Narrywoolan*

June 1916, France.


On June 7th 1916, along with Charley, one officer and 249 other ranks left Weymouth for France. Charley first went to the 2nd Division Base Depot at Etaples and finally rejoined the 24th Battalion on 22nd June at Rue Marle, just outside Armentières near the Belgian boarder in northern France.


In the previous 12 months since had Charley left the 24th in Egypt they had landed at Gallipoli on 4th September 1915, and there spent the next 16 weeks defending the trenches at Lone Pine. With the rest of the Anzacs they evacuated Gallipoli on 19th December 1915 and returned to Egypt. They then proceeded to France in March 1916. After disembarking at Marseille the were taken by train to the outskirts of Paris to Robecq before heading to the front at Fleurbaix in Flanders.


After four weeks there they next were sent to L’Halle-o-Beau near Armentières. Most of their time was spent improving defenses, digging trenches, laying communication cables, erecting gun screens and wire entanglements. Although not at the front there were still shrapnel shells exploding and bullets flying around.


The following from “The Red and White Diamond” by Sergeant W J Harvey, M.M. The Authorised History of the Twenty-fourth Battalion A.I.F. (1920), describes the next two weeks leading up to the battle at Pozières Ridge.

The whole front was becoming more active every day. Raids were organised and carried out successfully, gas attacks were resorted to by both sides, and the artillery displayed a stronger inclination to knock things about. The British offensive on the Somme was to commence on 1st July, and the whole front showed signs of increased energy. Our guns and trench mortars bombarded the German positions frequently, provoking Fritz to return the compliment. Aeroplanes were numerous. Large squadrons of battleplanes from the British aerodromes steered over the line and above the city of Lille to bomb enemy stores, railways and camps. It was here that we first witnessed the thrilling spectacle of an observation balloon on fire. A British plane, in one brilliant swoop over the German positions, fired three German balloons. The sight so delighted the boys that even in the front line they cheered loudly. The loss of the three balloons and the sounds of cheering threw Fritz into a violent rage. He shelled us viciously, and we stood to arms expecting an attack. "D" Coy., in a sharp salient on the left of the Battalion sector, was in a hot corner, and the 22nd Battalion was in a similar position on our right. The artillery duel lasted till 2.30 a.m. Our stretcher bearers were busy that night. German searchlights, star shells, and signals made a spectacular display. Next morning the C.O. inspected the front line, and was so pleased to find everything satisfactory that he promised a coffee ration and extra rum.

Rt. Hon. W. M. Hughes, with Lieutenant Colonel W. W. R. Watson, watching the 24th Battalion marching past some of their billets near Croix du Bac, south of Armentières on 1st June 1916. It was in this quiet sector of the line that the I Anzac Corps was first employed.

I have not be able to find any other contemporary images relating to the battalions trek through France, instead I’ve used the various WW1 trench maps available online to give some perspective of the locations and events.

Tuesday July 4th

Rue Marle. - A brisk bombardment during the day, mostly counter battery work. We are to be relieved at night. A raid on the German lines on our right is timed for midnight. We must have the “change over" complete before that hour. To be caught in the communication trench by the enemy guns that will burst forth at the call of his S.O.S. would mean heavy casualties.

The success of a change over depends mainly on the relieving forces. They must man the positions before the out-going troops can “stand down" and take their departure.

Armentières trench map. The blue lines are the trenches, by the time the 24th arrived at Rue Marle on 12 June the front line had moved a couple of miles away to La Chapelle Armentières. Charley reached Rue Marle on June 22nd.

Wednesday July 5th

La Creche - Some of the relieving companies are late through blocks in the traffic. The communication trenches are narrow, and companies going in and out on different duties hinder one another. Having to squeeze past each other with their heavy loads of equipment and material, progress is slow. Men become irritable through delay; grousing is general; the language takes on a lurid expression. In a few minutes hell will break loose. The last platoons are still squeezing and doubling along the saps. A big gun booms; a battery roars; in an instant the dark, quiet earth becomes a volcano. The country is lit up by the flashing of fire and the smoke of explosives rises like clouds in a storm. Shells are screaming and bursting. We have half a mile further before we are out of the danger zone, so we hustle with our loads, tripping, falling, and cursing as we go.


In the early hours of the morning we are trudging through the ruins of Armentières. Our destination is La Creche, 12 miles away. We march or plod on in groups all the rest of the night. Daylight finds us scattered on the roads. Some have pressed on, others are done up and are resting. Some are looking for food at a friendly house here and there on the way. Children sell us cakes and chocolates. Up till 8 a.m. the stragglers keep drifting into the rendezvous, while the company cooks, who had gone ahead, keep the fires burning and the breakfast going for the late comers. Blistered feet, sickness, or heavy loads are the causes of some men's slowness in reaching the billets. Hunger appeased, the troops quickly fall asleep on their beds of straw. Everybody is dog tired. It is a day of inactivity save for necessary duties. Active service never permits everybody to rest at the same time.


Thursday July 6th

Le Creche. - There is work to do. Fatigue parties are called out early for construction work on defences and roads. One party sets out with fighting equipment, picks and shovels, for a job near the Belgian border. The officer in charge takes the wrong road, and marches "off the map.” The party arrives at the work in time to start back to the billets.


Friday July 7th

Le Creche. - Many of the men go on leave to Bailleul in the afternoon.


Pvt Cliff Ellis & Cpl John Gear 24th Batt

Saturday July 8th  

Strazeele. - The Division is on the move. We march to Strazeele and billet there for the night.


Sunday July 9th  

Ebblinghem. - We are off again. The weather is warm. Our packs are heavy, for we are carrying blankets as well as all our other gear, including 120 rounds of small arms ammunition. We plod along the railway all the way. Trains pass us frequently. Why cannot we ride? Much honest sweat is lost. Many of the troops fall out, unable to keep up.

We camp for the night at Ebblinghem. At our billet the old Flemish farmer makes a fuss because some of the men bathe their sore feet in his duck pond. The lads threaten to raid his orchard if he does not display a little more hospitality. The old man puts his son on guard in the barn to prevent the troops smoking cigarettes on the hay. He might as well use his hat to extinguish a bushflre.

The soldiers, exceedingly fatigued, “turn in” early, and the rumble of the guns they have left behind lulls them to sleep - excepting at one particular farm, where a company of our infantry and some engineers fight for the possession of a rough barn in which a dog would not consider himself stylishly housed.

Monday July 10th

Wardrecques. - On again to Wardrecques. On the strength of the news that we are to entrain next day, the men make merry. There are some lively scenes in the estaminets. Our blankets, which we have carried for three days on the hard roads, are now taken from us. (This and other hardships do not please us.) Arguments arise in the billets through the bad temper of the men. Anzacs fight with reinforcements. Several heads are bandaged.


Tuesday July 11th

St. Sauveur - We march to Arques and entrain. Whither are we going? There is general ignorance on this important subject. Only the senior officers know. “Furphies” are rampant. Everybody has some “good oil.” First we are going to Calais to embark for Ireland—Garrison work. That is a great idea. Visions of colleens and Irish homes set us singing songs of Shamrock themes. Another “furphy” is that we are going to rest at Boulogne or Etaples for a month or two. As the slow train drags on we rock in the rough trucks. Calais dies away in the distance. Boulogne looms up and fades from view. It must be Etaples, for the Australians have a large training base here. The train pulls up right at the depot. We are awaiting orders to detrain.

Then we are aroused from our dreams. The train is moving. The truth dawns upon us in a flash. The Somme!

These men are too brave to allow any sudden change of feeling to manifest itself. Jests and song continue. But gradually the gaiety is subdued by the thoughts of home

and the possibilities of the near future. But these thoughts too, soon pass. Abbeville, with its cheering populace, sees our boys a few hours later flushed with the idea of battle.

They are noisier than ever. The railway yards at Amiens show us long trains of wounded from the Push. These wounded men—French, English, Scotch, Algerian—all smiles and good humour, cheer us past. In a few days we may be on one of these hospital trains, or perhaps -!

But, there, why think of that? We must take our chances. We are vainly searching for that mythical army quantity - the unexpended portion of the day's rations - when the train pulls up at a siding outside Amiens, and we hear our officers shouting orders. The only fear we have is that there maybe another route march. Alas! how fully our fears are realised, for soon we are on the road again, struggling with packs and heavy fighting equipment. When we start we know not when we are going to stop. These tramps are a delightful pastime! They are the nightmare of a soldier's life.

What a drum like roll of guns! What a chain of observation balloons! What a haze of smoke! And we are over 20 miles from the battle front.

At midnight we are still marching. The troops are given more frequent spells. At 2 a.m., after marching for five hours we arrive at St. Sauveur, a town through which the train had taken us seven or eight hours earlier.


Wednesday July 12th  

St. Sauveur - The troops are searching the town for bread and other articles of food to supplement their rations. The transport columns, guns, troops, and all the general paraphernalia of war, are moving in every direction; and on the railway in the valley trains are passing back from the front with loads of wounded. Hospital barges, carrying the worst cases, glide smoothly down the canal to Rouen.


Thursday July 13th  

St. Sauveur  - Our Division practises an attack. We will soon be in the “ Big Push." Ailly-sur-Somme, a village a few kilometres along the river, is the popular rendezvous of the Australians in the evening. The whole Division appears to be there; the place is jammed full of troops. Two days are spent in preparations for action.

Sunday July 16th  

Rainneville - While the church bells are ringing for morning worship we move off towards the front. We march through Bertangles, and camp for the night at Rainneville. This village is well named—it is raining torrents. The noise of the battle does not seem far away. But still the church bells ring, and the women wend their way along the slushy roads to evening worship. The only French men in sight are aged and feeble. France is at war, and that means all fit men to the colours. At Rainneville a woman declares she has been robbed of

400 francs. A whole Battalion is lined up for the possible identification of the supposed thief, but the woman fails to recognise anyone. The men are dismissed. The authorities doubt whether she ever had 400 francs, but they give her the benefit of the doubt and pay her that sum.


Monday July 17th

Rainneville - An English Division, which has already been through the “ Push " once and has been back reorganizing for a second turn, is passing through our village to the battle. The men show signs of strenuous marching. An English Bantam Unit is also encountered. One of these men, in characteristic “chum” language, remarks, “ We met the Prussian Guards at Contalmaison. We hopped over at the ------, and they gave us -----."

Tuesday July 18th

Toutencourt - On again, to Toutencourt—“ A day's march nearer hell.” Here we meet the 29th British Division, which was associated with the Anzacs at the Dardanelles.

They also are in the “ Push." The night is intensely cold. Our men, having no blankets, cannot sleep. They are forbidden to light fires, for lights would be observed by enemy aeroplanes. It is a trying time. One company lights a fire, and the fire guard turns out. The offenders are promised that they will be punished. The boys sing and whistle till they exhaust their repertoire of tunes. Then everybody gets miserable. Thoughts of home are hard to keep out of one‘s mind at such times. One man finds a stretcher and throws himself upon it. A mate remarks, “You need to be careful. Those stretchers are so comfortable that men have died on them.” We shiver all night and welcome the relief daybreak brings.

Wednesday July 19th

Toutencourt  - We are informed of the methods we will adopt in an assault on the enemy as soon as our turn comes to "go in." We practise a charge with the different units in their allotted positions.

The following two maps with the green outline have been sourced from the McMaster University Library. Clicking on them will take you to the full size version stored there.

Sadly on the map above Toutencourt is less than 3 miles from Charley’s final resting place at Puchevillers, just 11 days later.

Thursday July 20th

Varennes. - We are off again, this time to Varennes. Our next move will be into battle. We are able to appreciate with more feeling than inspired the poet the words, “ Far flashed the red artillery," for at night the northern sky-line is illuminated by the continuous glare of flashing guns and bursting shells, the locality of the battle being vividly indicated by the more lurid reflection.


Every day fresh batches of German prisoners are being brought from the front and placed in prison camps near Varennes. Our boys go over to have a look at Fritz. The Huns are sullen and have evidently had a rough time. One of our men, looking at a Hun through the barbed wire asks, "What do you think of the British lion now, Fritz ?" He hardly expected a reply, as he doubted whether any of the prisoners could speak English. Imagine his surprise, and also his wrath, when the German promptly answered in perfect English. “He is like you—all mouth!"” Our man wanted to fight that Hun, but the guard hunted him off.

We waited anxiously for our call to the fray, every day being occupied with the most careful preparation. For instance, the medical officer advised all the men to have their hair cut as short as possible, so that head wounds could be more easily dressed. Some of the lads, who were more than ordinarily proud of their locks, refused to be “clipped.” So, for the sport of the performance, organised parties of hefty men captured them, dragged them to the " shearing shed," and removed their lovely curls. There were exciting chases after boys who bolted to evade the barbers. If a man struggled much, he would be held till the barber ran the clippers once across his head, from the forehead to the back of the neck, leaving a bare track like a path through a wheat crop. He would then be released. The disfigurement, of course, drove him to submit to the completion of the job.

Private Charles Benjamin Hall, 887. D Company, 24th Battalion AIF.

1889 - 1916

PART TWO

The following WW1 trench maps have been sourced from National Library of Scotland. Clicking on the maps with the blue outline will take you to the map on their website. There you can compare them to a present day map and zoom to other areas.