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Sunday 21 February 2016

In Memory of Second Lieutenant R N Wood, 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers – a snapshot of life and death in the trenches on the Somme, February 1916

Many years ago I purchased the diary of Second Lieutenant (Temporary) Reginald Nixon Wood, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (9/RIF), who died on Tuesday, 22 February 1916.  On the 100th anniversary his  death, and of the Battle of the Somme, this post, aims to tell the  story of his tragically short war, a few months before the ‘Big Push’.

9th Royal Irish Fusiliers arrival in France
The 9/RIF, 108th Brigade (36th Division), with a strength of 30 officers and 995 rank and file, disembarked at Havre on 4 October 1915. It then proceeded to Rainville where it settled into billets and a period of training. This included gas demonstrations, rifle and bombing drill and Brigade field exercises. On 17 October the 9/RIF left Rainville, arriving at Hebuturne on 19 October for instruction in trench warfare, attached to 144th Brigade (48th Division).
The general method for instruction at this time was the attachment of formations and units to those next larger, that is a battalion to a brigade, a company to a battalion. Each company of the 9/RIF was attached to one of the battalions of 144th Brigade for individual instruction. On 23 October, the 9/RIF received its first casualty, Private Wilson of C Company, who was wounded in the arm.
The 9/RIF left the front line on 25 October, arriving in the area of Ribeaucourt on 27 October. A period of fairly lengthy training and instruction followed, lasting until the start of February 1916. This did include some emphasis on grenade training, perhaps as a result of comments by Brigadier Nicholson, Commanding Officer  144th Brigade,  about the 9/RIF attachment  to his Brigade during 19 to 25 October:
‘During their period of attachment both Officers and men displayed the greatest keenness and     anxiety to profit from the instruction given, and when holding sections of the trench line, as companies, they carried out their duties efficiently, and kept the trenches clean.
Their preliminary training appears to have been on sound lines, but in view of its paramount importance nowadays, sufficient time does not appear to have been devoted to training in the use of grenades.’

2nd Lieut. R.N. Wood joins the 9/RIF
Reginald Nixon Wood was commission from the ranks of the H.A.C., and his diary entry for 23 January notes:
Gazette to 9 Royal Irish Fusiliers.’
The following day he left Beresford House, Ireland, for England. He then left London for France on 28 January. On 29 January, he was attached to A Company and Private Elliot was made his servant. He joined up with the Battalion on 31 January at Prouville.

The 36th Division enters the Front Line
On 1 February, 1916, the 36th Division was transferred to XVII Corps and received orders to move to the trench line. The whole Division marched towards the front line between 2 and 6 February. The Division took over the front line from 4th Division at noon on 7 February; the Divisional front extended between the Ancre and Mailly-Mallet to the Serre Road with the 108th Brigade on the right, the 107th on the left, and the 109th in reserve. Divisional Headquarters were at Acheux.
The move of the 9/RIF is described in Wood’s diary:
2 February: ‘ Left Prouville at 10 a.m. Arrived Halloy les Pernoise at 2.30. Good Billet.  Left H. les P [Halloy les Pernoise] at 9 am.’
The 9/RIF War Diary states this was a nine and a half mile march and also confirmed the good billets.
3 February: ‘Arrived Puchevilliers. Billeted in School mistress’s house. Left here at 6 a.m.
The 9/RIF War Diary states that it was a 10 mile march from Halloy - Pernoise to Puchevilliers. The Commanding Officer and a small party went onto Martinstart and then to the trench line at Hamel to make arrangements for going into the line.  They returned to Puchevilliers that evening.
4 February: ‘Arrived Hedauville.
This was a march of nine miles according to the 9/RIF War Diary.  D Company marched up to Mesnil to relieve a Company of the 1st East Lancashire Regt (11th Brigade, 4th Division).
On 5 February the rest of the 9/RIF moved to Mesnil, a march of six miles, and took over the garrison there until relieved by 13th Royal Irish Rifles. The 9/RIF then moved to Hamel and relieved the 1st Hampshire Regt (11th Brigade, 4th Division) in the trenches.  The front line was manned by A and B Companies with D Company in close support and C Company in reserve in Hamel. The 16th Lancashire Fusiliers (96th Brigade, 32nd Division) were to the right of the 9/RIF and the 13th Royal Irish Rifles on the left.  Wood notes in his diary on 5 February:
I went with No 4 Platoon to trenches.’

Above: German front line in the Hamel-Thiepval area. Peters Head Sap and Marsh Lane, mentioned in this post are marked. Jacobs Ladder ran from Hamel to Mesnil up a steep forward slope. Joffre Lane ran alongside the main road as it left the northern end of Hamel 

Ordinary trench routine - 6 to 9 February
The 9/RIF War diary notes some ‘intermittent’ enemy shelling between 6 and 9 February, mostly 77mm ‘whizz bangs’.  Construction was begun on a new dug out as the 9/RIF found the accommodation in the line ‘very limited.’  On 8 February, British 8” and 9.2” guns shelled the enemy lines opposite the 9/RIF. The enemy responded with a few ‘whizz bangs’ and trench mortars causing one casualty, although only slightly wounded. In his dairy, Wood notes that a wiring party went out on the night 6 February, under Second Lieutenant Montgomery, with Lieutenant Flood (Battalion Bombing Officer) and some bombers acting as a screen for the party.  On 9 February he notes that:
Nothing particular happened in the trenches. Had a walk down B Co. Trenches.

Out on Patrol
Perhaps the inexperience of a newly commissioned officer on his first tour of the trenches shows in Wood’s diary entry for 10 February:
Out [at] 4 am this morning. I went out on a patrol with Elliot – without warning the sentries. Coming back was fired at from No 2 Sap. Elliot was hit by first shot. Great difficulty bringing him down to M.O. [Medical Officer]. Dr Berry said it was a bad case. Later in the day saw the Col [Colonel]. Major Pratt took particulars of the incident. L/Corpl Wilson fired the shot.’
The following day, 11 February, Wood writes:
Heard today that Elliot felt better – had been sent down by ambulance & if he takes the journey well – he may recover.
The only reference to this incident in the 9/RIF War Diary is that one of two casualties suffered during the day was accidental. Wood provides details on the other casualty in his diary:
Regtl. Storeman wounded (No. 3 Platoon) by shrapnel.

In Reserve
On 11 February, the 9/RIF War Diary notes that the ‘enemy put 40 whizz bangs into HAMEL village’, resulting in one man wounded. British guns responded by shelling Beaucourt.  During the evening, the 9/RIF were relieved by 12th Royal Irish Rifles, moving into reserve at Mesnil. Wood notes in his diary:
Left with my Platoon down to Mesnil – same quarters.’
Mesnil was heavily shelled the following day – the 9/RIF War Diary noting that the ‘Enemy put 20 whizz bangs and 12 heavy shell into the village’. Two casualties resulted, one killed and one who died of his wounds the next day. British guns again responded by shelling Beaucourt. Three officers also had narrow escape as noted in the Battalion war Diary:
Capt Johnstone, Lt Johnstone & Lt Given had a narrow escape from a shell which wrecked their billet, Capt Johnstone receiving a mere scratch on the ear, Lt Johnstone a bullet (shrapnel) through pocket of his coat, the bullet going through a book in his pocket – Lt Given was bruised on back by a piece of spent shell.’
In the afternoon, the Battalion War Diary notes that the enemy ‘dropped 10 heavy shells onto the village in the neighborhood of the railway station and dressing station.’
In his diary, Wood also recounts these events, noting heavy shelling. He managed to find cellar accommodation for all his men, moving their beds down into the cellars; as a result he notes he ‘slept well’.   He recorded the fatal casualties as ‘Cook “C” Company killed by a shell. Another man mortally wounded’. He also notes that ‘Johnny Walker appointed servant’, replacing Elliot.
The 9/RIF War Diary records that shelling continued during the following two days.  On 13 February, enemy artillery put 12 shells into the west of the village; Lieutenant Gibson had a narrow escape when six ‘whizz bangs’ fell around him but without causing him any harm. On 14 February, the enemy landed 47 shells in Mesnil, apparently searching for British artillery. The 9/RIF also supplied a working party in two shifts of 180 men each to dig a new trench in the second line defences.
The weather was particularly bad this February, causing many cases of ‘trench feet’ commonly known at the time as Frost-bite.  It was caused by the constant immersion of feet in water. Until ‘gum-boots, thigh’ became more frequently issued, the only prevention was to rub a special type of grease on to the men’s feet, or dry socks which sometimes came up with ration parties at night. On 15 February, Wood notes in his diary:
Supervised 2 & 4 Platoons in rubbing in Frostbite Grease for half an hour.
 The Divisional History adds some more detail:
The men laughed at the special grease with which they were provided to rub their feet, but they used it as they were ordered to do. Contrary to legend, but a small proportion was really used for the frying of food. They laughed also at the foot drill, each man rubbing the feet of his next number once a day, but to a great extent they carried it out.’
With the 9/RIF in reserve, this also allowed the opportunity for some to go on leave to England for eight days. In his diary, also 15 February, Wood notes:
Capt Enser goes on leave. Also Major Atkinson, Mr Lutton [Battalion Signaling Officer], Johnstone & White.’
The 9/RIF War Diary notes 46 other rank and file also went on leave.

Jacobs Ladder
Being in reserve often required the provision of working parties. Second Lieutenant Wood, on 16 February, records in his diary:
In charge of 25 men to clean up Jacob’s Ladder from 9 am to 4 pm. Work postponed after 11.30 owing to bad weather.’

Above: Jacobs Ladder ran behind Hamel Military Cemetery, running up the slope in these two images towards Mesnil. According to Linesman, I was actually standing on what was Jacobs Ladder when taking the second shot.

 The Divisional History comments on the notoriety of this communication trench:
Few of those who were compelled to use it will forget one notorious communication trench. “Jacob’s Ladder”, which ran from the village of Mesnil to that of Hamel, down a forward slope completely exposed to the enemy. By night the road could be followed without worse risk than occasional bursts of machine-gun fire, so that large bodies of men had seldom to use this trench. By day, however, men clawing their way through its mud experienced the sensations of flies in treacle.’
Mention has already been made about the bad weather the battalion experienced in respect to trench feet. It also made maintaining the trenches difficult, if not impossible in some instances. The Divisional History notes the weather was ‘an opponent more formidable than the Germans’ and continues:
The men in the trenches lived under conditions of the deepest discomfort. For weeks together the communication trenches were knee-deep in water. Previous troops had dug deep sumps in the bottom of the trenches, covering them with boards, with the idea of draining off the water. But the water soon filled these and rose till it floated off the boards. Then would some unfortunate fellow splashing his way along the trench, to plunge into the hole and be soused in icy water to the waist or higher.
The 9/RIF War Diary notes that the ‘past few week’s rain has left the trenches in a most deplorable condition.’  The War Diary also notes that the 12th Royal Irish Rifles lost one man who was smothered by a trench, opposite Lancashire Post, falling in and burying him.

Back into the line
The 9/RIF relieved the 12th Royal Irish Rifles on the evening of 17 February, with “C” and “D” Companies taking over the front line, “B” Company in close support and “A” Company in reserve. The Company in reserve was responsible for the defence of the Ancre ‘and its swampy valley, filled with miniature lakes.’ The was carried out by a platoon manning small isolated posts, the most advanced being at the bridge on the Thiepval-Hamel Road. Wood notes that it was a ‘Glorious moonlit night, but very cold later.’  The troops on the right of the Battalion were 8th West Yorkshire Regt (32nd Division) and on the left the 11th Royal Irish Rifles.The 9/RIF War Diary notes another trench collapse as a result of the bad weather, the fire trench between Signal Box Post and Lancashire Post.
A few details of trench routine are given in Wood’s diary for 18 and 19 February:
18 February: ‘No 3 Platoon on Marsh Post for 3 days. Holywood O.C [Second Lieutenant Holywood, Officer Commanding] Marsh Post last night. Monty [Second Lieutenant Montgomery] took out first authorized patrol to the Mill. Very wet night. Came in – nothing to report. I was O.C Marsh Post tonight. Jameson went to sleep whilst on duty at Stone Bridge as a signaler. Reported him to Capt. Allen.
19 February: ‘I was O.C Marsh Post. C.O [Commanding Officer – Lieut. Col S.W. Blacker] came up at Stand To to Stone Bridge this morning. Yesterday went over to Peter’s Head Sap with [the] Major and Monty. Held by 8 W. Yorks – lately at Ypres. Relieved from Marsh Post by Monty. Slept at dressing station with D Coy.

Above: Marsh Lane today.
Below: The site of Peters Head Sap

He also notes that when being relieved by Second Lieutenant Montgomery, a sentry at Castor Post reported a man ‘crossing the river near the tree trunk’ although a patrol sent out the bridge did not find anything to report.
Wood also records in his diary for 19 February a rumor that ‘Kentish Villas is mined.’ According to the 9/RIF War Diary, it was the Officer Commanding D Company that reported the signs of mining. An officer from 22nd Tunneling Company, billeted at Auchonvillers, visited the following day and after carrying out a careful study reported that, in his opinion, the sounds heard were not caused by enemy mining.  Kentish Villas, or Kentish Caves, was a dugout in a small chalk cliff, just to the east of Hamel.

Above: The site of Kentish Villas, or Caves, today. Dugouts were made in the embankment and where quite exposed as the entrances faced the Germans. 

The 9/RIF War Diary also notes heavy shelling of Auchonvillers, with smells of lachrymatory shells reaching the Battalion area. Aircraft and machine guns from both sides were also noted as being very active on 19 February. 
During 20 and 21 February, things were quiet; on 20 February Wood notes in his diary that it was a ‘slack day.’ The 9/RIFWar Diary simply states ‘Situation normal’ for 21 February, while Wood notes he was sniped at:
‘Monty & I went up to sentry at Joffre Avenue to inspect “Dud” shell – which lodged in the road 10 yards from him.  We were sniped at. Relieved H [Holywood] at M [Marsh] Post. No. 4 platoon on duty there.
On 22 February, Wood wrote his last entry in his diary:
Patrol of Huns seen crossing road at 11:30 pm. W Yorks patrol went out at midnight. R.I.Rs [Royal Irish Rifles] went up to trenches to have a look round. Wrote Noreen – sent her £3 for watch.’
The patrol that Wood refers to presumably went out on the night of 21/22 February.  The 9/RIF War Diary records how Wood was killed:
A patrol of ours visited the mill & were fired on with rifle grenades – the following casualties received
2 Lt Wood & 1 man killed, 2 Lt Holywood and 2 men wounded. 2 Lt Holywood behaved with great gallantry and coolness. 2 Lt Wood had joined us barley a month from the ranks of the H.A.C. He was a most promising officer possessing plenty of nerve and dash.’
Second Lieutenant Wood is buried in Hamel Military Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel, I.A.23.

First image: Site of old mill on the Ancre 
Second image: Hamel Cemetery
Third Image: Grave of 2nd Lieut. Wood.
Forth image: Grave of Private S.J. Forde, killed on the same patrol as 2nd Lieut. Wood. 

The 9/RIF were relieved by the 12th Royal Irish Rifles on the evening of 23 February and moved back into reserve at Englebelmer. It underwent a period of refitting and cleaning of clothing as well as supplying working parties to keep roads clear of snow. The 9/RIF returned to the front line at Hamel on 28 February. The trenches were described as being in ‘deplorable condition’ due to the recent snow followed by a thaw.
During the month of February, the 9/RIF suffered the following casualties:
One Officer (Second Lieutenant Wood) and two Other Ranks killed; one Officer and nine Other Ranks wounded. 

Above: Hamel looking from the Thiepval ridge. Jacobs Ladder ran up the bare field in the background.