Early days in France
On the 8th November 1915 the 17th Battalion embarked on the troopships at Folkestone and endured a rather choppy crossing to France, arriving in Boulogne in the late afternoon. The first night was spent in the rest camp at Boulogne and the following morning they boarded trains for Pont Remy. From there the men marched in Pouring rain to Domqueur where they billeted for the night.
The Battalion remained at Domqueur until the 17th where training intensified and Officers and Men went on various courses to the nearby Brigade training camps.
On the 17th the Battalion left Domqueur and marched 10 miles to Vignacourt where they billeted for the night.
The following day they left Vignacourt and marched 6 miles to the village of Bertangles which they shared with 180 Officers and Men of the Royal Flying Corp.
For the next 10 days the Men trained at Platoon, Company and Battalion level before leaving on the 28th for the 10 mile march over frozen roads for the village of Montrelet.
The Battalion stayed here training until the 7th December when a march of 17 miles brought them to the village of Couin. For the next 7 days the men were given practical tuition in trench warfare by the 143 Brigade training team under the most realistic of conditions as the camp was knee deep in mud.
On the 8th the Battalion marched by Company’s-A+B to Fonquevillers and C+D to Chateau La Haie with the Transport going to Bayencourt.
A +B Companies had a spell in the line at Fonquevillers in a sector held by a Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment and were relieved on the 11th by C+D Companies. Battalion Headquarters were billeted at Chateau de la Haie which, although only 1 mile from the front line trenches was untouched by shellfire.
On the 13th December the 17th Battalion was to suffer its first Battle casualty when Second Lieutenant Robert Loudon Johnston, Officer Commanding the transport section was killed by an anti aircraft shell at Bayencourt.
Second Lieutenant Johnson was the Son of Robert and Julia Johnston of Kersal and was 24 years old when he was killed. Prior to the War, he had worked at Fred Taylor & Sons, a cotton manufacturers and merchants of Bloom Street in Manchester. Second Lieutenant Johnston had worked with Arthur Taylor who was instrumental in the raising of the Pals Battalions in 1914 and who subsequently became Staff Captain to the 90th Infantry Brigade Headquarters. Second Lieutenant Johnston is buried in Fonquevillers Military Cemetery.
On the 14th December the Battalion were withdrawn from the Trenches and marched to Couin where they spent the night under canvass. The following day they marched to Montrelet where they remained over Christmas and the New Year. The Battalion had passed its first few months in France relatively unscathed and faced the New Year with a mixture of confidence and trepidation.
The 1st January 1916 found the Battalion still in Montrelet training and with strength of 29 Officers and 988 other ranks. They remained there until the 9th when they marched to the village of Suzanne. Whilst there, the village was heavily shelled and on the 11th the First of the “Other Ranks” was killed and 5 men were wounded.
8638 Private John Pownall Holt, D Company 13 Platoon had been killed. He was the son of Benjamin and Frances Holt of 34 College Road, Whalley Range aged 27. Before the War he was a Clerk with the Manchester Ship Canal Company. His Mother was informed that he had been killed by a High Explosive shell
Private John Pownall Holt is buried like so many of the Pals Battalions early casualties in Suzanne Communal cemetery Extension. The Battalion war diary also states that 6 Mules were also killed by the same explosion.
On the 12th January the Battalion relieved the 16th Manchester’s in the trenches to the west of Maricourt wood. The Maricourt defences were the 2nd line of defence for the village. In the centre of the system was a series of strong points with dugouts, machine gun emplacements commanding special points, bombing islands and bomb and water stores. The trenches were in a particularly bad state and thigh high gumboots were the order of the day for the men. On the first day the Battalion suffered its second Officer casualty when Second Lieutenant William Russell Tonge was killed by a sniper. A stretcher party was sent to attempt to remove his body but the state of the trenches prevented this and he was buried in the trench.
Second Lieutenant William Russell Tonge was the Son of Henry Dacre and Alma Tonge aged 21. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.
On the 16th the Battalion were relieved by the 20th Kings Liverpool Regiment and spent the next few days providing working parties in the Maricourt defences.
On the 20th Captain Edmund Fearenside, a Company was appointed Town Mayor of Suzanne and the Battalion Relieved the 16th Manchester’s in the Maricourt trenches. The Battalion remained in the trenches until relieved by the 16th Battalion on the 24th-moving into billets in Suzanne.
On the 28th 1 Company (B) and 2 Platoons of C Company were led by Captain Williams were ordered to reinforce the 17th Kings Liverpool Regiment in the Maricourt defences. The party moved up to the defences under heavy shellfire. Two men were killed and 6 wounded in the movement. At the same time, Captain Kenworthy and 2 Platoons of D Company was ordered to reinforce the 18th Battalion in Vaux woods. This was achieved under a heavy barrage of lachrymatory shells, in gas helmets and through trenches waist deep in mud.
On the 29th, Captain Kenworthy and a party of men were sent into Vaux wood to replace C Company of the 18th Manchesters who had been despatched to Fargny Mill. The village of Suzanne was heavily shelled with HE and gas shells all day and the Headquarters mess was struck by a shell.
The Month of February passed uneventfully with spells in and out of the line but not without a tragic accident
On March 18th the Battalion was relieved by the 7th Buffs and moved to Grovetown camp near the village of Bray. On the 28th the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel H A Johnston was admitted sick to Hospital and Major Whitehead assumed command. The next day, the Battalion moved to Morlancourt and provided working parties for 89 Brigade for the rest of the Month.
On the 10th April Lt Colonel Johnston returned to duty from Hospital and assumed command. And on the 12th the Battalion moved to Cardonette
and stayed there training under platoon, company, battalion and brigade training until the 29th. They also took the opportunity to hold a Battalion sports day.
On the 29th the Battalion moved to Corbie, the 30th to Bray and bivouacked overnight.
The 1st May saw the Battalion back in Vaux village and Royal dragon’s wood where they remained until the 1st June.
The Battalion were relieved on the 1st June by the 1st battalion 37th French Infantry Regiment and marched to Bois Celestins where they were billeted in huts and provided working parties for the 30th Division. On the 8th-the Battalion moved to Bray and stayed there until the 11th-again providing working parties.
The Battalion relieved the 19th Manchesters in the Maricourt defences until the 18th when they were relieved by the 17th Kings Liverpool Regiment. The Men then marched to the railhead at Heilly and entrained for Ailly-sur-Somme and then marched to Briquemesnil.
From the 18th to the 25th the Battalion were engaged in Brigade training for the forthcoming great battle. A facsimile of the trench system that the 17th Battalion were tasked with assaulting on the 1st July had been laid out in great detail close to the village and the Men practiced their role repeatedly.
On the 26th, the Battalion marched to Ailly-sur-Somme and entrained for Mericourt and then to Etinehem where final preparations for the battle were made.
The “Big Day” was originally set for the 29th June and prior to this a terrific bombardment of the German defences had been underway for several days. However, inclement weather meant the date was put back to 1st July. The Battalion busied itself in all manner of organisation and issuing of kit and, finally at 10pm on the night of 30th June the Men moved to the Assembly trenches to the South of Cambridge copse near the village of Maricourt.
As the Battalion waited in the assembly trenches the bombardment of the German defences in front of the village of Montauban intensified. The character of the Battalion had not changed much since its arrival in France. In the first 7 Months they had suffered 2 Officers and 30 Men killed.
Confident in their own ability and that of their comrades the men passed an uncomfortable night in the trenches as they awaited their date with destiny. Zero hour had been set for 7.00am and as the hour approached the bombardment reached a crescendo. As the hour approached the men awaited the blast of the Officers whistle that would set them on their way to the objective some 3000 yards distant.