To supplement the War Diary and Battalion History several other contemporary sources exist for these early months of 1915. These are the personal diaries of 1415 L/Cpl Alfred Afford (“D” Company) from North Wingfield and 2381 Pte George Bagshaw who was a stretcher bearer with “B” (Chapel-en-le-Frith) Company.
Sadly Alfred Afford was killed in action on 14th October during the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt. George Bagshaw on the other hand was gassed on the 24th May, but returned to France and was later to win the Military Medal in 1918 whilst serving as the Sergeant Orderly to the Battalion Medical Officer.
Finally, numerous soldiers’ letters published in the local newspapers, such as the Derbyshire Times and High Peak News, provide a unique insight into the Derbyshire Territorial’s attitude to these early days of the War.
Ploegsteert Wood: Early March 1915
“Thursday March 4th 1915: Moved from Bassel to somewhere near firing line. Marched about ten miles and arrived at our destination muddied up to the eyes. A whole platoon billeted in one room. The room, about 8 yards by 6. I am very thirsty and there is no water worth drinking.”
[Private 3339 Albert Renshaw from Clowne]
“Passing trough Bailleul the Battalion took over billets at Oostroove Farm in the immediate neighbourhood of Ploegstreet and it was here that it was attached to the 11th Brigade and was passed on by wings to be instructed in trench duties to different battalions of that Brigade.”
In his diary entry for Saturday 6th March, Alfred Afford recorded that the Battalion went up to the front line trenches for the very first time. It was routine for new Battalions arriving at the front to spend time acclimatising to trench warfare under the watchful gaze of veteran troops. In the case of the 6/Notts & Derby the Headquarters staff and “A” and “C” companies were attached the 1/Somerset Light Infantry, whilst “B” and “D” companies were under the instruction of the 1/Rifle Brigade.
“Knocking about all day until 4 o’clock when we went into the trenches at Ploegsteert Wood. This is in Belgium. It was about three miles from where we were billeted. The wood is a wonderful place, all pathways made through by the Engineers, just like a town. In the trenches which are made of sand bags there are dug outs which the men have their meals in and sleep in. Each dug out has a separate name such as ‘Hotel de Rochart’, ‘Castle Dase’ etc. I was put in charge of a trench where there were about seven regulars and five terriers. I felt rather nervous, but that soon went off. During the night I went with the Sergeant to the listening patrol which is about 60 yards from the German trenches. We could see the Germans working on their wire entanglements. The Germans kept sending up rockets lighting everything up everywhere, making us keep our heads down because of the snipers who are always on the lookout. As you go between the trenches you come across dead Germans, some having laid there for a week or two.”
[2381 George Bagshaw]
A view along a deep front line trench running through part of Ploegsteert Wood, with the firestep and parapet along the left. Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4785).
“Saturday March 6 1915: Left billet at 7-25 am to work at back of trenches constructing second line of defence. Under fire all the time. Houses had all windows out and a church was destroyed by shells. Marched through Ploegsteert along side of Armentieres. Raining all the day and up to knees in sludge and slept in damp clothes.”
At this point of the front line the British trenches were only 150 yards from the German trenches and during this trench duty they regularly came under heavy shell and sniper fire. The Battalion very quickly became accustomed to the routine of holding the front line trenches, which included ‘sniper’s duty’ and at one time Alfred found himself only 45 yards from a German sniper, an experience also shared by George Bagshaw.
“As you passed certain places a bullet would come whizzing past your head into a tree nearby. That place would be marked by a sniper and had you stopped just in that place it would have meant that you would receive that bullet. Soon after breakfast word came ‘Stretcher bearers wanted’, a man had got killed with a sniper just behind us. He had been out since August.”
On Monday 8th March the inevitable happened and the Battalion suffered its first fatal casualty to enemy action; 1470 L/Cpl Allen Redfern a printer from Buxton, who was serving with “C” Company, was shot through the heart whilst on duty with a working party behind the lines; he was only 20 years of age. Allen was buried in Somerset Light Infantry Ground in Ploegsteert Wood and was the only 6th Battalion man to be buried in that cemetery.
L/Cpl 1470 Allen Redfern of Buxton who was the first man to be killed on active service. He is now buried in the original Plot I of Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery in Belgium.
Copyright © 2013 Michael D Briggs.