Billets : The Battery would certainly have heard the offensive from their….

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In mid-July 1915 the Battery undertook intensive training in river crossings near Morbecque with the Battery achieving a record 1 hour and 17 minutes for moving the entire battery and Ammunition Column across a canal (beating the average time of 1 hour 30 minutes).

Swimming and tug-of-war was enjoyed in, and over, the canal; the men never missed an opportunity to enjoy themselves. On 2 August the Battery, with the rest of the Brigade, went to the seaside for a ‘holiday’.

En route manoeuvres were carried out before arriving in Mardyk, about four miles from Dunkirk.

For three days the men enjoyed bathing in the surf, the cavalry officers raced their mounts along the sands and a local estaminet was drunk dry – literally: ‘Estaminet near sea front soon drunk out of beer, and men started to drink wine and spirits and drunk place dry.

Very wet night, slept in open, wet through.’ Returning to rest areas the Brigade was tasked with digging trenches at the front (a job that would last six days) about three miles from Poperinghe.

At times the men were witness to full scale attacks against the German lines and had to shelter from spotter aircraft as well as enemy fire.

Exposed and hardly armed, the men must have felt impotent whilst digging the sodden ground.

At one point the wagon lines of the 9th Brigade was shelled resulting in 4 dead, 49 wounded and casualties among the horses.

But once again, the Battery remained unscathed.

But two days later Lieutenant Woodhouse, a popular officer, became the Battery’s first fatality: late at night he ‘… was killed by an explosive shell.

It appears that Lieutenant Woodhouse and a Belgian officer were standing near a trench mortar when a shell dropped between them and “wiped them both out”’. Digging duties over, the Battery began to re-train on another type of gun – the 13-pounder Quick Firing field gun – prior to delivery of new guns to replace the tired 15-pounders.

A gun was borrowed from ‘H’ Battery RHA for training.

On 23 August 1/1 Warwickshire RHA’s new guns arrived from England.

But instead of the 13-pounders that had been expected the Battery received four 18-pounders, guns normally employed by Royal Field Artillery batteries, which supported infantry.

This gun fired an 18-pound shell to a maximum range of 6,250 yards; in addition to the improved performance the gun could fire a high explosive shell (one which detonates on impact with the ground) as well as the standard shrapnel round.

A few days were allowed for familiarisation (the 18-pounder and 13-pounder were very similar in many respects and re-training would have not been needed) and gun drill prior to deployment. Supporting a cavalry division meant that the Battery spent much time in reserve, waiting for the breakthrough for the cavalry to exploit.

The Division practiced with the cavalry what would be done when the German line was broken during the next major engagement of the war: the ill-fated and very costly Battle of Loos.

Once again the move to the front was fitful; the roads were heavily congested with other units on the march.

And once again, after six days of travelling the Battery found itself, along with the supported cavalry of the 9th Brigade, in reserve.

The Battery would certainly have heard the offensive from their billets in railway rolling stock at sidings near Arles, officers in the carriages, other ranks in the cattle trucks, which was probably the best accommodation they had had since arriving in France ten months previously. (Unfortunately each morning the train would depart for its day’s work and not return until the evening, meaning all personal equipment had to be unloaded for the day.) Nearby was a large hospital used for military casualties and the cavalry and Battery sent working parties to assist in the wards or in burial details: this was disconcerting, but necessary and worthwhile work. Newcomers arrived at the Battery from England.

Nothing has been discovered to suggest that any but Warwickshire men, or at least men who lived in Warwickshire, served with the Battery in its earlier operational years and it is therefore likely that these new arrivals were from 2/1 Warwickshire RHA in Leamington.

The new soldiers were given training and exercising and gun drills were carried out where possible during the desultory movement around the countryside.

By the end of October the Battery was withdrawn to its winter billets and was quartered at Sequires, about eight miles from Boulogne.

But before long, constant movement from reserve billet to reserve billet began again.

Eventually the Battery came into action in December to support various actions.

The men returned to action and spent a ‘settled’, but dangerous, period in action at Le Philosophe between Bethune and Lens until mid-February 1916.

On 23rd February the Battery again moved to the rear and billeted at Halighen near Boulogne.

A fortnight later another move brought the men to Samer.

Although men had been lost to enemy action, the Battery was required to send thirty men to augment a Royal Field Artillery battery that had sustained greater casualties. The late-winter and early-spring was spent in training and consolidation for the battery and changes were made among the officers.

On 26th March 1916 Major Gemmell left the Battery on promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and his position as Battery Commander was taken by Major Murray, previously the Battery’s adjutant.

Three months later, the local press reported: ‘Major W A Murray commanding Warwickshire RHA has been awarded the DSO [Distinguished Service Order].

He writes most glowing accounts of his Battery, which has been very heavily engaged, and has suffered terribly in both men and officers… Colonel Gemmell DSO, who took them [the Battery] out, is in command of a Brigade of RFA …’ The phrase ‘suffered terribly in both men and officers’ should be read in context.

By the time of this report the Battery had sustained just two fatalities (Gunner H C Collingbourne from Coventry and Lieutenant Woodhouse), the number of men lost wounded or sick is unknown, but is likely to have been high.

The reason for the seemingly low casualty rate is that the Battery supported cavalry, an arm that had not been used as widely as had been anticipated at the war’s start. (What must also be taken into account is the number of men who finished their four year engagement and left the Battery to return home).compared with other RHA and RFA batteries 1/1 Warwickshire RHA had, until this time, fared quite well.

But the time would come when the Battery would ‘suffer terribly’. Still in reserve, the Battery remained near Samer until mid-June 1916 where it was made up to six guns.

On the evening of 24th June 1916 the Battery began a long and slow move to the front together with the rest of 1st (to which the Battery belonged) and 3rd Cavalry Divisions, arriving at Querrieu, near the Headquarters of the Fourth Army.

Preparatory artillery fire would have been heard by the men but no one in the Battery would be aware that they were on the verge of the British Army’s worst ever day: the first day of the Somme.

It was said that the bombardment could be heard in Warwickshire. On 1st July 1916 the Battery moved forward to the front and halted at La Vieville, about four miles from Albert, but again the Battery found itself in reserve, stood to amongst the flood of front-bound troops and rearward-bound casualties.

Harry Fox recorded the passage of wounded and intimates the enormous logistical preparations made for this huge attack: ‘On [the] way back a great number of wounded passed us, and a railway, specially built for the attack, brought down a great train of trucks (about 100 trucks in all) filled with wounded.’ The Battery was withdrawn to reserve at Querrieu again and then further back due to congestion in the area, until on 10th August, over six weeks since their initial moves to the Somme battle, they arrived near the coast with Dieppe and Treport close by, where they remained until 6 September when 1st Cavalry Division was ordered forward with the Battery eventually coming into action nine days later when it suffered casualties.

For nearly two months the Battery remained in action and was finally withdrawn to reserve with the rest of the 1st Cavalry Division. On 29th November 1916 the Battery transferred to the 29th Divisional Artillery joining B and L Btys RHA and 460 (Howitzer) Bty in XV Bde RHA in exchange for Y Bty RHA which joined the 9th Cavalry Brigade.

Although the Divisional Artillery War Record gives the details of the exchange, it does not give a reason why it should have happened.

However, an officer with 1/1 Warwickshire RHA at the time (G R G Mure) recalled that the exchange was at the Battery’s own request, which seems strange, but one that was granted by higher command.

What brought about the request is not known, of course.

It is possible that the Battery was feeling left out of things and the chance to swap to supporting an infantry division would give it more experience and the chance of more action.

Whatever the reasons may have been this exchange was to be a watershed for the Battery – following its association with 29th Division it would sustain over ninety per cent of its war fatalities. The Battery was soon in action at Leuze Wood, near Combles (having taken over a position from the French) where the weather conditions and the mud were appalling.

The deep mud had, however, its advantages at times even though the conditions overall were bad: ‘Ground by guns in a terrible state, shell holes every few yards.

Aeroplanes bomb us one night and [we] are shelled the next.

Ground so soft do little damage … mud dreadful and men get stuck and have to be helped out.’ (Figure 9).

The Battery was then in action continuously.

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