Relocations 16th Btn. Royal Irish Rifles - Pioneers.
The Move to France.
On the 1st October at 1900 the Battalion left camp at Bordon for embarkation at Southampton but on arrival no one knew anything about it and there was no transport awaiting them. This proved quite a common problem over the next month or so.
They had to eat their rations while further food was sought for them and spend an uncomfortable night sleeping at the docks.
Next day the Empress Queen arrived to take them across the channel. The ship was licensed to carry 600 passengers between Greenwich and London Bridge whereas the battalion was over 1000 strong and the vessel was crossing the English Channel not plying between points in the River Thames. Despite a gale blowing they crossed safely and arrived in Le Havre.
Once again no one knew anything about the unit but it was eventually sent to tented accommodation and a hot meal organised and the men had to dig trenches around their tents as it was raining. Despite an order to move to entrain for the front Colonel Leader insisted the men had their hot meal first.
On arrival at the station it was no surprise that no one was expecting them, but eventually Colonel Leader was informed of an incoming train which would be put at their disposal. Again the CO got his men to a Red Cross canteen and fed before boarding the train. Apparently there was a bit of a commotion at the Red Cross Unit as it was run by Miss Lloyd George, daughter of the Prime Minister (the Home Rule instigator) and the men preferred to go hungry rather than give her any business. So they were directed to the girl serving on the other side of the station “same firm but you needn’t tell them that”, was the advice given and the men got their meal.
At 1000 on the 4th October the train left on a 130km journey to Longueau on the outskirts of Amiens, arriving at 1900. As usual they were unexpected and there was no information regarding their destination. Fortunately the CO met an officer from the Division who gave him general directions to Villers Bocage on the Amiens-Doullens Road. They marched on, passing through Amiens, and arrived at their destination around midnight. The war diaries do not reveal any more details of the journey but they must have met a divisional advance party and perhaps one of their own battalion representative possibly one for each of the 4 companies, Headquarters and Transport.
They spent the next 7 days (4th to 11th October) in this village giving them a chance to settle after their journey. They were assigned light carpentry work and built a road for the Casualty Clearing Station.
A Church Service on Sunday 10th October was conducted by Captain A Gibson, appointed by his church in Lurgan as officiating chaplain to the Battalion and who was now billeted with them, but also attended to some other units.
The remainder of the time must have been spent sorting out their tools and equipment together with loads for their pack mules and other transport arrangements for their future operations.
The sound of gunfire was never far away and indeed the village had already been overrun and occupied by the Germans in the initial onslaught before the establishment of trench warfare brought it back under Allied control.
The campaign was soon to start and on 12th October the Battalion marched about 8 miles to be based at Raincheval and camped there to work on an army defence line in that area. This was about 7 miles from the firing line and was in a shocking sanitary state having been taken over from the French.
The village was in a low lying hollow and the men were billeted in barns and other surrounding buildings with an ample supply of straw underfoot. Such was the progress of the pioneer’s work that on 1st November the Battalion regimental canteen, library and reading room were opened. The Officers Mess and Battalion Headquarters were seemingly located in Raincheval Chateau.
The 20th October marked the first anniversary of the founding of the Battalion and was celebrated by a smoking concert at headquarters and smaller events in other detachments. RSM J Gordon sent a very detailed report on the central event to the Lurgan Mail.
On the 21st October the unit was inspected by the Second Army Sanitary Officer and although the war diary does not record his report, again RSM Gordon writing to the Lurgan Mail recorded that “he made a most complimentary report on the sanitation and added that our work should serve as a pattern to the rest of the army”. Thus we begin to see evidence of the professionalism and pride in their work by this exceptionally fine Battalion.
Third Army Defence Line 14th October 1915 to 28th December 1915
The Battalion was now tasked with work on the Third Army Defence Line which initially covered a length of about 3,600 yards extending from a position south east of Toutencourt to Creftel Wood.
Half the Battalion under the command of Major Bowen was moved to Toutencourt to cover work in the area of the Raincheval to Vauchelles Road. It was very hard work and an 8 hour day would have exhausted the strongest of men. It must be noted that they had no excavating or levelling machines so everything was done by hand with manual tools.
The ground consisted of heavy clay for a few yards then sand, limestone and chalk.
Work continued every day in the week except for the odd half day for the very important tasks of washing clothes and bathing.
At the same time No 2 Company under the command of Captain SJ Platt was sent to Vignacourt about 5 miles west of Villers Bocage to cut down forest and prepare various timber components for use in the construction of earthwork defences by the rest of the Battalion.
Further sites were allocated on the 20th October.
Small parties were attached in rota to the 8th Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers who were also a pioneer battalion to give the officers and men experience of operations at the front under enemy fire. This gave them experience in erecting barbed wire defences – Wiring as it was termed.