The Kensington Rifles/Learning the hard way

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Chapter II: Learning the hard way

Back in England: In early October, parts of the 8th Division was forming up at Hursley Park near Winchester. Amongst them were the 2nd Battalion Kensingtons. In the last days of December 1914, twenty-two Territorial battalions marched to join that British Force in France and within two further months, another twenty-six followed them. After the terrible casualties the 1st London Division was split up to provide reinforcements for other Divisions. As a result of these battles – the loss of so many men, not just in the Kensingtons but also in other parts of the division. The 1st London was split up to provide reinforcements and substitutions’ for those killed. By March 1915 it ceased to exist as a unit… later that month, thankfully it was reconstituted – the gaps made good by men from the 2nd Battalion… together they were numbered the 56th London Division.

Battle of Champagne, December to March, 1915[edit | edit source]

The First Battle of Champagne took place between Rheims and Verdun. The French pressed relentlessly against the German positions. The Germans were better lead maintaining their front against repeated gallant attempts by the French. The whole of that year was a success for the Germans achieving striking victories against the Russians, whilst joining forces with Bulgaria to complete the conquest of Serbia.

Battle of Neuve Chappelle, 10th March 1915[edit | edit source]

Both sides were exhausted, the terrible weather the previous summer and autumn, convinced the Generals on both sides that battle should be joined in the spring. The men gathered in the trenches trying to make the best of it trying to keep warm. During this period the territorial units, landing and marching to the front in September and October were initiated into trench warfare. As such they were given an easy time to acclimatize and learn the ropes. The first spring battles were as much to demonstrate to their allies that they were willing to re-engage the enemy. Neuve Chappelle was on high ground looking down on Lille; The Kensingtons had good cause to remember the place well for there was little to recommend the collection of shacks and run down cottages.

The Kensington Battalion were attached to the 25th Brigade, 8th Division - as a regular division, engaging in their first major action at Neuve Chapelle. As with all newly formed groups this battle was planned as a local offensive mission involving the 7th and 18th Divisions. The Indian Corps, with the IVth Corps being to the north. The goal was Aubers Ridge and the ground beyond. The Kensingtons were relieved on March 1st, and for the first time the four companies were united in Billets in La Francas Mill, occupying Lines of Communications, a term used to describe troops who assisted the forward battle lines with ammunition – the job of the Ammunition Column to keep the supply of shells going up to them from the dump in the rear, reserves, pioneer support, communications, constructing support trenches, unloading railway carriages, and making sure the rations got through, and a host of other tasks to relieve the forward troops. Most of this work was done at night with the Battalion horse teams. [The BEF had sixty-thousand horses to supply all arms.] The Battalion joined the now re-formed 1st London Division [56th] in the 168th Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Granville George Loch, CMG, on 8th February 1916. Brig Gen Loch commanded the 168th Brigade until it was demobilised… being Mentioned in Dispatches, and awarded the DSO.

The 1st Battalion, now reformed, occupied the outskirts – outside the town walls, of St Omer – a small provincial town with cobbled roads and looking very French. The large camp had been erected adjacent to the main road, Wagons and gun limbers lined the walls. Bell tents accommodating eight men with duck board floors were lined up in the field opposite. The ground was much used making the main paths muddy and bare of grass. Ditches circled the fields under thorn hedges. Of the remaining London Rifle regiment were fifty or so men of the 1st Division Kensingtons, including Albert. Also using the facilities were men of the Rangers, who were in he next field.

The Kensingtons, together with the rest of the 25th Brigade, moved out and marched from Lestrem on March 9th equipped to move to the front. A meal was prepared at Rouge Croix and water bottles filled after which the battalion took up position in the support trenches. At 7.30 on the 10th the artillery bombardment began preparing the advance half an hour later. The assault troops rose up clambering over the trench sides and surged forwards. Despite the casualties the advance continued with the supporting troops passing through keeping up the momentum. The Kensingtons meanwhile, a quarter of an hour later, moved forward from their support trench into the vacated breastworks to prepare for the follow-up – to attack the second objective.

The 25th Brigade had not been so fortunate… they were on the left of the Divisional front supported by the 24th Brigade. They had moved off before the advancing troops had totally cleared the way. Although by 1pm the objective had been reached the German’s had recovered and beginning to strengthen their lines. That night neither side was aware what the morning would bring… so far it could be said the three-day event met with initial success. Unfortunately, again the early gains were not exploited. There was a serious lack of coordination and the supple of ammunition was lacking.

The next morning further attempt was made to drive the enemy out of the ruins of the village but the Germans were well concealed and protected by the collapsed houses making the village into a stronghold. The Germans began to put down an artillery bombardment and the attacking Kensingtons were cut down. The battle for Neuve Chapelle collapsed and what was gained was consolidated. By the 16th the dead were still lying around and special recovery troops had to be brought in to collect up the bodies. 5,000 were killed or wounded. The Kensingtons lost 6 officers and about 150 men.

The thought that the war would be over by the previous Christmas was quickly forgotten as all the troops started to settle down to make the best of it. The glorious weather was a thing of the past too as the rain started to fall. This turned the onetime hard ground into vast areas of mud. The men were up to their knees in freezing water waiting for the next downpour. The Germans had opened and redirected the ditches so that the water flowed down hill towards the British trenches which soon filled up. The trenches stretched south from Armentieres to Festubert. The countryside was flat, plain and drab, with the hillier bits of Messines Ridge and the Ypres Salient to the north. To the south ranged mounds of coal tippings around Loos and Lens to the south… although there were indications of places where battles had been fought the countryside had not been pulverised into a morass to be seen a few months later.

Second Battle of Ypres, Thursday, 22nd April, 1915[edit | edit source]

By spring 1915, the fighting began again in earnest. The 1st Army attacked at Neuve Chapelle, a small rather insignificant village scarcely more than a cluster of scruffy cottages and barns. Three weeks later the 2nd Army, to the north, launched an attack on a huge artificial mound that had been built up over any years of soil dug whilst constructing the railway cuttings nearby. This great mound was the southern part of the Ypres Salient, and became known as Hill 60.

Battle of Gravenstafel, 22nd April 1915[edit | edit source]

This battle is significant - it staged the first large use of chlorine gas killing 6,000 French and colonial troops in ten minutes. The gas, denser than air, kept to the ground being carried by the wind. It filled the trenches and dugouts forcing the defenders to scramble out to be mown down by machine gun fire. The German’s had a victory but did not support it tactically not directing a follow up quickly enough - before the Canadians recovered - to put it a hasty defence.

Battle of St Julien, 24th April 1915[edit | edit source]

The village of St Julien lies behind Poelcappelle on the road to St Jean. The German advance behind the gas storm… reached this point; they were set upon by pockets Canadians who halted the advance sufficiently to allow the Allied line to reform. The Germans released another cloud of gas and the Canadians broke, allowing the Germans to take the village. There followed several counterattacks by units of the Northumberland Division who lost three-quarters of their men, to no avail. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers continued the fight…

Battle of Frezenberg 8th May 1915[edit | edit source]

A German bombardment was directed at the ridge. This succeeded in shattering the 83rd Brigade. Resuming their positions they halted the German advance by a number of desperate struggles. Eventually they gave way pushing the defenders back. The neighbouring Brigade gave sterling support stopping the German advance. The 84th were broken allowing a two mile gap to open up in the line. By a number of night attacks by the 10th Brigade the line just held but the Germans were across the Menim road… In total the Germans had advanced over a mile. Now the BEF had a new commander Lt General Herbert Plumer.

Battle of Aubers Wood and Festubert, 9th May 1915[edit | edit source]

There developed behind the lines a heated quarrel over the shortage of ammunition. At the Battle of Aubers Wood in the second week of May there occurred a great calamity for the Army ran out of ammunition for the guns. The attack of the 15th May on the village of Festubert was fated. Both battles were poorly conceived and executed and proved very costly in lives. British and Empire troops were forced back nearly to the gates of the city.

On the 28th May the Kensington Battalion went into Divisional reserve. The billets at Laventie were a welcomed sight as the Battalion marched up occupying the trenches at Picantin in fine weather which made a nice change. It was late spring the ground was hard and dry and the sun shone. After a period of rest the battalion was given the task of taking the crater made by the Royal Engineers under the German line. The battalion was taken out of the line to train for the event. The Kensingtons moved up to the start line on the evening of the 8th June. At 5.40 the next morning the mines were exploded and C and D Companies advanced. In spite of heavy losses they took over the crater. A and B Companies followed along behind in support. Two hours after the start they had secured third objectives – the crater and trench leading back to the old front line. The line was extended to Delangre Farm. The supply of bombs had now been reduced there was no sign of any back-up troops supporting them. The Brigade sent up the London Scottish. By the middle of the morning only twenty-four men were standing their ground. Only one officer and two bombers arrived, an hour later the Germans had got to within ten yards and were beginning to bomb the crater. Using the ammunition from a disabled machine gun. The position was now desperate the machine gun ammunition was running out. At 2.45 General Pinney passed word to retire back to the Farm. By that time No Man’s Land was swept by German fire. The casualties piled up and were used to crawl round. Once the Farm was reached the German gunners had range onto it and the survivors had to retreat from that. By this time the Germans had surrounded the Kensingtons who had to fight their way out. Enormous bravery was shown but the day had been lost. The attempt to take Aubers Ridge failed. By nightfall fifty survivors reached Cellar Farm were they stayed until ordered to Croix Blanche. A roll call found that 13 officers and 423 other ranks were lost, the Kensington Battalion was non-existent there being no reinforcements. The Battalion was taken out of the line and put to Lines of Communication duties. The bodies of the men killed on the 9th were never recovered. The period of Lines of Communication lasted front the end of the battle to the beginning of February 1916.

The Battle of Artois, May 1915[edit | edit source]

The next attack on the British front was made by the 1st Army at Artois. The French generals were very keen on a massive attack by the British at the same time they in the south would attack at Champagne. The French over-ruled the British generals. Kitchener declared that the British Army should do all that it could to help the French even though it would result in heavy losses. This would also help the Russians who were in need of urgent assistance to draw German reserves away from their front.

Any war has the advantage with the aggressor… He is better armed, prepared, able to dictate circumstances, and has an initial weapons advantage. So it was with the Germans in early 1915…, later that year, they used poison gas and flame throwers. German industrial output was fully geared to achieve maximum output for war production - particularly for munitions, something the British were to emulate only after the government attacked by the newspapers as, ‘letting the Army down’. [The lack of artillery shells was leaked to the newspapers by members of the military staff to achieve publicity for their gunner’s plight]

The second attack at Aubers Ridge demonstrated the British lack of guns and shells. Eventually this dramatic shortage was made known to those back home that caused a political storm. In May 1915, a new Ministry of Munitions was established. The British Forces increased from 35 0,000 to 800,000 by the end of the year. This increased force, Kitchener’s New Army, was engaged in training thought the land. Now it was understood that the war was not going to be over quickly. The strictly amateurish beginning was now a professional team. The wartime facilities were upgraded to back up that new spirit of efficiency and professionalism. The new Short Lee Enfield Rifle was the best rifle that could be produced for any army. By this time recruitment had dropped alarmingly. The authorities were forced to accept that conscription was the only answer. By May the first Divisions were ready to be shipped abroad - to support the depleted BEF. The 9th, 14th and 15th Divisions were marched to the Somme front, now part of the British line.

2nd. Battle of Artois, June 1915[edit | edit source]

The French 10th Army suffered over 4,000 casualties. It was a failure but only goaded the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, to re-engage with vigour late that July. Again there was little to show for the suffering French army. By the end of 1915 they had endured nearly one and a half million casualties and the British, just under a third. In fact the French would never again reach the same willingness to fight. It became clear that France could not win and if the German army concentrated all its efforts after beating the Russians they would conquer the country. Joffre needed help and for that he turned to the British. Again it became clear that Britain had a similar problem to the French. They lacked comparable weapons and a back-up of sufficient ammunition, especially artillery shells. Kitchener recognised that the fight would have to be extended into the following year. Until both countries could work out a better solution they would have to engage in active defence in France… his eight point plan was accepted by the government. In September a series of offensives were launched to try and punch a hole in the German lines. In the north, around Loos and Lens the British were ordered to attack whilst the French concentrated in the south, in the region of Artois. The now reorganised and revitalized BEF were to go into action with six-divisions amounting to 72,000 men, supported by a five-day bombardment with guns adequately supplied by munitions.

Battle of Loos, 21st September, 1915[edit | edit source]

The build-up for the battle began in late August when pioneer battalions and out of line troops rebuilt, strengthened, and drained the forward, communication and reserve trenches. Other troops ferried forward supplies and ammunition. Detailed preparations took all of August. The 1st Army had the task of being the attacking force. The ground being fought over was sprinkled with shacks, tiny hamlets, and villages… being a district of coal mines, slag heaps, pitheads… all closely linked by tracks and roads. The horizon was generally flat with gentle undulations and dips leading up to the Grenay-Hulluch ridge and Hill 70, to the east of Loos. The ridge and hill was of immense tactical value giving an excellent all round view of the area together with the various mine-shaft winding gear towers at Fosse 8 and Tower Bridge. Nothing could be hidden from the German observers…

On the 21st of September the relative calm was shattered by an artillery bombardment of the German front line. Four days later the Battle of Loos was launched over flat, dull, open countryside – The village lay in a depression with long gentle slopes. To the east there is a low hill which was named Hill 70. Loos lies between La Bassee and the mining area around Lens. The battle raged as ten columns in extended lines, all in perfect alignment, moved forward. The German machine gunners traversed their guns backwards and forwards mowing down the lines of men – each line of a thousand men. As the wounded men struggled to rise the Germans held their fire allowing the medical teams to take the wounded back. As soon as they had done so they started to machine gun the next advancing troops.

With the end of the battle the front quietened down. As the year drew to a close many realised that although millions of men had died the end was still not in sight. The Kensingtons needed new replacements to make up their numbers. After receiving another batch of reinforcements, from England, the Division was now back up to strength. A training schedule was devised to make the Division ready for front line fighting. The 168th Brigade of the 56th London Division included: 4th London [Fusiliers], 12th London [Rangers], 13th London [Kensingtons] and 14th London [Scottish]. The Artillery, were Londoners and the Pioneers, the 5th Cheshires.

The reformed brigade marched off to Loos station there to entrain for Pont Remy. Arriving in pouring rain the brigade again marched off to Citerne. This village is set in undulating countryside with few cottages or hamlets. The weather was squally with occasional heavy falls of snow. Again the brigade was house in bell tents in a muddy field engaged in strenuous training exercises using the latest tactics and the latest weapons. The automatic Lewis gun with its pan of bullets was going to be an improvement, so too the new grenades. Every day groups were detailed off to become expert in the use of these weapons including their use wearing a new style gas mask. Route and forced marches in full fighting kit made at least once a week. Both these distances over twenty-five mile soon lead to men dropping out to be picked up by wagon. At last the division set off away from Citerne to Longpre – a large farm complex.

By the time the battalion got there many men were complaining about blisters. They had short shrift from the sergeant who told them that it was an offence to have blisters and any more complaints then the malingerers would receive punishment for not taking due care. This soon settles everyone down. Guards were detailed off and the rest collapsed utterly exhausted. There were no blankets or food until the following day. Fortunately the roads were congested by marching Frenchmen and blocked with wheeled artillery all racing to get to Verdun. Their movement delayed us continuing so we had a forced couple of days of rest interspersed with whatever practices the sergeants could devise to keep us occupied.

The rolling low hills and shallow valleys gave Picardy an appearance of Salisbury Plain. It also gave us names to conjure with: High Wood, Thiepval, Trones Wood, Martinpuich, Fricourt, Delville Wood, Ginchy and Combles to mention just a few. If compared to Ypres it had space, unobstructed views and open countryside suitable for unrestricted action. This was the scene on top of chalk lying under much of the region. Ideal stuff to construct deep shelters and communicating trenches. The Germans were experts at making the most of their front line putting all their ingenuity into making substantial living accommodation to back up the forward troops. In fact both sides dug like mad to make extensive trench systems. Once again the object in battle was to take the strain off the French who were suffering many casualties at Verdun.

When at last the road was clear the battalion reformed and marched off the Doullens. The sixteen or so of miles were completed in the morning that allowed us to take two days rest exploring the town doing some washing and having a canvas bath. Off again we marched on to Magnicourt having there an exhibition of a German flamethrower, being told its uses and problems. The last major attack on the British lines occurred on the 11th November 1915. This battle became famous because it was made by the Prussian Guards and they broke through the British lines. A counter-attack by the 1st Guards Division was forced to take shelter in the woods before driven out by a counter-attack. The fighting secured the close bonding between the British and the French. The two armies fought side by side all around Ypres in a fashion not used in earlier battles. The more the Germans extended their lines the more the Allied troops did too as the front stretched northwards up past Bapaume, Arras and Bethune… onwards to Ypres.