A History of the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division During the Great War
February 1917 - Off To War
Despite the improvements the 66th had achieved the division was still constantly dogged by the demands for drafts thus delaying its fitness for overseas service and it was not until 18 January 1917 that the War Office were able to notify GHQ France that the 66th was ready for war. A new and much more terrifying chapter in the history of the 66th Division was about to be written.
On 22 February King George V inspected the 66th Division and throughout the remainder of February and early March the Division left for France.
Along with the change in scenery came another change of CO. Blomfield was replaced by the remarkable Maj.-Gen. Hon. HA Lawrence. Lawrence was a self-made financial genius who had abandoned his military career when he was passed over as CO of 7th Lancers in favour of Haig. He would later be promoted to Chief of Staff, GHQ, effectively Haig’s right-hand man.
By 16 March the entire Division had entrained, detrained, marched, inspected and assembled, and after a few days gathering stragglers and organising last minute details, the division was sent ‘up the line’ under the command of XI Corps, First Army– the 66th’s first taste of ‘real’ war.
The Division found itself holding the line in the GIVENCHY sector. Its strength lay in the ‘spirit of the men’ rather than Regular Army training. And by God did it need such strength in this area. The Givenchy sector, near La Bassee, was foul panorama of depressingly flat coalfields and shell holes, interspersed with conical slagheaps and wrecked mine heads that made excellent defensive bastions for the Germans. During 1915 Givenchy had been at the centre of fierce fighting but by 1917 it was a quiet, miserable, and forgotten sector.
The Division’s first task was to create some semblance of order – the trench system was a flooded and destroyed shambles that relied on isolated forward outposts, wire and Machine Guns, that was described as ‘unattackable and indefensible’ by FG Guggisberg, the Divisional CRE. Guggisberg was a remarkable man who was branded a rascal and a dangerous maverick by British society after the war. He was also the last British WW1 general to have a statue raised to him.
Life In GIVENCHY & LA BASSEE
It is the nature of military history and historians to concentrate on battle but the reality of the Western Front was that soldiers spent very little of their time actually engaged in combat, and most of it ‘holding the line’. ‘Lineholding’ (or ‘Goalkeeping’ as it was known) was an unglamorous but essential task that was never-ending. In order to understand what this entailed it’s important to understand the nature of trenches and trench warfare. ‘Trenches’ are not channels dug into the ground in order to provide protection for troops. They were in fact vast cities containing millions of men and requiring all the support, maintenance, administration and infrastructure of any metropolis, but considerably magnified. Unlike a ‘normal’ city most of this activity took place underground, at night, and under fire, necessitating the most elaborate methods of protection, camouflage, and deception.
The 66th Division spent its time here recovering communication trenches (of which 17,000 yards had been recovered by May), laying water supplies and telephone cable, and repairing the damage caused by Minenwerfers. They also laid tramways and light railways, and were constantly at work trying to drain the all-pervasive mud described as having a ‘rare and gluesome tenacity’. The decision not to equip the 66th with a Pioneer battalion dramatically increased the workload, requiring the attachment of up to 300 infantry per Field Company – 900 men in all. This was not so much a ‘Soldier’s War’ as an ‘Engineers’ and Navvies War’.
In addition whilst there was no actual ‘fighting’ as such on this sector preparations for offensive and defensive schemes had to be made. In the spring of 1917 there was reason to believe that the Germans would be retiring on this front as they had further south and extensive preparations were made.
These preparations included the construction of forward routes for infantry and wagons, all of which had to be differently sign-posted every 30 yards, allocated as up or down routes, and policed by Traffic Control. They also built fences and bridges, created gaps in the wire for movement, dealt with water supplies, and hauled thousands of planks for duckboards. This covers just a fraction of the work required. Of course, all of this was administered and integrated by the overworked Staff Officers of the various units involved mostly at Brigade level. Very heavy German Minenwerfer fire, bad weather, and a shortage of men so acute that 199 Brigade Training School had to be closed down further hampered these preparations, whilst in June Lewis Gun fire was curtailed in order to release men for wiring party duties.
Despite the toughness of the job and the inexperience of the Division the preparations were completed. Alas it was all to no avail as the Germans had no intention of retiring just yet and the Division moved a few miles north to the La Bassee sector.