Messines Sector - Flanders 16th Btn. Royal Irish Rifles - Pioneers.
At the end of July the 36th Ulster Division was sent back into the line and all the moves of the 16th Battalion were to bring it into support positions around Neuve Eglise opposite enemy positions on the Messines Ridge.
The Battalion had grown accustomed to the terrain in the Picardy region of France. Now they were to encounter the fairly flat low lying terrain of Flanders with its water table problems that made defensive position, road construction and maintenance methods a very different proposition.
Flanders – August 1916 to December 1916.
During August the entire 36th Division were committed to the Front and pioneering work gathered pace. Everywhere there was water just below the surface and even on the highest ground this was encountered within a few feet. Communication trenches could only be dug down a couple of feet, so construction had to be above ground by piling earthworks or sandbags to the required heights.
The war diaries describe August as being routine work but with increased enemy shelling and resultant higher casualties.
Summary as follows:
- 4th August: Several shells fell near No. 3 Company’s farm and two hit it killing all the mules and wounding the company commander’s charger. Some rifles and equipment were damaged and a fire exploded some ammunition. The men sheltered in the basement of a house until shelling was over.
- 6th August: Two companies relocated from Bulford to Le Grande Munque Farm to get closer to work. It could hold about 400 men and was about 2000 yards behind the front line.
- 7th August: Battalion HQ moved to a point south of Petit Pont and camped there.
- No.4 Coy’s work assignment moved from Subsidiary Line to Gas Trench.
- 13th August: Artillery active from both sides.
- 14th August: GOC visited trenches and expressed approval of progress.
- 19th August: A note of irritation in the war diary entry. “Without previous warning our artillery started a bombardment. The Boche retaliated killing 2 men and wounding 3 of No. 2 Company also wounding 3 men of No.3 Company, one of whom died later from his wounds.
- 23rd August: 3 NCOs and 33 men were assigned to construct emplacement for a mortar battery.
- 24th August: A sentry from No.3 Company challenged another man of No.2 Company and getting no reply, bayoneted him. The injured man was sent to hospital.
- 26/27th August: All available men in Battalion, about 300, were used to carry gas cylinders up to the front line trenches each night.
- 30/31st August: Gas attack on enemy took place at 0130 accompanied by a bombardment and a raid.
- 31st August: There was general retaliation by the enemy all day and No.1 Company was shelled on its way to the trenches. Another small gas attack on the enemy was carried out that night
Also during the month 2 officers and 44 ORs were attached to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company for work on Hill 63. This involved digging two galleries into its steep southern slope capable of holding two battalions completely safe from any form of artillery fire.
An amusing incident was reported in Colonel Leader’s Memoirs.
After he left one of the billets he had been occupying, his landlady complained to Divisional HQ that a grandfather cuckoo clock was missing. The following correspondence took place:
- HQ to Leader: Can you offer any explanation?
- Leader to HQ: No.
- HQ to Leader: The GOC desires that you answer this question more fully.
- Leader to HQ: No I can’t.
- HQ to Leader: The GOC considers your answer most impertinent. Kindly send more particulars about this cuckoo clock.
- Leader to HQ: Cuckoo; cuckoo; cuckoo.
It then transpired that the lady’s son-in-law not trusting the British had removed the clock before the colonel’s occupation.
So he sent off a final message:
Leader to HQ: Soldiers I am innocent, the cuckoo clock has been found.
Later an officer from the Division on leave met a relative of the Colonel who asked him if he knew John Leader, to which he replied: “Oh yes, everyone knows the cuckoo colonel”.
Colonel Leader was suffering from injuries received when his dugout was blown in and eventually on the 8th August he allowed the Medical Officer to evacuate him to No.12 Casualty Clearing Station and he was returned to the UK.
His place as Commanding Officer was taken by Major Meares, who was promoted to Temporary Lt Colonel in September.
Casualties for August reported as:
Other Ranks 2 killed, 6 wounded and 1 died from wounds.