in the Maricourt trenches seem to have been ever present in the trenches and somewhat boisterous. Lt. Nash’s Diary records “The rats… beyond all bearing…parade regularly for rations…these fat monsters would get terribly angry…making…indignant noises.” Lt. Nash continued his report on the rats as “…great fat fellows the size of small cats, with red
tusks and very vicious habits, beasts which battened on the corpses and which would attack without fear even the wounded if they were isolated.”
Private J P Holt 8638 of C Company’s IX Platoon was the first casualty amongst the other ranks of the 17th Battalion. The War Diary of 11th January records 1 killed, 5 wounded and 5 mules Killed by enemy shelling of Suzanne.
The Official History recounts the first Officer casualty in 1916 on 12th January – on the initial day in the first tour of the Maricourt trenches. The 17th Battalion relieved the 16th Manchesters commencing at 4pm. At some stage 2nd Lieutenant William Russel Tonge received a bullet wound in the head from a sniper in Trench 21 to the east of Maricourt Wood, north of the Peronne Road. Conditions were so bad that it proved impossible to remove his body and William was buried in the trench. 21 year old William Tonge was OC of II Platoon of A Company. He is commemorated at Thiepval Memorial to be mourned by his parents Henry Dacre and Alma Tonge of Alwarden Hill, Knutsford. His death was reported in the Times on 21st January and Probate records indicate he had been married to Anna Tongue. Lt Nash’s Diary records the importance of bringing back all dead men. He was somewhat scathing about the Lt. Tonge incident – or a similar death. “In the Maricourt days we never forgave one Battalion for leaving one of their officers buried under a foot of mud in a trench.”
The tours in the front line generally spanned four days before relief. This had been extended from two days in January 1916.
Cpt. Hubert Worthington of the 16th Battalion acquired incense sticks to provide an improved aroma in his A Company trenches. General Shea noted the innovation saying “Good Lord, Worthington, what an awfully good idea”. Hubert Worthington was invited to dinner at the 30th Division chateau, where he was treated to fine dining, silver service and mess waiters. He later reported the huge contrast in conditions between the privileged staff officers and their men at the front. (Michael Stedman – Manchester Pals)
The Official History provides a detailed description of the parts of the trenches where the 17th defended the line close to Maricourt. A.3 sub-sector was the 2nd line of defence in the heart the strong point salient of Maricourt. Z.3 Sector ran along the eastern side of Maricourt Wood and south to the main Albert – Peronne road. Parts of the sector were allocated to different Platoons at any one time and accessed from communication trenches. The junction of trenches at the west side of Maricourt Wood was known “Piccadilly Circus”. The Sectors names were changed on 16th February.
Y.3 sub-sector ran south from the main road to Fargny Mill on the northern bank of the River Somme. The field of fire was limited near to the road and close to the German’s ‘ Y’ Wood. The top of ‘ladder like cut’ leading down the valley is recorded as providing a good place for snipers overlooking German positions in Curlu. Fargny Mill was described as an outpost only accessible at night. Positioned at the top of a horse-shoe bend of the river, a causeway provided access into the centre of the meander. This marshy central area of canals and waterways was suitably known as ‘Trafford Park’. No doubt Arthur Bell saw a limit to the similarities with the area he had worked as a clerk prior to enlisting. His Battalion spent time patrolling ‘Trafford Park’ during some nights of early 1916.
In the late winter and month of May 1916, 17th Battalion spent time in the front line supporting the 18th Battalion near Royal Dragon’s and Vaux Woods. This part of 90th Brigade front is south of Vaux, on the opposite side of the meandering river Somme to the village of Frise.
“The issue of extra rations, perhaps two days, was the commencement of a very interesting experience. A small
party of us marched across the Somme marshes – maybe across the famous duck-boards, I forget. But we took turns on watch night and day, and never saw the enemy. We heard his machine guns firing twenty-eight rounds at a time – very steadily, not in bursts like our Lewis gun, and we passed the time very happily, gambling and reading. One of those Bram Stocker novels caused me to have nightmares, stuck as I was in a too-deep wire bed. I have an idea we were near Frise. On one of the nights, when it was my turn on watch, the British, French and German guns were all firing together. The noise was quite something and there were Verey lights of differing colours, but the moment came when they all stopped at once. Guess what next! A chorus of nightingales! Who cares about the Blackpool lights after a display like that!” (1)
The River Somme marked the extreme right wing of the British forces, alongside their French allies to the south and facing the German enemy across the meandering river and marshland. The lines between the enemy forces was much more dynamic than the static trench line two miles north, near Maricourt. The armies fought for defensive positions on the dry islands in the marshland; undertaking frequent bombardment and raids on the opposition.
On the 20th January, following the departure of the civilian population, 2nd in Command, Captain Fearenside had been appointed town major of Suzanne, where the Battalion had their billets – initially in ‘Area A’ of the village. On 28th January, A Company lost their OC, Captain E Lloyd when he was wounded that morning. Captain Lloyd had been the OC who disciplined Arthur Bell after his acrobatting exploits at Heaton Park. He was replaced by Captain Reginald James Ford, one of the St Bees men noted earlier. The Company went on to reinforce the 18th Battalion, alongside the river Somme near Royal Dragon’s Wood.
The 28th January was the Kaiser’s birthday. The German celebrated with staffing by German aircraft, together with a local bombardment on the British and French positions, including gas shells. In the following offensive the Germans successfully captured the village of Frise from the French Army. Apart from the OC, a number of 17th Bttn. Men were wounded. Six men were killed from the 17th / 18th Bttns.
On 1st February, A Company was relieved at Royal Dragons by two Platoons of the 16th Battalion. The Company then returned to previous front line positions in A3 Sector. The next day the Battalion was reunited in A3 Sector, with A Company retiring to reserve positions. A Company was relieved by the 16th Battalion on 6th February and moved to the Maricourt defences.
On 7th February the entire Battalion was held in Divisional reserve in Maricourt. moving to billets in Suzanne. In this period away from the front the men were still vulnerable to shelling. 12 Other Ranks were wounded in the period 8th-10th February, along with Lieutenant and Quarter Master Yarwood and 2nd Lieutenant Cameron. Private A Smith was killed on 10th February.
A Company’s the cycle of tours in fire trenches and reserve positions continued in A3 Sector on 11-16th February; Suzanne to 18th; Fargny Mill to 23rd; Suzanne to 25th; Z2 to 27th and Suzanne until the end of the month. Three men were killed by shelling on 29th February.
On 1st March, 17th Battalion returned to Y3 sub-sector. 9122 Private Joseph Kirwan was killed by a sniper on 3rd March. They moved to Suzanne on 4th; Y3 on 7th and Suzanne on 11th – the War Diary noting the village was shelled at 20 minute intervals from 6pm on 14th, particularly close the Chateau & Centre. Three men were killed in the bombardment and a fourth died of wounds later that day.
2nd Lieutenant Jensen joined the Battalion on 15th March and the Battalion returned to Y3 sub-sector, prior to a final relief on 18th March, when the Battalion had a break from trench life and marched ‘in bright moonlight’ to Grovetown Camp. The men stayed in the camp until 29th March when A Company moved to billets in Heilly, carrying out fatigues for XIIIth Corps. In this period the CO Colonel Johnson was admitted to Hospital, with Major Whitehead taking temporary command. In addition, 2nd Lieutenant H A Kerr joined the Battalion on 28th March.
It is noted that the Battalion strength recorded in the War Diary increased to 34 Officers and 999 Other Ranks by 1st April. On 28th March there had been 977 Other Ranks, indicating a draft had been received at Grovetown Camp. Colonel Johnson returned from Base Hospital on 10th March and the Manchesters left Grovetown on 12th April. They stayed in billets in Cardonette that night and moved on to St Sauveur the next day. They remained in St. Saveur until 29th April, carrying out various specialist training, including Arthur Bell as one of the Bombers. After this break A Company returned to the front via Corby 29th April and Froissy on 30th.
View along fire trench in Y3 sub-sector, Suzanne on the Somme, April 1916. IWN HU112445
A Company took over fire trenches in Vaux Village as part of Y1 Sector on 1st May. The Company remained in these positions until they were moved to Royal Dragons on 9th May, with Captain R J Ford in Command. 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Clesham and a draft of 20 Other Ranks joined the Battalion on the same day. Privates Thomas Marsh and Harry Foden were killed on 3rd & 5th May respectively. 2nd Lieutenant Jensen was killed on 10th May, attached to 90/1 Trench Mortar Battery (from 25th Manchesters). Privates Herbert Mercer and Harry Copsey were killed on 13th May. A Company appears to have withdrawn to Suzanne on 17th May when D Company took over Royal Dragons.
On 25th May a further draft of 14 men joined the Battalion. A Company returned to Vaux Wood fire trenches on 28th. The entire Brigade line from Eclusier to Maricourt Wood was then handed over to the French Infantry on the night of 1st/2nd June. Maricourt village was then divided in two between the two allied armies.
17th Battalion marched to huts at Bois Celestine Camp on the morning of 2nd June. They then provided working parties quarrying, making roads and carrying from barges until 8th June when the Battalion moved to Bray and continued with working parties. On 11th June the Battalion returned to the western section of the Maricourt defences, taking over the line from the 19th Battalion. Working parties then continued, including assistance to tunnelling companies, unloading and carrying stores. There were 6 wounded casualties during a German bombardment on 14th June.
The Battalion was relieved from the Maricourt trenches for the final occasion on 18th June. The 17th Kings Liverpool Regiment provided the relief and the Manchesters marched to Heilly via Etinhem. The men then entrained for Ailly-sur-Somme before marching to Briquemesmil. This is where training took place for the Big Push
A gallery of contemporary images of the area near the river can be found at British Defences near Somme.
One of the few remaining other records of men being wounded in the spring of 1916 is 9160 Private Ernest Kemmery. In March 1916 Private Kemmery suffered a gun shot wound in the right thigh. He was evacuated to King George’s Hospital in London. After a period in Orchard Convalescent Home, Ernest was given two weeks leave with his family in July 1916. While his Platoon colleagues took part in the summer offensive, Private Kemmery was posted to the 20th Reserve Battalion. However it will be shown later that Ernest’s role in the war had not come to an end.
The Official History records the arrival of officer reinforcements with the 17th Battalion on 12th March 1916. 2nd Lieutenants Calvert and Richard Wain appear to have been posted to A Company. 2nd Lieutenant JJ Ilett and H Haslam were posted to other Companies.
After noting the impressive lights and ‘chorus’ of the front, Arthur Bell recognised unpleasant duties and fatigues.
“Which was the most disagreeable, a Burying of the dead fatigue, or a water carrying party? Both were necessary. I dropped in for the latter. You had two petrol cans full of water to carry and I put my belt across the handles of both and put my head through the belt, so that there was a can on my chest and one on my back. But my foot caught in some barbed wire – sight obscured by the can – and I split open my chin. The pack from the lining of my tunic came in handy, but I was a sight (as they say) for a number of days. Still, no harm came of it. I still have the scar on the point of the chin.”(1)
Hygiene was maintained, presumably more so, when spring arrived on the Western Front.
“Next in France, I remember bathing with others of the platoon in a very small pond, and myself receiving a sharp from a gnat or mosquito. It raised a small lump.
Then there was the time when two of us bathed in a canal in our nothings. A passing bargee lady called out “You swim, me no look” only partly covering her eyes with her fingers!
We worked our way through a factory containing large wooden tubs. There was no false modesty there – no embarrassment of the female staff.”
The southern side of the twisting Somme river and marsh is canalised to make it navigable from the Channel coast at St Valerie up stream to Tergnier where it connects to the extensive French canal network. With Arthur Bell’s experience of swimming in his youth, there can be no doubt he enjoyed a soak in the peaceful waterways. There were accidents and drownings, notably Frederick Whatmough 8959 who drowned at Chippily in June 1916, they day after the men had withdrawn from Vaux for the last time.
“Only once in France did I have a Divisional shower. In charge of the arrangements was an old school mate of mine, nicknamed “Polly”. He had the patter off perfectly. The effect was that we undressed, “showered”, died and dressed again, like bottles of the brewery. Talk about a time-table – no water, or soap wasted there!”(1)
Bert Payne (IWM interview) explained the machine-like approach to showering “A minute to soap; a minute to soak and a minute to rinse…” The 19th Battalion War Diary shows 645 men bathed in the Divisional Baths at Bray in January 1915 and other locations later in 1916.
Private Emrys Edwards 9033 of C Company was also a former pupil of the Warehouseman and Clerks Orphans’ School, and a similar age as Arthur Bell. Emrys may have been known as ‘Polly’ due to the repetition of his initials – as in Polly Parrot- although we have no confirmation. Emrys had worked at J Dilworth & Sons since leaving school. Other possible candidates from 17th Battalion for ‘Polly’ include 8077 Richard Bertenshaw (who must have enlisted at the same time as Arthur), 8131 Charles Edmondson or his brother 8132 Leonard Edmondson or 8163 Harry Hudson – who also had the repeated initials. All these men had attended Arthur’s school while he was a pupil, although there was a large age gap, suggesting they were unlikely school mates. Harry was a similar age to Arthur’s brother Douglas though. Numerous Old Boys enlisted in the war and many could have supervised the Brigade Showers. In an attempt to identify Parrot, various records have been used to consider Manchester Regiment / WACOS Alumnii Manchester Warehouseman and Clerks Orphans’ School – Manchester Regiment This include a number of men from other Battalions in 90th Brigade and other Pals Battalions posted near the Somme in 1916.
Scout Sgt Bert Payne of 16th Battalion described similar challenges for maintaining hygiene in his IWM interview.
“We lost our refinements…We were living in mud…I had three uniforms in the 9 months I was out in France…3 Shirts and 3 lots of underwear. We went to Corbie for 2 or 3 days and…Etenheim for 2 or 3 days and we had a bath there. Because the steam engines [provided hot water]… a minute to soak, a minute to rinse in the hot water.”
Leave from the Battalion was now very limited and allocated by ballot.
“In France we, the Privates, did not have any leave during the eleven months I was there, but two of us in our platoon had a bit of luck. In a raffle for two passes into Amiens for a few hours, we were the winners. We entered the town at the railway Station and walked along to the Cathedral, duly admiring the great Rose Window. There did not appear to be a large number of people in the town but, amongst them, a fair sprinkling of French and British troops. The Red Cross were very noticeable. All that sticks in my memory is an encounter with a woman who was selling chocolate in the Square. When we declined to buy – the price was ridiculous – she remarked “Va t’shee” [Go to the lavatory]. This was indeed the famous ta-toi-ary, so we moved on. Wouldn’t anybody?”
Records show the 17th Battalion were relieved from the sector on 18th March until their return on 1st May when they took over trenches near Vaux from the 8th East Surreys. In the intervening period the Battalion seems to have undertaken work details, a sports day and further training.