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The Lonsdales Land in France, November 1915

The grandstand at Blackhall Racecourse
Lt-Col. P.W. Machell, at Blackhall Racecourse
Hutments at Prees Heath, Salop, c.1915
Wensley Camp near Leyburn, Yorkshire, 1915

As we discovered in the previous chapter the Lonsdales had left the familiar grounds of Blackhall Camp to continue their training at various other camps, leaving the border counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. The Prees Heath Camp in Salop (present-day Shropshire) was their first move. It was here that they formed part of the 97th Brigade along with the 15th, 16th and 17th Battalions of the Highland Light Infantry. After a short stay at Wensleydale in Yorkshire they were stationed at Salisbury Plain for a few weeks in the autumn until orders were received to prepare to move out and proceed to France. On the 23 November 1915, the Lonsdales entrained at Codford for the port of Folkstone where, at 1am, they sailed on board the steamer Princess Victoria with the rest of the 97th Brigade, at that time under the command of Brigadier-General Jardine.[1] The months they had spent in training at home had come to an end and the eight hour journey from Folkstone, at least for some men, was most likely spent in reflection of what awaited them when they finally reached their new port, Boulogne.

The Lonsdales landed on the shores of France at a strength of 31 officers, 2 warrant officers and 995 other ranks.[1][2] They moved to Longpré by train on the 25 November, already having to leave behind Capt. L.B. Hogarth and three other ranks in hospital due to sickness.[3] From there they marched at 1am the remaining distance to the village of Gorenflos and billeted on arrival. Lt-Col. P.W. Machell noted:

Very good moving on gradually, so the men get used to billeting; it’s a big change for these lads, accustomed to having everything done for them. Their minds move slowly and they think it’s still training; so far we have got along first rate, much better than others. Spring-Rice very good at getting the transport along. [4]

It was their second day in France and preparations would need to be made but it wasn’t long, in fact only one day at Gorenflos, before they marched again, this time to Picquigny on the 27 November and Villers-Bocage the following day. The men were not kept idle as during their brief stay there they were involved in close order drills, route marches and inspections, something, at least, they were not unfamiliar with having spent many hours and days fine-tuning these very things back home. On the 2 December the Lonsdales continued across countryside to Molliens-au-Bois involved in much the same as before, however, with the wet weather that had befallen them, instead of gruelling route marches the men were involved in physical drills, lectures and more inspections.[3] Their Commanding Officer, Lt-Col. P. W. Machell, ran a tight ship, which is why it is does not come as a surprise that in March of that year his Battalion was considered "far ahead of other service battalions"[4] when it was inspected at Blackhall Camp by the War Office.[5] The discipline of the men did not go unnoticed. The men were turning heads in the upper echelons of the Brigade and their previous training was the perfect way to stand them in good stead for the coming months.

The destruction of the Albert Basilica after the first bombardment in 1916

The Lonsdales remained at Molliens-au-Bois for ten days where it was "settled that we go for practical training, attached to old units"[4] in the use of live hand grenades, under the inspection of Lieut. Kemp of the Manchester Regiment.[3] Each platoon of 8 men was carefully instructed in the usefulness of its destructive powers if used correctly, but also of its potential dangers and devastating effects if used incorrectly. Then, on the 12 December 1915, the Battalion, including headquarters and transport, proceeded to camp at Bouzincourt twelve miles east, close to the small town of Albert, a key location in the Battle of the Somme where "nearly all British troops marched through on their way to the front."[6] The surrounding area had a huge network of trench systems that had been dug into the landscape and aptly named by the troops such as Crucifix Corner and Oban Avenue.[6] This network of chalky, muddy paths roughly two metres deep, and others just like them, became the Lonsdales home for several months and comfort was not at the forefront of their design.

Trenches were functional and served a specific purpose but many were hastily dug or in bad states of repair. Inclement weather would invariably be the cause for appalling muddy conditions that the men had to endure on a daily basis suffering not only physical but also psychological discomforts. Trenches that were in battle-razed areas were in so terrible a condition that they hardly resembled trenches at all. However, for the time being the Lonsdales remained in the area of Bouzincourt for six days supplying platoons to garrison nearby trenches. Here, the men tried to make the best of everything including getting used to the unpleasant, penetrating odours of lime, manure, sweat, chloride and death.[6] Lt-Col. Machell found the time to speak to his men about the issue of complaining in difficult circumstances and the importance of remaining positive. In his report he states:

They [the men] are in very good form, and prepared to look smiling under all possible circumstances. I had a talk yesterday on the futility of grousing and the necessity of making the best instead of the worst of everything.[4]

Machell’s positive outlook on situations, that to most would seem bleak and despairing, was a credit to his natural ability as a strong, yet sympathetic leader. His men had looked up to him during their formative months of training and continued to do even when circumstances were less desirable. He gave the men direction and a sense of purpose. There would have been men without understanding for what it was they were fighting for, but to fight for their commanding officer was something, at least, the majority would do resolutely. The men had been educated on what to expect and this was something they had to get used to as by mid-1916 it was going to get a lot worse.

The time spent in the trenches around Albert in the winter of 1915 was by far very different to those dug at camp in Carlisle. Entrenchment training was just one of many basic skills the Lonsdales were taught at Blackhall, yet such systems on the Western Front, especially of immense size and complexity, coupled with destructive artillery and unfavourable weather, delivered an entirely different and very real experience that "hardened" the men in preparation for ever-changing and difficult conditions. As Colin Bardgett, author of The Lonsdale Battalion 1914-1918 states:

This time in the line was to give the troops an insight into trench warfare. They learned that a pick and shovel was just as important as a Lee-Enfield rifle, and that it was better to shoot fast than accurately. They learned that trench clubs and mills bombs were more use than ceremonial swords and bayonets. The men were initiated to the deadly varieties of German bombs and shells, nicknamed by old sweats as ‘whizz-bangs,’ ‘Coal Boxes and ‘Moaning Minnies.’ They received their first shock to the nervous system when the sudden crash of exploding shells tore at their senses, or when a sniper of the random fire of a machine gun claimed one of their friends as a victim. After seven days of duty they would emerge, their uniforms filthy and feeling bone-weary and knowing that instant death could happen at any time in the front line.[7]

Their arrival in France did more good for the men than they may, at first, have known. They were honing their skills, learning the way of trench life - as unpleasant as it could be – and garnering instruction on the effective use of their everyday tools that would, ultimately, keep them alive.

The year was coming to a close and on the 15 December, Capt. L.B. Hogarth, having recovered from his sickness at Boulogne, was now attached for duty in Commanding the Royal Engineers of the 51st Division.[3] For a few days the Lonsdales had been at the front, the Companies separated and attached to other battalions.[4] Lt-Col. Machell went out daily to visit each Company in the line and noted that "they certainly are behaving extremely well."[4] But on a personal level, knowing that officers had relative comforts and where possible were supplied with the best billets and dugouts available to them, he could only sympathise for the conditions in which his men had to endure, stating: "I feel very bad about the men, and one can't do enough for them."[4] These are the words of a selfless man who clearly cared for the wellbeing of his men, working tirelessly to ensure what little comforts he could afford them were made available or, at the very least, visit them as often as he could. In general terms the fact remained that comforts were more often than not bestowed upon men of rank and well-to-do backgrounds, which seemed somewhat unfair when compared to what the common soldier was allocated. Whilst Lt-Col. Machell's family history would suggest a certain privileged upbringing, a lineage dating back to the 5th century CE and marriage to Countess Victoria Alice Leopoldine Ada Laura Gleichen, daughter of Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg,[8] who himself was Queen Victoria's (half) nephew,[9] might conclude Machell was a man given to a particular affluent lifestyle, yet he was a military man that had spent many years away from the comforts of his home, instead choosing a regimented career in Egypt over a socialite one in England. He had an understanding of the war machine, using that understanding to great effect and, ultimately, wanting to see his men pull through the war they now very much a part of. By this point in time the war was in its 16th month and those that though it would be over by Christmas 1914 were sorely mistaken. A year on and attrition had caused little development in the conclusion of a war that would continue to wage on for almost another three years.

The Lonsdales situation would see no major events for the next few months but their routine remained fairly consistent. They were still at the front near Bouzincourt and Albert, relieving the 1/6th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders on the 19 December. It was around this time Captain C.H. Clart, the Commanding Officer of B Company, was admitted to hospital and in his absence Captain B.C. Harrison took over as commanding officer of the Company. The trenches they occupied were of a loam and clay mixture, which were in a dreadful state. The Battalion's 2nd in Command, Major P.G.W. Diggle, also an officer that held high esteem for the men wrote of these trenches stating that:

In many places there were no duckboards, and, in consequence, the mud and water was four or five feet deep. It was impossible to get all along the front line trench without going "overland," as there were two stretches of about 100 yards each that were impassible. However, we got them right eventually. The men used at times to get quite stuck and unable to move in the mud. Then the gum-boots had to be left.[4]

What would have been a much easier task in suitably dry and firm trenches was made nigh on impossible in these mud-encased channels where they were tasked with repairing the trenches and constructing dugouts. The simplest of demands would have brought the men new challenges and, in some cases, immediate danger due to the flooding and the fear of being sniped at when moving overground. The Lonsdales pulled through, working together efficaciously to get the task in hand done. Lt-Col. Machell praised the men for their unwavering efforts by stating:

The men are excellent. I am very energetic, as you may imagine, and they respond splendidly. I am quite delighted with them. They are not foolish at all, just sensible, and do their job without the smallest fuss, though the hardships for them are demandable. For us it is much better, as we can generally get dry socks and a better place to lie in…I have nothing to complain of at all. I am working day and night.[4]

Machell's confidence in, and support for, his men did not go unnoticed by Major Diggle, whose veneration of his superior was all the more apparent in his words of a man that always put the concerns of others before himself:

For the first six months there was never a night that the C.O. did not go round the trenches. Not a casual walk round, but four or fives hours out....But he was a man of 53, and then he did not sleep in the day. Breakfast was always at 8 a.m. We had the name of being the best Infantry Battalion in France, among any of those who had to do with us. One man told me only the other day, what a reputation we had….The C.O. put system and organisation into everything he came in contact with. We organised a drainage party, whose job it was to keep the communication trenches drained and in repair, under the supervision of the R.E. The garrison was responsible for the front line only. The C.O. put protection first, then rest, and then work.[4]

Much to the relief of the men, within three days the 17th Highland Light Infantry took over their positions and the Lonsdales moved back to camp at Bouzincourt, out of the perpetual mud and the damp. On Christmas Eve, one officer and 50 other ranks were involved in supplying fatigues for the Royal Engineers in erecting hutments, whilst on Christmas Day, the Lonsdales held a church parade, then A Company moved to Aveluy where they billeted and supplied guards and further fatigues for 97th Brigade Headquarters.[3]

During the Christmas period, His Majesty the King sent a seasonal message to all his troops throughout every theatre of war to convey his feelings and praise the men in their duties:

Another Christmas finds all the resources of the Empire still engaged at war, and I desire to convey on my own behalf and on behalf of the Queen, a heartfelt Christmas greeting and our good wishes for the New Year, to all whom, on sea and land, are upholding the honour of the British name. In the officers and men of my Navy, on whom the security of the Empire depends, I repose, in common with all my subjects, a trust that is absolute. On the officers and men of my Armies, whether now in France, in the East, or in the fields I rely with an equal faith, confident that their devotion, their valour, and their self-sacrifice will, under God’s guidance, lead to Victory and an honourable peace. There are many of their comrades, alas, in hospital, and to those brave fellows also, I desire, with the Queen, to express our deep gratitude and our earnest prayers for their recovery. Officers and men of the Navy and Army, another year is drawing to a close, as it began, in toil, bloodshed and suffering; but I rejoice to know that the goal to which you are striving draws nearer in sight. May God bless you and all your undertakings.[1]

On the 31 December, all four Companies of the Lonsdale Battalion were now situated at Aveluy. One man was involved in a court of inquiry for a self-inflicted wound to his foot, the finding of which was deemed accidental and here ended the Lonsdales first five weeks in France. The year 1915 may have come to a close but the Lonsdales journey would continue.

References / notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.71.
  2. In the Battalion war diary it states 23 officers and 896 other ranks, a substantial discrepancy between the two sources.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 11th Battalion War Diary, November to December 1915.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Record of the XIth (Service) Battalion (Lonsdale) - In France, 25 November.
  5. The inspector of Recruiting from the War Office, the Muskerty Staff Officer from Headquarters (Western Command), and a Staff Officer for Physical Drill (Inspector of Gymnasia).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Colin Bardgett (1993). The Lonsdale Battalion 1914-1918. G. C. Book Publishers Ltd. ISBN 1872350607. p.13.
  7. Colin Bardgett (1993). The Lonsdale Battalion 1914-1918. G. C. Book Publishers Ltd. ISBN 1872350607. p.14.
  8. Countess Victoria Alice Leopoldine Ada Laura Gleichen The Peerage. Accessed 12 August 2016.
  9. Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburgone Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Accessed 12 August 2016.
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