Finding billets for any Army whilst on active service was a constant problem and this was no different for the headquarters staff of the 6/Notts & Derby who were regularly required to find billets for the Officers and men.
“Billeting at Oostroove was rather a problem. The men occupied the barns and even the pig-stys, while over 20 officers slept in a tiny room and were so tightly packed that the last comer was somewhat unpopular.”
The Battalion moved to Neuf Berquin on 13th March and found themselves attached to the 2nd Cavalry Division commanded by General Gough. The 139th Brigade, along with the Cavalry Division, was to act as support for the attack at Neuve Chapelle and exploit any breaching of the German line. History tells us that this did not happen and the 139th Brigade returned to the 46th Division later that month.
“The Brigade, with the 6th Battalion with it, must have hoped and felt that had the earlier operations proved as successful as was confidently expected, the Battalion with the Cavalry would move forward and pursue the retreating enemy. But it was not to be; the German front line had not been so broken as was at first imagined. The enemy had, indeed, constructed a new position east of Neuve Chapelle which they were holding in strength, and the battle may be said to have come to an end on the night of the 12th March, though local attempts were made to press forward on the morning of the next day. The 139th Brigade rejoined its Division in its billeting area”
During the early months of 1915, despite the disappointing failure of Neuve Chappelle, the British High Command enjoyed a new found optimism and much was expected of the newly arrived Territorial Divisions
“Up till lately the troops of the Territorial Force in this country were only employed by Battalions, but for some weeks past I have seen formed divisions working together, and I have every hope that their deployment in larger units will prove as successful as in the smaller. These opinions are fully borne out by the result of the close inspections which I recently made of the North Midland Division”
The latter half of March was spent in the Corps reserve area at Neuf Berquin were the battalion undertook training in hand grenade throwing, with four men from each platoon selected for instruction. A number of recently appointed Officers joined the battalion including:-
- Lewis Dickenson formerly CQS of “D” Coy
- Gordon Rivington and Alex Goodhall both previously Privates in the 6th Battalion
- TL Darbyshire formerly of the Alberta Dragoons
Towards the end of March one of the numerous Regimental coincidences occurred and the men of the 6th met with their own 1st Battalion returning from the trenches. The 1/Notts & Derby had just fought in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, where each of the attacking Brigades of the 8th Division had suffered 25% casualties and the 1/Notts & Derby themselves over 50% of the battalion strength. The 1/Notts & Derby history notes that the road into Nerf Berquin was lined with men of the Sherwood Foresters Brigade, who were joined by the band of the 6/Sherwood Foresters, and all gave a hearty welcome.
“Fell in at 5-00 p.m. to watch the 1st Sherwoods who were coming in for a rest from the trenches. It was a pathetic sight to see the soldiers coming in tired out. Ges Barnes and Joe Bennett was among them and it was a touching sight to see Ges Barnes break down in tears when he saw all his companions from Whaley Bridge. Many of the men met brothers who they hadn’t seen for years. Some of the men had beards two or three inches long. They all looked ready for a rest.”
Even life in the rear areas was not without its dangers and Alfred Afford notes in his diary entry of 1st April that three German aeroplanes dropped bombs on the Battalion’s water carts, which fortunately failed to explode.
On the same day the 46th Division received orders to march to Locre in Belgium and relieve the 28th Division in the trenches around Kemmel.
The 46th Division was now under the orders of II Corps and this move was necessary for General Smith-Dorrien to take over and extended a portion of the allied front line. The 6/Sherwood Foresters found themselves in the southwest part of Belgium, a region historically known as Flanders, which was proud of heritage and customs. This small corner of Belgium was the only part of the country not to be under German occupation.
“Flanders at any time is a monotonous countryside. There are no landmarks except houses and the gentlest of ridges. Single hills are rare. One of the few is Mount Kemmel, the loftiest peak in all the land, three hundred fifty feet high. Rivers and canals wind their way at random, merge into one another, separate, flow toward the ocean, then away from it; for the slope of the ground is too slight to create a normal pattern.”
“The one major exception to the flatness is the famous ridge, an arc of feeble hills and highlands running from some miles north of Passchendaele southward to Messines and then west toward Hazebrouck. Its average elevation is about one hundred fifty feet. Yet the German holders of these modest heights enjoyed a great military advantage not only in observation but in the placement of guns and defensive fortifications.”
[Leon Wolfe, In Flanders Fields, 1958]
Many Soldiers of the BEF who had passed through this region in the preceding 6 months had recognised the strategic importance of the Messines Ridge and the imposing Mount Kemmel.
“Midway on our journey we passed through a block of hilly country with sharply-broken wooded spurs, all of them clearly out-topped by Kemmel Hill which stands massively alone.”
[Captain James Jack, 1/Cameronians]
Men wounded or taken ill during their time in reserve included:-
- 1340 Pte. Charles Coverley, a labourer from New Mills who suffered from epilepsy and was evacuated to England. Discharged April 1915.
- 1682 Pte. Sidney Buffey a burner from Stonegravels who was admitted to the 1st NMFA and 9 Staionary Hospital. Returned to duty in June 1915.
- 1493 Pte. Joseph Bennett a collier from Grassmoor who strained a foot and was evacuated to England. Returned to France with the III reinforcement.
- 1904 Pte. William Wall a shoemaker from Stoney Middleton who suffered an ear ulcer and was evacuated to England. Returned to France with the 7th reinforcement.