Bois Grenier: 22nd Battalion

22nd-battalionBackground

On the afternoon of the 26th March 1916 the 22nd Battalion disembarked from the Llandovery Castle at the port of Marseille and marched through the city to Marseille station en-route to northern France and the Western Front. As part of the 2nd Division, the Battalion was one of the first to land in France and as a result was warmly greeted at every stop by the French people, a demonstration of affection and kindred spirit towards the Australian soldier that would indeed last throughout the war. Three days later the Battalion disembarked from the train at Roquetoire in the Nord Pas-de-Calais and after a few days rest and preparations for fighting on the Western Front, began its march along the Lys River towards Armentieres in French Flanders and the Bois Grenier sector of the Western Front, also known as the ‘nursery sector’. Here the Battalion as part of 6th Brigade would remain for the next three months getting used to life and fighting in the front-line before its move south and the great Somme offensive of 1916.

Combat

Bois Grenier.pngOn the night of the 7th April 1916 the Battalion carried out its first relief in France, and that of the AIF in France, taking over the Reserve Line at Fleurbaix from 11th Suffolk Regiment (101st Brigade, 34th Division). In hindsight over-elaborate precautions were taken to avoid noise and lights, particularly for this relatively quiet and ‘nursery’ area for new untried or arriving troops. After six days in reserve, the Battalion relieved the AIF 21st Battalion in the front line on 13th April, then a quiet place, with a compliment of 30 Officers and 984 men. In this part of the Western Front the trenches were above ground breastwork trenches on account of the high water table. Communication trenches built during the dry months of 1915 had become flooded by the October and November rains. No-Man’s Land varied from 100 – 400 yards, and wire entanglements were slight on account of the great danger posed to the parties having to go into the open. Patrols soon came in contact with the enemy, however casualties were light in this quiet sector. On 15th April 1234 Pte Jordan of C Company was the first from the Battalion to be killed in France.

Relieved by the 21st Battalion on the 19th April to billets in the rear, the Battalion returned to the front line six days later relieving the 21st Battalion and where it remained until the 30th April when it was itself relieved by the 6th Battalion of 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. Thus completed the first period within the front-line and the 6th Brigade went into reserve and the Battalion into billets and huts near Erquinghem, then a pleasant and practically undamaged village though still close to the front line. The Battalion remained there for six weeks training, conducting fatigues including laying of wiring and digging of reserve lines. Steel helmets and box respirators were not plentiful at first, but in May the Battalion received additional supplies of these vital pieces of protective equipment.

Bois Grenier - EZ0007.JPGDuring the evening of the 10th June the 22nd Battalion relieved the 28th Battalion in the Bois Grenier reserve line, remaining there for a week before moving to the Rue du Bois salient. In the reserve line the Battalion supplied working parties for defence work, cable laying, carrying stores etc to the front line at night. On the 20th June the 22nd Battalion relieved the 23rd Battalion in the firing line in the Rue du Bois salient. The salient was subject to both enfilade and frontal fire, and B Company that held it suffered half of the heavy casualties resulting from this tour of front line duty. The shelling was heavy on both sides, including the use of aerial torpedoes and Minenwerfers by the Germans.

On the 18th June the 6th Brigade was tasked with forming a raiding party for what was to be one of a series of diversionary stunts performed by the AIF in this sector. Each of the four Battalions was asked to provide one platoon for special training in the rear, and the Brigade raiding party comprising 8 Officers and 244 other ranks was placed under the command of Capt. Wiltshire of the 22nd (later to become the 22nd Commanding Officer).  This raid, conducted on the night of the 29th/30th June to the south-west of the Armentieres-Wavrin railway, was the most important of the Anzac series and involved the expenditure of about 8,000 shells, mainly of field artillery, and 1,000 trench mortars that were targeted on cutting the wire in front of the German lines. Under the heavy artillery and trench mortar barrage the raiders with faces blackened rushed the German lines and entered their lines in three places. In the main the raid was highly successful and about 100 Germans were casualties, including 32 killed, while five prisoners were brought back for identification and information. The Brigades casualties were 32 including 8 killed and three missing, of which eight from the 22nd Battalion were wounded. For his services Capt. Wiltshire received a Military Cross, and stretcher-bearers 919 Pte Strain and 2488 L-Cpl Robbins a Military Medal.

The following day the Battalion was relieved by the 23rd Battalion and resumed its old position in the Bois Grenier line. On the 3rd July the sector was handed over to the 3rd New Zealand Infantry Brigade as I Anzac began its withdrawal and redeployment. The night of the relief was marked by an intense bombardment, as the Battalion commenced its march through Steenwerck to La Becque for a four day stay before commencing its journey south to the Somme.

Outcome

As the nickname of this sector suggest, the ‘nursery’ provided a solid baptism to trench warfare particularly for the reinforcements, including the 5th/22nd, that were Taken on Strength into the Battalion after Gallipoli. As well as getting used to life in the front line including shelling, sniping, plane attacks and patrols into no-man’s land, the 60 men of the Battalion, including Capt. Wiltshire and 2348 Cpl McLeod, 2360 Pte Ross, 2413 Pte Sullivan and 2488 L-Cpl Robbins of the 5th/22nd, helped to boost morale and confidence from their part in the successful 6th Brigade raid on the 29th/30th June.

In the six months from the Battalion’s departure from Gallipoli to Egypt, and including the three months during its time in the Bois Grenier sector, twenty-five men from the 22nd Battalion were killed, (two men died outside of the Bois-Grenier theatre of operations from non-combat related injuries) the majority during the Battalion’s third and final stint in the firing line towards the end of June. A big difference between the Battalion’s stay in Bois-Grenier and Gallipoli is that during this period not a single man died from sickness or illness, a result of the more hospitable Spring and early Summer conditions in Europe and the better medical facilities found in France and England. Included amongst the fatalities are the first two members of the 5th/22nd to be killed in the war since sailing on the RMS Osterley in September 1915, 2339 Pte Hogan and 2440 Pte Hosking, both of whom are buried in the Ration Farm Military Cemetery. As mentioned above, three men from the 22nd Battalion were awarded for their bravery.

 

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