"Where we are it's just on a ridge and you can see for miles around. The country begins to look beautiful bar the houses and churches which are in ruins and we can see more with our powerful glasses. It was quiet at times you wouldn't think there was a war on..."
Sergeant Sydney Norton
"C" Company, 1/6th Battalion, The North Staffordshire Regiment
Extract from a letter to his wife dated 14th May 1915
In April 1915 the North Midland Division, fresh from their brief period of "trench instruction" under the tutelage of 6th Division around Armentieres, marched from Ballieul into Belgium. The Division was to enter the front line for the first time as a complete formation, taking over from 28th Division the trenches between Kemmel and Wulverghem. The area had been the scene of heavy fighting during October and November 1914, when the Germans had pushed a mixed force consisting of the Cavalry Corps, Indians and French troops from the Messines Ridge, which had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The British positions were dug into a smaller ridge in front of Wulverghem. The North Midland Division was brought into the line in this particular section as it was considered to be relatively quiet, and would be the best place for an inexperienced formation to acclimatise to the routine of trench warfare.
The Staffordshire Brigade was allotted the southern portion of the North Midland Division's area of responsibility, a frontage of approximately 2,000 yards. Two main roads divided the Brigade's line. To the south was the road between Wulverghem and Messines, which also acted as the Divisional boundary, while in the centre lay the road between Wulverghem and Wytschaete. The units of the Brigade moved to their new billets in the rear area, near the village of Neuve Eglise, on 2nd April. The South Staffordshire battalions moved to Bulford Camp, while the North Staffords used Aldershot Camp. Later that evening, the 1/5th South Staffords and 1/5th North Staffords marched up the road from Neuve Eglise to take over the line from the 28th Division.
The Staffordshire Brigade consisted of the following units:
1/5th Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant-Colonel R. Richmond Rayner
1/6th Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant-Colonel T. F. Waterhouse T.D.
1/5th Battalion, The Prince of Wales's (North Staffordshire Regiment)
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant-Colonel John Hall Knight V.D.
1/6th Battalion, The Prince of Wales's (North Staffordshire Regiment)
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant-Colonel John, The Lord Gretton T.D.(until 20/5/15)
Lieutenant-Colonel R. F. Ratcliff M.P. (from 20/5/15)
Also placed under the command of the Staffordshire Brigade were 1/2nd
Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Major Christopher Hatton.
Shortly before the Staffordshire Brigade went into the line for the first time, Brigadier-General Bromilow, the Brigade commander, was invalided back to the United Kingdom due to illness. His replacement was Brigadier-General Edward Feetham, who had formerly been the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Berkshire Regiment, and had been serving on the Western Front since 5th November 1914.
Private Wilfred Sheard, a former pupil at the Hanley School of Art serving with the 1/5th North Staffords, described his impressions of his first tour in a letter to his parents in Etruria:
"It has come our turn for the trenches again, part of the companies going first, while we stayed in a barn behind the firing line, acting as rations and water parties for them. But the march we had in the dark was terrible, moving from one barn to another closer to the line. We were absolutely under fire all the way, not knowing one second to another whether we would be shot, as bullets were whizzing high and low between us - the hottest time we've had yet. When we landed safely in our barn, we heard news of our mates being wounded. There doesn't have to be a fingertip shown over the parapet but that there is two or three bullets at it. You see, there is not much chance if you pop your head up. It means Red Cross at once "
Private Sidney Richards, who came from West Bromwich and had been employed as a clerk before the war, served with the Machine Gun Section of the 1/5th South Staffords. He recorded his experiences in his pocket diary:
2nd April Rifle inspection. Marched to trench at Messines. Took trenches over from 3rd Monmouths.
3rd April On look-out. Duty man in my trench had his brains blown out by a sniper. Raining very heavy.
4th April Raining heavy. Had no rations brought to us. Shortage of water. Up to our knees in mud.
5th April Simply awful. Raining all day and night. Shells bursting all over the shop. All I have to eat is 1 biscuit - would give a fortune for a dish of tea.
6th April More shells. Plenty of mud. Weather a little better. Relieved at 10 p.m. Got to camp 2 a.m. Wed.
The weather during the first tour of duty was particularly bad, as Captain F. E. Wenger, the Signals Officer of the 1/5th North Staffords, recounted:
"The weather has been abominable, high winds with plenty of rain; and the trenches are very muddy and full of water. One has to use gum boots all the time, which makes one's feet swell quite two sizes larger, and also makes them very soft."
After a few days, the battalions were rotated. On the evening of 5th April, 1/5th North Staffords were relieved in their portion of the line by 1/6th North Staffords. 1/5th South Staffords had to wait until the following evening to be relieved by 1/6th South Staffords. The relief of units was carried out at night where possible, as movement during daylight attracted snipers or artillery fire. Throughout their time at Wulverghem, the battalions of the South and North Staffords alternated with each other, with the length of the tour in the front line usually being of four days duration.
The trenches at this time consisted of a single line of breastworks and ditches, although not yet connected. When the Staffordshire Brigade took over the sector, no second-line or communications trenches existed, relieving units having to advance over open ground to reach the front line.
|Contemporary observers also reported that the odour of rotting vegetation was very strong in the front-line trenches, as they lay in fields of unharvested crops. The rudimentary nature of the trenches made life very uncomfortable in the first weeks of their occupation by the Staffordshire Brigade. Work parties were constantly required to maintain and try and improve them, including the construction of belts of barbed wire in front of the trenches.||
The work was often carried out at night and under rifle fire. Lieutenant-Colonel John Knight, the commanding officer of the 1/5th North Staffords, commented on the arduous conditions in a letter home:
"When not in the trenches, the men go back to them in parties to improve them and the communications. They are very wet, and the weather bad now. Last night it took an hour to get two men out of an open drain we were improving."
The area was also dotted with several farms, many of which had been given names by the troops. The farms closest to the firing line were reinforced by the construction of redoubts known as Strong Points, or S.P.'s, that provided accommodation for a platoon of infantry, as well as a machine gun post.
There were two Strong Points in the Staffordshire Brigade area. S.P.4, which was located near North Midland Farm, was the responsibility of the South Staffords battalions, while S.P.5, which later became known as Fort Pinkie, was garrisoned by the North Staffords. Together with Monmouth Farm and Burnt Farm, these positions formed part of the second-line defences within the Staffordshire Brigades' sector.
Second-Lieutenant C. Ashford, of 1/6th South Staffords, recalled S. P. 4 as being:
" a roughly circular sandbag construction, surrounded by an apron of barbed wire, and being situated on the reserve slope, it was no under direct observation by the enemy. Inside were what we called then 'dug-outs', though they were little more than splinter-proof shelters, built up of sandbags, and not dug down at all. There was one true dug-out, which housed our machine gun; this was so arranged as to provide cross fire, in conjunction with the gun in S.P.5, roughly 1,000 yards away, on our left "
Lieutenant P. J. Slater, known within his battalion as "Pip Jock", was the Signals Officer of 1/6th South Staffords. He described in a letter dated 11th April his view from North Midland Farm:
"In front to the eastward stretches a low ridge. The main road goes on past the farm up the ridge. On the left at the top is a tumbledown cabaret used as an Artillery O.P. You reach the upper floor by an old staircase and lie flat on the floor. The beam over your head is chawed with snipers' bullets. From here you can see the whole of our section "
Other farm buildings in the vicinity were utilised to serve various functions. Souvenir Farm, on the road to Messines, was used as a depot for trench stores. At Wulverghem Cabaret, the South Staffordshire battalions established their headquarters, using the kitchen as the telephone exchange, from which reports and orders could be passed to and from Brigade Headquarters and neighbouring units. The North Staffordshire units established their headquarters at R.E. Farm.
Evidence of the heavy fighting that had taken place around Wulverghem during the Autumn of 1914 left a deep impression on some of the men of the Staffordshire Brigade, and prompted Private W. Molloy, a Cannock soldier serving with "B" Company, 1/5th South Staffords, to write:
"The sight of the ruined hamlets and towns in Belgium makes the heart ache... On going to the firing line a few days ago, I passed two particularly handsome churches ruined by shell fire. The village hard by contained the shattered remains of houses and a convent. The Sisters remain in their roofless homes, the only inhabitants for many miles around except for the parish priest. The entire place is a picture of desolation."
Lieutenant P. J. Slater found more evidence while setting up telephone communications from his battalion's headquarters at Wulverghem Cabaret:
" All the wires are in a terrible mess, and we have had a busy time tapping old wires and following them up. We found one farm cellar behind with many wires leading into it, bearing the labels of long-departed units. It feels like dipping into the past centuries to wander about behind the lines over the old trenches and cables and ruined farmhouses. These were Headquarters, billets and dressing stations during the autumn and winter fighting "
Although Wulverghem was considered a quiet sector, the Staffordshire units were still subjected to regular sniping and shelling and as a consequence they suffered a steady stream of casualties. Regimental Aid Posts, known as R.A.P's, were set up to deal with the casualties in farm buildings close to the front line, at R.E. Farm for the North Staffords and St Quentin Cabaret, a former inn, for the South Staffords. R.E. Farm had already been used as a dressing station during the earlier fighting. Once a wounded soldier had been attended to by the Medical Officer, he would either return to duty, or in more serious cases the stretcher bearers would carry him into Wulverghem, where they would be usually evacuated to Ballieul by either a horse-drawn or motor ambulance. Once at Ballieul, the casualty would then be admitted to one of several Advanced Dressing Stations. After further treatment, the wounded man would be sent to hospital, either in France or returned by Hospital Ship to the United Kingdom.
Once settled in hospital, those wounded soldiers capable of doing so would write home to their anxious family. Private J. W. Critchlow, a former miner from Wolstanton serving with the 1/5th North Staffords, wrote one such letter in April:
"I am sorry to tell you I had the misfortune of getting shot in the shoulder, but I am glad to say the bullet went straight through; that makes it better for me, because if it had stopped in, it would have had to be extracted. We went in the trenches on Thursday night, and we went on all right overnight, and it was at 7.30 on Good Friday morning when I was wounded, and I was the first in the 5th North Staffords to be hit. I am sorry to say there were four more wounded and one killed later in the day. I am glad to say I am very well looked after in the hospital."
There were also fatalities, as Sidney Richards recorded in his diary:
11th April 2 a.m. on sentry on gun. My chum shot down by my side, shot in the head (Billy Durrant).
||Those men who had been killed in the firing line, or had died of
their wounds at the Regimental Aid Post, were buried close by. A cemetery
had already been established at R.E. Farm during the previous November by
the 1st Dorsets. The churchyard in Wulverghem had also been used, and continued
to be so by the Staffords. The cemetery at St Quentin Cabaret, used as the
Regimental Aid Post for the South Staffordshire battalions, came into being
shortly after the Brigade's arrival in the area.
An early fatality buried in this cemetery was Lance-Corporal Albert Morris of 1/2nd North Midland Field Company. Morris, a miner from Heath Hayes, near Cannock, had served with the unit since 1909 and in 1911 had won the Company Cup for marksmanship. He died on 27th April. Lieutenant Patrick Welchman, his Section commander, wrote to his father about his son's death:
"My Dear Mr. Morris,
It is with the very deepest regret that I have to tell you that your son was killed at about noon today. He was struck by a bullet in the back while he was in charge of a party of men. I cannot tell you how much he will be missed. He was always so careful and ready to do anything for anybody, and I always felt I could count on him to carry through any difficult work. Several times he has gone quite calmly on with his work under continuous fire. He was one of my pluckiest and promising N.C.O.'s. I wish to say how deeply I sympathise with you in your great loss, but it is one of those sorrows in which no-one else can possibly help you. The only consolation to you, and it should be a big one, is that he died doing his country's work at the time of her greatest need. I was with him when he was hit, and I don't think that he suffered very much. He became unconscious before I had finished temporarily dressing his wounds, but he recovered consciousness just before he died some twenty minutes later. He was taken to the advanced dressing station, where he got the very best medical attention, but nothing could possibly have been done. All his possessions are being sent to you at an early date. If there is anything I can tell you or do, I hope you will let me know. He is to be buried this evening in the little burying ground by the dressing station, besides several Staffs. men who have been killed here. Sergt. Stringer and myself will be there, and several other men of the section. Please accept my very deep sympathy in your sorrow.
However, not all wounds were caused by enemy action. The War Diary of the 1/6th North Staffords recorded that during their tour of duty in the line between 16th-20th May, the Battalion had suffered two killed and three wounded. All of the injured men had self-inflicted wounds.
The threat posed by snipers was a constant feature of trench warfare. Initially at least, the units of the Brigade were woefully ill-equipped to conduct sniping from their own lines, as they had neither specialist rifles or telescopic sights. Several men had lucky escapes, such as Sergeant C. F. Rose, a soldier from Stone serving with the 1/5th North Staffords:
"I had a narrow shave of getting blinded in both eyes. I was looking at the German trenches through a periscope, when a German sniper hit the top glass with a bullet, and the glass falling in small pieces filled my eyes. I thought I had been shot, for it was sharp work for the eyes. I am getting on all right now, but have been pretty bad."
Captain William Millner of the 1/5th South Staffords also narrowly avoided being killed while sniping on 5th May. One of the best shots in the country at that time, Millner was an excellent candidate for the role. While observing German movements from the barn of one of the farms close to the front line, he too was wounded by an enemy sniper. The bullet hit the cap badge of his service dress cap and creased his skull. Luckily, his injury was not serious and after a brief period of recovery returned to his battalion.
German snipers were also quarry for the Staffords, patrols being sent out into "No-Man's Land" to hunt them down. Sergeant Sydney Norton, a member of "C" Company, 1/6th North Staffords, reported the results of one such patrol in a letter to his wife in Tamworth:
"...me and another Sergt. the day before found a sniper. We watched his antics for two hours and I placed the rifle at him, bowled him over the third shot and then got back to our trench. It's clinking sport like looking for game. They are very smart. We saw a dead cow in front of our trench. We fired a volley into it and the next day the Sergts. went out and found a dead sniper inside it, so you can tell the antics of war craft they get up to."
The Messines Ridge, which overlooked the British front line, had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and as a result the Germans were able to use their artillery very effectively, shelling being a regular occurrence. The results of these bombardments could be devastating. On 6th May, Trench 8, positioned astride the Wulverghem-Messines Road, was subjected to a heavy bombardment that wounded nine men of the 1/5th South Staffords.
Sergeant J. Pitt, a member of "A" Company, vividly remembered the experience of being buried under debris as a result of the parapet of his trench being blown in by the shelling:
"The Germans shelled us out of our trenches and I got buried. They got me out after a lot of trouble, and I am very pleased to tell you that I am not hurt, only bruised all over me. I shall never forget the experience, for it was awful being buried alive. They only just got me out in time, for I could feel myself dying and it was awful being suffocated to death."
Despite his injuries, Sergeant Pitt was able to reorganise the garrison of the trench and was commended for his bravery.
Not all casualties caused by artillery fire were the result of German shells. On 29th April, 10B Trench, at that time held by "A" Company of the 1/5th South Staffords, was hit by a "short" fired from one of the supporting batteries near Kemmel. As a result, Private Bill Martin, a member of the Machine Gun Section and a friend of Private Sid Richards, was killed when his dug-out collapsed onto him after it was hit. Three other men in the trench, including Captain Bernard McCraith of 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, were wounded by shrapnel.
Sergeant Sydney Norton also narrowly escaped becoming a victim of the German artillery:
"They blew my dugout all to pieces and all that was inside it. I had come out just before the shell did its work and I ran to see if anyone was hurt. Only a Sergt. who was picking himself up was buried beneath some sandbags. Then our artillery started to work and blew about 80 yards of their trenches down. My men got into another trench and started to give them their supplies (Iron Rations).
I went and inspected my dugout the next day. All my belongings went west. I had a cake and a mashing of cocoa and a tin of dust out of your parcel saved, and myself, thank God. I didn't half shake hands with myself. They sent us about 12 shells over and that was all the damage they had done "
Mining operations had commenced shortly before the Staffordshire Brigade's arrival in the Wulverghem sector, the recently-formed 172nd Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers being active near Kruisstraat Cabaret, in front of the North Staffords, and also in the South Staffords sector close to Boyles Farm. However, more troops were required to assist the sappers and the Staffordshire Territorials formed a Brigade Mining Section. Potential recruits were not difficult to find as many of the men serving with the Brigade had been miners in peacetime.
The Brigade Mining Section was involved in defensive mining operations only, primarily counter-mining and exploding charges, known as camoflets, under the German tunnel to cause them to collapse. During one such operation, in the tunnel near Kruisstraat Cabaret on 27th April, a party of men from the Mining Section were overcome by carbon-monoxide fumes and had to be rescued.
172nd Tunnelling Company's diarist recorded the circumstances of the rescue:
"Camofleted the enemy from G1 gallery. Charge 100lbs ammonal at 3.25 p.m. Apparently successful as enemy were heard working when our men returned to fire charge. Lt. Daniels and Sgt. Harper entered gallery at 7 p.m. and were gassed. Rescue party of sappers and 1 officer from trench went down and got Lt Daniels and Sgt. Harper out. All were more or less badly gassed, Sgt. Harper died. Gallery was then bratticed and ventilated. 9 of the rescue party were recommended for D.C.M. (later awarded). 30 ft. enemy parapet destroyed."
One of the members of the rescue party was Private George Bennett of the 1/5th North Staffords:
"I was on mining duty when I discovered there was gas in the sap. I informed the officer in charge and three officers and one sergeant went to find out if it was fit to continue working in, and on entering the sap they were overcome. On knowing this, I and two more put a wet sandbag on over our heads and entered the sap to get them out. We got two officers out, and then we had to give up for a few minutes to get breath. After being driven back a few times we succeeded in getting the other officer out alive, and then I was overcome by gas myself, and remember no more until
half an hour later, when to my sorrow the other men told me that they had got to the Sergeant who was furthest in, and found he was dead."
Private W. Edwards, a soldier from Audley serving with the 1/5th North Staffords, also took part in the rescue attempt:
"Hearing a cry for volunteers to go to the assistance of some officers and one non-commissioned officer, I was the first to go, and succeeded in dragging one of the officers about eight yards when he got fast and I could not shift him. I tried all I could for about three minutes, and was almost overcome by gas, when another man came to my assistance. Feeling I could not do much more without a wet rag, I reached a wet sandbag and went back with the bag over my mouth to the other officer, whom we got back. Afterwards, I and one of the other chaps who had helped me with the officers became unconscious. Some of the other chaps worked splendidly also, but were too late to save the sergeant, who was a very nice non-com. The man who helped me got a D.C.M., but somehow I got missed. Never mind, I have the satisfaction of knowing I did the best I could."
Sergeant Thomas Harper was a pre - war member of the Tamworth Company of the 6th North Staffords and had served in South Africa between 1900-01 as a member of the 1st Volunteer Company of the North Staffords. He came from Glascote and had been employed as a miner at the Pooley Hall Colliery. He was buried in the cemetery near the remains of Kemmel Chateau, just behind the lines.
The "Tamworth Herald" of 8th May 1915 published a letter of condolence from his comrades:
"I regret to say that Sergt. T. Harper, No. 292, was killed in action on Tuesday night, April 27th. He is mourned by us as a big friend. We were all attached to him, for he proved himself a man. We gave him a fitting funeral, and as we are billeted close by, his grave will have every attention it needs. We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife and children in their sad loss. - Yours sincerely, Sappers R. Hill, A.T. Weston, T. West, A. Storer, W. Cockerham, J. Detheridge."
Sergeant Sydney Norton, in a letter to his wife dated 5th May, also expressed his sympathy to Sergeant Harper's widow:
"We are sorry about Sergt. Harper - he didn't get shot - it was hard lines he was found choked on his back with his false teeth. If you see his wife you can tell her she has our deepest sympathy from the Company."
The Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to nine members of the rescue party. All of the men received the same citation for their award:
"For conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on 28th April 1915, near Kemmel, when he took his turn with a few others in entering a mine gallery to rescue comrades who had been overcome by gas. The rescuing party persevered till all had been saved."
Six of those decorated came from the Staffordshire Brigade Mining Section:
3889 Private George Bennett, 1/5th North Staffords
1301 Private Roland Hill, 1/6th North Staffords
2885 Private L. Landon, 1/5th North Staffords
2682 Private E. Langford, 1/6th South Staffords
1826 Private Arthur Storer, 1/6th North Staffords
2283 Private Albert Thomas Weston, 1/6th North Staffords
The award of the medals, the first decorations to men of the Staffordshire Brigade, was a source of pride for their fellow Territorials, as Sergeant Norton remarked to his wife:
"We have had a concert and the General has presented the D.C.M.s to those three Tamworth chaps - Rowland Hill & Co. Very nice medals and something to be proud of too. We had a bit of a booze up on the strength of them I expect you will see all about them in the Herald."
The "Tamworth Herald" did print news of the awards, as well as a letter to the Mayor for the town from Captain John Jenkinson, the officer commanding "C" Company of 1/6th North Staffords:
"You will no doubt have seen in the papers of June 24th that three Tamworth men of "C" Company have been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (sic). The names of the men are 1301 Pte. R. Hill, 1826 Pte. A. Storer, 2283 Pte. A.T. Weston. These men have been honoured for the following reason. They came out with the 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment, and shortly afterwards with other volunteers were attached to the Royal Engineers mining corps. They have been engaged on mining operations at several parts of the firing line. A short time ago one of our mines was exploded. On the party of miners entering the mine after the explosion, several of their number were overcome with the fumes of gases in the mine. This was the occasion in which Sergt. T. Harper, of Tamworth, lost his life. The three men mentioned above were particularly daring in venturing into the mine and rescuing their comrades at great risk to themselves."
A new weapon had also made its appearance on the battlefield. On 22nd April, the Germans made their first gas attack far to the north of the North Midland Division in the Ypres Salient, commencing the Second Battle of Ypres. The wind carried the chlorine gas several miles to the south, causing some soldiers in Neuve Eglise to experience irritation to the eyes and sore throats. While the battle continued in the north, rudimentary anti-gas pads; cotton wool wrapped in gauze and soaked in chemicals, were issued to the units of the Brigade.
On the evening of 8th May, there was a gas alert in the North Midland Division's sector. It was later discovered that the alarm was caused by the sentry thinking the odour of a decomposing cow was chlorine gas. However, to men who were in the line that evening, the threat of being gassed was real enough at the time, as Lance-Corporal L. Brown, a Cannock man serving with "D" Company, 1/6th South Staffords recalled:
"At about 11.30 last night I was just about to wake up the relief sentries when I heard a cry coming down the line. At first I thought it was the usual call for "stretcher bearers", but when I heard what it really was a thrill went through me which it is impossible to describe. "GAS! GAS! GAS!" rang in my ears.
In an instant I was in the dugouts waking the reliefs, for this deadly poison hangs low. Then without a word we were wetting our respirators and getting them, our hands trembling with excitement, into position. Having done this, we stood with heads well above the parapet, and fired as fast as we could at the German trenches. Not one of us could fire as rapid again I feel certain. It seemed as if our hands were controlled by a supernatural power. I may mention that the idea of rapid fire is to disperse the gas. In a few seconds our artillery were playing on the German trenches, and what with flares going up, and the "rat-tat-tat" of machine guns, it was awe-inspiring. At last the order came to "cease fire", and of course the first thing we did was to light one. There was a lot of speculation about our wonderful ordeal. However, no-one, thank God, was gassed. Half of us said we tasted it, and the rest did not. But gas or no gas we fired for our lives..."
Private F.E. Arnott, of the same battalion, also described the experience:
"This time in the trenches has been our most exciting one. Last Tuesday night, the devils gave us a taste of their gas, but I am pleased to say it was quite a failure, although while it lasted it was most exciting. We were asleep when the cry of "Gas" was rang. Up I jumped and got out, while Vin pushed his head through the top of our dugout. Of course I was only half awake. It was a most exciting time, and it lasted half an hour, when we all turned in and slept again as if nothing had happened "
|However, despite the periods of shelling and sniping, life in the line was often tedious. The daily routine began and ended with "Stand-To", troops fixing bayonets prepared for any attack the Germans may make at dawn or as dusk settled over the fields. The rest of the day was spent digging and repairing the trenches, eating, and trying to catch up on sleep. Another activity that took up a lot of the soldier's time was dealing with body lice. Whatever the preferred method of execution; passing a lit match along the seams of clothing, using powders and ointments, or scratching themselves until raw, the lice were the bane of a soldier's existence, as Sergeant Norton explained:||
"We are beginning to find some reinforcements we call them Jaspers out here. You can see the chaps busy every day for about an hour. It's lying in these barns. You change everything clean and you are as bad the next day."
There were also more welcome contact with nature, as Private Sidney Richards noted in his diary:
13th April Lovely sunrise. Two little larks are singing to me. Had to go along the line to build a new gun pit.
On 12th May, the Staffordshire Brigade was retitled 137th (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade, with the North Midland Division becoming 46th (North Midland) Division. Later in the same month, the Staffords assumed the role of trainers in the arts of trench warfare. Units from 14th (Light) Division, a formation created as part of Kitchener's "New Army", arrived at Neuve Eglise for a period of trench instruction. Over the next two weeks, companies from 14th Division went into the line with the Territorials, who passed on their expertise to the men of Kitchener's Army in the same way that the men of 6th Division had done the previous March at Armentieres.
After carrying out a tour of duty in the front line, the battalions would march back to Neuve Eglise for a period of rest. However, the term "rest" was a misnomer, as Captain Wenger laconically observed:
" We do four days in, and then four days rest in a hutment camp, but even when resting we have all sorts of fatigues to find, and preparing for going in again. So it isn't exactly altogether a rest."
The Brigade's billets, Aldershot and Bulford Camps, were made up of newly erected huts with windows only on one side, those facing the German lines being blocked up. Straw was laid on the floor for bedding, while light was supplied by a single oil lamp suspended from the ceiling. Located in the camps were the R.E. Stores, from which tools were drawn to supply working parties both behind and in the front line trenches.
Working parties were often provided by the infantry, carrying out improvements and repairs both in the front line and in the rear areas. These tasks were carried out under the supervision of sappers from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company. Such task, especially when undertaken while out of the line during a period of "rest", were universally disliked by the Infantry. This situation was made even worse in the eyes of the average infantryman due to the higher rates of pay enjoyed by men of the Royal Engineers, as a contemporary rhyme suggested:
God made the bees,
The bees make the honey,
The Staffords do the work
And the R.E.'s get the money.
Sergeant Sydney Norton recounted his experiences as a member of one such fatigue party in a letter to his wife:
" I didn't go into the trenches. I had a worse job than I have had in my life behind the trenches burying dead cows, horses and pigs that have been dead for months, fair rotten, but the worst was we had to go out at ten o'clock till 2 a.m. in the morning, pitch dark and raining all the time - crawling about on our hands and knees till we could find them. Bullets were flying over our heads. The stench was awful. Then we found three dead bodies, 2 English and 1 Frenchman, to finish up with. Of course it did not affect one much, it was the men under me the biggest problem. I had to tell them they had got to do it or get shot at dawn. I loaded my rifle, that was enough. Of course I was only pulling their leg. As I have said you don't have to show any sympathy out here. When you are put a job to do its got to be done without any back chat. When I got back safely with the men I felt a bit sick with the stink on my stomach. We had some pills and then a hot bath and I begin to feel in the pink again ."
When not engaged on work parties, rest often meant a daily round of inspections, route marches and other duties. However, troops did have some time to relax. Sports, particularly football, had always been encouraged by the Army as a means of fostering unit pride, as well as maintaining morale. To this end, inter-unit football matches were organised between those troops out of the front-line.
One such match, played between 1/2nd North Midland Field Company and the Staffordshire Brigade Band, was the subject of a letter sent home printed in the "Cannock Advertiser" of 8th May:
"SPORT BEHIND THE TRENCHES - Local Footballers in Belgium.
The following letter, written on behalf of "The Cannock and Wyrley Boys", has been received:-
Sir, - Our boys would be very pleased if you could find a corner in your valuable paper to publish the following result of a football match played behind the trenches somewhere in Belgium, between the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company R.E. and the Brigade Band. The game opened well in favour of the R.E.'s and some good work was witnessed. Sergt. Stringer, in an endeavour to clear, gave a corner, which he afterwards cleared in fine style, and T. Whitehouse, who was playing back with Sergt. Stringer, saved an almost certain goal when hard pressed. S. Webster (of Stoke), played an excellent game, and was seen at his best in fine dashes. G. Fairbrother (of Stoke), was the first to open the score for the R.E.'s, after which Corporal Brockhurst missed a good chance for R.E.'s. The Band then got going, and T. Sault, the R.E. goalkeeper, saved an almost certain goal. Fairbrother forced a corner for the R.E.'s but Ridgway shot high. Half Time - R.E.'s, 1 Band, 0.
On resuming play, the Band got going, but some of their fine work was spoiled by the R.E.'s defence, Sergeant Stringer and T. Whitehouse, who proved too good for the Band forwards. Sapper Ridgway (of Cannock), played a good game at centre - half, and was responsible for some splendid midfield play. Bandsman Kendall played well for the Band, and kept the R.E.'s defence busy, putting in some fine shots. Webster forced a corner for the R.E.'s, and the same player only missed a goal by inches. Corpl. Brockhurst tried a shot, but it went wide, after which ensued mid-field play. Ridgway played a prominent part, till at last the R.E.'s got going and Webster scored. The Band worked hard to get away and missed another opportunity from a corner, but T.Whitehouse cleared. The Band struggled hard to reduce the arrears, but the R.E.'s defence proved to be too good. Webster scored again, and the R.E.'s won by 3 - 0.
The following was the R.E.'s team :- Goal, T. Sault backs, Sergt. Stringer and T. Whitehouse half-backs, Freakly, Ridgway and Lydall forwards, Somerton, Fairbrother, Webster, Corpl. Brockhurst and Hinton."
Concerts were also arranged, as Private Wilfred Sheard recalled:
"The ----------- regimental band came round our billets, and gave us a variable programme. I had the pleasure of playing one of the second cornets for a hymn tune, and one or two lively waltzes. One of them I couldn't quite catch. It was nearly all after beats, but I enjoyed it at the time "
Private Sheard also managed to put his artistic skills to good use while at Neuve Eglise. Several of his drawings of life in the front line were sent back to his home in Etruria and appeared in the local newspaper, "The Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel."
Religious services, including the traditional Church Parade, were also organised, as Lieutenant-Colonel Knight detailed:
"We have a most popular Brigade Chaplain, (Rev. Pratt of Wolverhampton, I think). Quite a large number of men came to a Holy Communion service in my headquarters hut yesterday, and we often get a church parade which they enjoy."
Basic bathing facilities had also been established close to the rest camps. In Kemmel, the vats of a local brewery had been utilised as a makeshift bathhouse, while others made of sheets of tarpaulin were erected in the barns of farms nearby. The soldier's clothing and shirts could also be boiled in an attempt to destroy the eggs of body lice in the seams, allowing the men at least a short respite from their torment.
The period spent out of the line also provided the opportunity for the men of the Brigade to write home, many letters being published in the regional press to satiate the desire for news of their local Territorials. All letters sent from France and Belgium were subject to censorship, certain information, such as place names and movements being either omitted or erased. Private Sheard made clear in a letter to his parents that;
"We are absolutely barred from mentioning any military places "
As well as recording their experiences in the front line, their letters often contained requests for comforts to be sent from home to ease their hardships. Lieutenant-Colonel Knight made one such appeal to the Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a letter that was subsequently published in the "Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel":
"You very kindly ask if you can send anything for the men. I don't like to beg, but the --------- have just been stopped, and when wet in the trenches, it is very nice to give them extra fare such as tinned café au lait, cocoa, soup tablets, apples; &c. I am now supplying these things to a small extent from money we have saved, but it is nearly exhausted, and they can be got better at home, as I believe the carriage is free from Southampton, and prices are ruinous here (sugar 7d per lb, eggs 3d each); but please don't spend a lot of money yourself. I am sure a short note to the "Sentinel" would bring all we want from our many friends at home."
Sergeant Sydney Norton made a similar appeal to his wife in Tamworth:
"When you send over again you might send me a towel and some emery cloth. You need not send any more Cigarettes we have hundreds of them sent to us and got plenty of time to smoke them and we have plenty of Rum but we cannot get any Beer where we are. Never seen any for 8 days. Almost forgot how it tastes I shall be teetotal when I come over being going without so long.
I think Tamworth people are a miserable lot. Since we have been in this country have not received a single thing not even a Herald. I don't know what we should have done if it wasn't for the Lichfield people. They are sending something almost every week from Lichfield towns-folk. They send books and papers and footballs, mouth organs etc. Dear, I had a box of Cigarettes come the other day. It was from Birmingham on the postmark. There was no letter in it, so I don't know who it's from. I wondered if it was from one of my old girls (don't get your hair off). They smoke alright. I think I will send you one over".
Others, such as Private Stephen Lounds, a soldier from Tipton serving with "B" Company of the 1/6th South Staffords, wished to reassure their relatives and friends at home:
May 6/5/15 Pte S W Lounds
No 2679 B Comp
1/6 S Staffs
British Expeditionary Force
Just a lines in answer to your most welcome letter and woodbines. Lily, I have just heard off Albert that your mother is worrying herself to death over us but tell her it goes hard with us when we here that they am put so much about but try and cheer her up as you know that someone as got to come and save there country and it was in our heart to join for true so tell her from me she as got two good lads who are fighting for there country and that they are in good health and hearty so I think I have said all this time.
From your ever loving friend
So don't forget to write back and tell me she is in good health and not worried about us so good night and god bless you all.
In June, 46th Division had been ordered north to the Ypres Salient. 137th Brigade was relieved by 149th (Northumberland Fusiliers) Brigade of 50th (Northumbrian) Division on 25th June and began their march to new billets at Ouderdom. The Staffordshire Brigades' ten-week occupation of the sector was at an end, although several of their number were to remain as silent sentinels in nearby cemeteries.
A Committee of Officers: War History of the 6th Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment (T.F.), Heinemann, 1924.
Andrew Thornton: "Norton's Terriers" - A History of 1/2nd North Midland (later 466th) Field Company, Royal Engineers (T.F.) in the Great War, Privately Published, 1996.
Lieutenant Walter Meakin: The 5th North Staffords and the North Midland Territorials (46th and 59th Divisions) 1914-1919, Hughes and Harber Ltd, Longton, 1920.
1/5th Bn, South Staffordshire Regiment
1/6th Bn, South Staffordshire Regiment
1/5th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment
1/6th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment
1/2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers
172nd Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers
Letters and Diaries:
Letters of Sergeant Sydney Norton (Staffordshire Regiment Museum)
Diary of Private (later Second-Lieutenant) Sidney Richards (Mr R. Richards)
Newspapers (Various issues printed during 1915):
The Cannock Advertiser (Cannock Reference Library)
The Express and Star (Wolverhampton Reference Library)
The Lichfield Mercury (Lichfield Reference Library)
The Staffordshire Advertiser (William Salt Library, Stafford)
The Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel (Hanley Reference Library)
The Tamworth Herald (Tamworth Reference Library)
The Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle (Walsall Local
Click here for an email link to the author of this article, Andrew Thornton
Copyright © Andrew Thornton, January, 2000.
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