September 15th 1917

Capt. Tom Sheepshanks (Norfolks) has been attached to the 11th Suffolks, who last month took part in operations to capture a series of German positions, which formed the advance elements of the Hindenburg Line. I think it can be said that they met with singular success:

“We had a champagne dinner the night before we moved up and I remember quite well – well. I think we had better leave it at that; we are digressing.

Zero day was Sunday August 26th, and on Friday we moved up towards the line and bivouacked in a copse… Friday night the other Coy Commander and I walked up to BHQ and went out to reconnoitre the jumping off place, which was a sunken road some distance in front of our line. Saturday we spent sleeping and dishing out bombs, flares etc.

Zero hour was fixed for 4.30 a.m. Sunday morning and we had to be in position by 2 a.m., so we gave the men a hot meal about 11 o’clock at night with a good tot of rum in their tea, under the influence of which I made them a patriotic speech and we then moved off. The intelligence officer had been out earlier in the evening and marked the respective company frontages with pegs marked with luminous paint, so we all got into position quite happily…

The only worry was the cooing of the carrier pigeons and the violent blasphemies of the signallers in charge of them. The noise those beastly birds made was something outrageous and the signaller made it even worse by threatening in a raucous whisper to wring their blank blank necks unless they shut up. I shut him up and the birds quieted down…

Punctually at 4.30 the machine gun barrage opened up and a few seconds later the 18 pounders let fly. We were attacking on a three company front, mine being in the centre, and my company’s objective was a place called Malakoff Farm, with a line of trenches in front of the farm and another behind it.

The barrage was all shrapnel and we followed it at a distance of about 30 yards; the ground wasn’t cut up and the going was good. Eventually we reached the wire or what was left of Fritz’s front line. Our heavies had knocked the trench and wire absolutely flat, so we found no one there.

That was our first objective and the leading wave stopped there and started to consolidate. The rest of the company went on…

A few moments later we got up to our final objective, waited for the barrage to lift and then rushed it. That was where we scored so much by following the barrage closely. He had two or three m.g’s there, but we were on him so quickly that he only got one into action and that didn’t fire long. Fritz showed no fight at all. He either ran away or put up his hands.

One of them was quite pathetic. He was so keen to surrender that he evinced a desire to embrace and kiss me. I kicked him over the back of the trench and went on to dug-out just beyond, which seemed to promise something. We raked ten men out of it and last of all, to my intense delight, an officer with a beautiful automatic and a pair of Zeiss. He seemed unwilling to give them up to my Corporal at first. He thought better of it a second or two later. That Corporal never did like Huns and had a very business-like fist.

I’m a bit hazy about the next ten minutes. I found both my platoon commanders had got in all right and also the company on either side, but there was a lot of sniping going on and a m.g was causing my men trouble. My Sergeant-Major, the finest man I’ve ever known, got killed trying to locate it and knock it out, and one of my subalterns who was standing talking to me got hit badly, whilst I had one through my hair at the back of my head.

However we soon got things straight and started to dig ourselves in. We had got all of our objectives and felt very pleased with ourselves.”

Tom added that his regiment won a VC, three MCs, a DCM and twelve Military Medals in this action.

 

We still live in hope that Tom’s brother Bill Sheepshanks, who went missing in an action fought on July 26th, is alive and a prisoner of war.

 

 

 

 

March 17th 1917

Having read in the newspapers over the past few days of the Germans’ “strategic retreat,” from the battlefields of the Somme, we are most fortunate to have another letter from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) and discover he was there to witness the event. His description of the land that is now in the hands of the Allies is, I am sure you find, of considerable interest.

14/3/17 “So it has happened at last! What a hopeless wish it seemed a year ago that in twelve months the Hun would be deliberately retreating, and that after shooting on a point one day at a range of 8000 or 9000 yards, we could go on the morrow and examine the very spot, and see the craters made by our own shells…

The newly captured ground resembles, more than anything I’ve seen, imaginative pictures by artists entitled ‘The Battlefield’ or ‘After the Fight.’

Dead men, dead horses, shattered gun emplacements, broken limbers and wagons, rifles, bombs, equipment, and all the ghastly filth of carnage. How the Hun has stood the hammering so long is a marvel. He says he goes willingly and I don’t doubt it.

There is a valley leading down to a famous ravine, which is enough to make one sick, if one hadn’t become hardened gradually to such things. In one spot evidently our guns caught a Boche battery taking in ammunition. The teams and their drivers had been blown to pieces, the wagons are pitiable wrecks, and the whole place stinks of death. It is gratifying and interesting to see shrapnel heads of your own calibre right in the middle of a gun emplacement at which you had been firing a few days before.”

The retreat took all by surprise and Humphrey’s account describes how the Hun took advantage of the weather conditions to put it into effect.

“During days of thick fog when all observation was impossible, he took the advantage of a couple of days of frost to get his guns away and destroy most – though not all – of his dug-outs, and retire behind the next line of barbed-wire with machine-guns to hold us up. Our infantry followed close on his heels as far as they could, and pounced on some patrols that came out to see if we were following.

But for the moment, of course, a halt had to be called to save useless sacrifice. Barbed wire cannot be dealt with except by guns, and guns cannot move up without roads, and roads there were none.

Oh yes, they are marked on the map all right, but it would puzzle you to pick out any but the two principal ones from the desert of shell holes; and even the principal roads are swimming in mud, pitted with craters, and at vital points ruined and blown up by the Hun.

Advance is a wonderful feat in this place. Light railways follow up to within a quarter of a mile of the infantry in two days… and armies of men set to work making new roads and repairing the faintest traces of old ones.

Soon our guns were ready to deal with the next line of barbed-wire, and having shattered it to bits and cleaned up the enemy garrison, the same thing occurred again. This time the Hun did not wait for the attack but bolted as soon as our shower of shells showed him it was imminent.

And so, I suppose, it will go on till the vaunted concrete line or ‘Hindenburg Stellung’ is reached.”