At the Front

Source: Battalion Records

” … Our account of the doings of the City Battalions after they left for Salisbury Plain we are indebted to the military authorities, who gave the writer access to official records, so far as they relate to the first year’s war experience of the battalions. The Army Council formally took over the three battalions on June 23rd, 1915. After being brigaded with Gloucestershire men and incorporated in various divisions, both in the Northern and Southern Commands, the Birmingham lads left Codford St, Mary on November 21st, 1915, under orders for France. The experiences of the three battalions were somewhat similar in general, though they differed in several particulars. Sometimes they were in the same brigade and sometimes they were separated, and occasionally they relieved each other in the trenches. It will avoid confusion in the narrative if we first describe the doings of the 1st City Battalion (14th Royal Warwickshire Regiment), and then add a short account of any exploits of the other two battalions which were peculiar to themselves.

The 14th Battalion left Folkestone at 8 a.m. on November 22nd, and arrived at Boulogne at 10.30 a.m. They found it very cold under canvas, and after a railway journey to Conde they had to march twelve miles over icebound roads. This was very exhausting, and the men were glad to reach their billets. On December 8th they pushed on to the Front, and had their baptism of fire near Bonfay. There they took over the duties of the Battalion in reserve and gained some first-hand instruction in trench warfare. Working parties were sent into the front line, and they found entrenching both hard and dangerous work. On the first day a casualty occurred, Pte. Hackett being killed by rifle fire.

The trenches were in very bad condition, being in many places thigh deep in mud, and in some places nearly all ,the dug-outs had fallen in, All ranks naturally suffered under these conditions, though the spirits of the men remained excellent, and they soon improved their environment. Parties returned from fatigue duty in the trenches drenched to the skin and with their greatcoats covered with mud, but they went out again the next day quite cheerfully.

Some distress was caused on the 17th of the month by the news that Sergt.-Major Kitchen had died of a bullet wound received while walking outside the trenches after dawn. Nevertheless, when the Battalion was relieved on the following day the Birmingham lads marched from the trenches to their billets in good style. This so-called ‘rest’ meant intensive training. The Birmingham lads were fortunate, however, in being out of the front line on Christmas Day, and they made the most of a good dinner, with a pint each of Bass in which to drink success to our cause. On returning to the trenches the 1st Battalion were transferred from the 95th to the 13th Brigade. At the end of the year they began to be troubled by the enemy’s shells and rifle fire, the latter causing the death of L/Cpl. J. B. Burnside, a popular N.C.0. of the Corps

Sheer Devastation (sourced from postcard collection)

The New Year was well begun by cutting new trenches in front of the firing line and generally straightening up. While this work was in progress a shell from a German trench mortar fell between the openings d dug-outs full of men, who had a very narrow escape. Only one was wounded. The Battalion left these trenches in much better condition than they found them, it being possible on January 8th, for the first time for months, to pass from one end of the firing line to the other without encountering mud above the ankle.

While resting at Vaux-sur-Somme the Battalion developed measles and had to be segregated till the infection passed away. Then they marched ‘to Arras, in cold, fine weather, singing all the way, and took over part of the front line near the much-battered town. Soon afterwards they were reinforced by three drafts from the Reserve Battalion (the 17th), men of good physique and mentality.

When occupying these trenches patrols from the 14th Battalion did much good work under trying conditions. On April 4th a captain and one man were wounded by rifle fire while engaged in wiring in bright moonlight. The private was first wounded, the officer being shot while helping the man back to the trenches. In addition to the captain, a sergeant and a private displayed great pluck on this occasion, and a second lieutenant distinguished himself by bringing in the wounded captain and the private under difficulties demanding considerable courage and energy.

Several patrols went out in May, and they obtained valuable information as to the movements of the enemy. While in the Arras sector, gas helmets had to be used, and this was an uncomfortable experience, as the weather was becoming hot. To add to the discomfort the enemy kept up a rapid fire with rifles, machine guns and mortars. Fortunately the German artillery was erratic, and the casualties were few. When relief arrived the Battalion marched out of the trenches full of life and vigour.