17th (Northern) Division
history 1916

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Ypres 1915

New Years day was heralded by an enemy barrage on the lines held near Hooge. 
Wednesday, Janauary 5th, 1916.
8.30 a.M; Two crumps behind the Sherwoods (right of the Sunken Road). 8.45 a.m. until 10 a.m. 22 trench mortars and several whizzbangs all to the right of the Sunken Road. No damage. One casualty in H.20 caused by a trench mortar unearthing a corpse, lifting it about 100 feet into the air and it fell on a Sgt. of the South Staffordshires over 200 yards away. "Some" stench. Rest of day quiet.
Harold Linzell M.C. 7th Borders
The Division was atlast relieved between the 6th - 8th January by the 24th Division and entrained at Poperinghe for a well earned rest period around St. Omer in France.
The term 'rest' is somewhat misleading as the men were soon put through training programmes that included drill, woodland fighting and musketry. This 'holiday' ended on February 5th and the Division made its way back to the Ypres front. The sector taken over from the 3rd Division stretched from near St. Eloi to the Ypres-Comines railway at the dreaded Hill 60. One of the prominant features here was an area known as the Bluff.
The 17th Division were greeted on arrival in the trenches on February 8th, by a very active German artillery. Many shells were directed against the Bluff on the 11th and caused some casualties. Mining activity was in full swing at the Bluff. On the night of Feb. 10th - 11th, a party of Royal Engineers broke into a German gallery and shot dead a man working there, the gallery was subsequently blown in.  (see Simon Jones page here to have an idea on what the Great War tunnelers endured ).
The 12th was an active day in the salient, the Germans made some gains at Pilkem but were later driven out. The 17th Division received its first machine gun company on the 13th . The 14th was a day of heavy shelling on the 17th's trenches. The right of the line was held by the 52nd Bde. , the 51st Bde. held the trenches north of the canal. The 50th Bde. was in reserve. At 5.40 p.m. a large mine went up on the left of the Bluff near the canal. The enemy rushed the crater and then launched flank attacks that took them as far as the hollow known as 'The Ravine'.  A message was received at headquarters at 7.37 a.m. with the news that the South Staffords had managed to retake two of the lost trenches. By 9 p.m. steps were taken to organize a counter attack. Two companies of Lanacashire Fusiliers were brought across the canal and with some pioneers and Sherwoods mounted a counter attack at 9.30 p.m. The enemy, however, had had ample time to consolidate their positions and the crest was alive with their machine guns. The counter attack was driven off with heavy loss. Two more counter attacks were launched at 2 a.m. and at 4 a.m. Both failed.  The Germans now held the crest of the Bluff and the trenches north of it up to The Ravine.
A further counter attack was decided for the 15th, it would go in at 9 p.m. The Dorsets and East Yorks were attached to the 51st Bde. for the attack.  Two companies attacked, the right company from the canal bank and the left against the front of the Bluff. The right company was caught by enfilading machine gun fire at point blank range and they suffered heavy losses. The left company got close to the enemy trenches and some men actually got into them but was not able to consolidate. This attack also failed. (see this link for an extract from the 6th Dorsets war diary).
Hastily organized counter attacks were now abandoned as it was recognized that only a well prepared attack had any chance of success. Losses for February were as follows.
Officers 12 killed 66 wounded 11 missing
Other ranks 212 killed 1080 wounded 315 missing
total 1696
The missing in this case were nearly all those who had been buried by the mine and the bombardment of the trenches, as well as those who had fallen in now enemy held trenches.


Retaking The Bluff

Preparations were soon under way for the attack that would hopefully retake the Bluff. February 17th saw a conference at divisional headquarters (Reninghelst) in order to arrange the artillery preparations. This time, the artillery barrage would differ from previous attacks where intense fire, by guns of all calibres, was laid down on a target over a prolonged period of time prior to an attack. Major W. Congreve, 76 Bde.(later killed on the Somme) came up with a  new plan.http://www.xs4all.nl/~aur/layout/frames.htm?Individuals/congreve.htm

This plan entailed every gun and howitzer firing short bursts lasting a few minutes followed by a pause of a similar duration then a new barrage of a few minutes. The idea was that the Germans would take cover during the first burst and eventually get used to laying low during the lull. The plan, therefore, was for a similar barrage on the day of the attack. The infantry would then move forward as soon as the barrage ended with the enemy sheltering in the expectation of a second salvo. Instead of the latter, the brief pause would end with a barrage on the enemy's communication trenches. The attack on the Bluff fell to the 76th Bde. (3rd Division) and two battalions of the 51st Bde. with the other two battalions in reserve. Pilcher submitted the plans to GHQ 5th Corps and these were approved. The day of the attack was provisionally set for the 29th.

A full scale model of the Bluff defences was laid at Rininghelst and the Lincolns and Sherwoods practiced for the coming attack. The days passed and the snowy weather made a come back, bringing with it terrible conditions for the men in the trenches and those responsible for laying field telephone cables and bringing up ammunition for the attack. On the 26th, the Germans attacked the trenches near the Ravine but they were beaten off. On the 28th the attack was moved forward until March 2nd, zero hour would be 4.30 a.m. On the vening of March 1st, the 76th Brigade, 7th Lincolns and 10th Sherwood Foresters, relieved the 52nd Bde. in the trenches opposite the Bluff.

At 4 a.m., groups of men left the trenches and gathered in front of the German wire which was found to be in a poor state of repair. At 4.30 a.m. a two minute barrage fell on the German lines followed by the two minute pause. The enemy had now become used to this as being followed by another two minute burst. When the first salvo was over, the attacking infantry went up the slope of the Bluff and into the German trenches. The artillery then laid down a second barrage on the communication trenches and British guns on artillery ridge, 1,800 yards away, enfiladed the enemy support trenches. The Germans were caught by surprise, some were even found with the equipment off. The Lincolns quickly brought their machine guns forward and killed a great many Germans as they were trying to get away (123rd infantry regiment, 5th Wurtenburg).  The inevitable German counter attacks followed, a large attack at noon was beaten off after very heavy fighting. The other two battalions of the 51st Bde. were brought into the fight. By sunset, the fighting had died down and the Bluff was secured as well as a small German salient known as the Bean. 252 German prisoners were taken but the attack had been costly, losses to the 51st Bde. were.

7th Lincolns 5 officers 215 other ranks

10th Sherwoods 3 officers 97 other ranks

8th S. Staffords 2 officers 21 other ranks

The official history states that the men received the steel Brodie helmets for this action and that they saved many lives. These were handed back as trench stores after the fighting but became part of a soldiers personal kit later.

The Division was now transferred to the 2nd Corps and enjoyed a rest period. The next part of the line to be taken over was near Armentières.  A lot of the lines here were not trenches but breastworks because the water level was too near the surface. One notable incident in this sniper infested part of the front line was the loss of Major Graham of the Brigade staff on March 20th,  killed by a sniper whilst touring the trenches with General Pilcher.  On April 26th, the Germans attempted a raid on the 52nd Brigade's trenches. The Dukes lost 5 officers and 23 other ranks, mostly to the enemy's artillery. Another heavy bombardment caused casualties on May 5th. The Division was relieved on May 16th and underwent a period of training near St. Omer. The first week of June saw the arrival of orders for the Division's transfer to the 4th Army as reserve division to the 15th Corps. On June 16th, the Division entrained for the Somme.


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