Another image from the Ron Short collection, this shows officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment out at rest in the village of Berles-au-Bois, between Arras and the Somme, in early 1917. At this time the battalion had moved into forward positions at Ecoust St Mein opposite Bullecourt, and used Berles as a rest billet when not in the line.
Berles-au-Bois had previously been on the front line before 1917, it being a sector taken over by Brotish troops in 1915 and well described in I.L. Read’s Of Those We Loved. In 1917 the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line suddenly placed the village behind our lines and largely out of the range of most artillery.
On the walls of the house occupied by the Queen’s are Billet Officer’s chalk marks; they would mark buildings up so that when a new unit came in they knew which buildings were theirs and how many soldiers each dwelling could hold.
Also of interest is the Strombos Horn on the wooden crate next to one of the officers: this was a very loud gas alarm and was increasingly used instead of gas rackets and gas gongs so that it could be heard above the sound of gunfire. It was powered by a compressed air cylinder that activated the klaxon noise. From 1916 onwards twenty of these were issued for every mile of front.
This image comes from the same collection I featured when Great War Photos began a month ago; it was taken by an officer of the battalion, Ron Short, who served with the battalion in Belgium, France and Italy 1917-1919.
At a time of year when snow is imminent, this photograph of men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, part of 7th Division, doing bayonet practice in the snow of the old Somme battlefields is particularly poignant. While the Somme front had been abandoned and British troops moved forward towards the Hindenburg Line, units out of rest would use the old Somme area and carry out training here, even in the cold and snow of winter. The late winter and early spring of 1917 was especially cold and snow fell well into April.
While bayonets caused less than 1% of the casualties in the Great War, bayonet fighting was something that was very much part of the British Army’s training of the period. One manual stated:
“The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.”