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The Battle of Pacault Wood

This is a different kind of posting on the blog. I have been inspired by the centenary of the 1918 Armistice to research the one small actio...

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Battle of Pacault Wood

This is a different kind of posting on the blog. I have been inspired by the centenary of the 1918 Armistice to research the one small action that happened quite late in the war. This is an account of the action, now called the Battle of Pacault Wood, in which my grandfather, John Clegg, was wounded in April 1918. John had joined the Royal Hampshire Regiment the previous year. He had had to delay his entry into the British Army by a year as he had been caring for his elder brother. He passed out of Sandhurst in September 1917 and went to 3rdBattalion Royal Hampshire Regiment in Dover. The reason why a young man from Suffolk joined the Hampshires was mainly that this county regiment was not considered “smart”, so was reasonably affordable for a middle class lad. Also, the 1stBattalion of the Hampshires had been virtually wiped out at the battle of Beaumont Hamel in 1916, was rebuilt and re-equipped then lost half their number in September 1917 at the Battle of Broodseinde during 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele) and in the spring of 1918 were recruiting about 350 officers and men as replacements. The Hampshires were affordable and desperately needed men. He arrived in France on 14thOctober 1917 as a second lieutenant in 1stBattalion Royal Hampshire Regiment. 

In the spring of 1918, there was fierce fighting throughout the sector known as the Lys Salient. The Battalion was in and out of the front line as it was needed, often being moved at short notice. John would have had very little time to get to know his men. He must have relied heavily on the non-commissioned officers in his platoon and his platoon commander. 

The map shows the approximate line of the Western Front, with the general location of the Lys Salient.
 Pacaut Wood is near Gonnehem in the Pas de Calais, just north-west of Bethune. The woodland, which may or may not be the one still to be seen in the map below, was of considerable tactical importance in that it offered the enemy cover in which to mass for an attack. The objective of the attack on Pacaut Wood was to secure a line across the wood from La Pannerie on the right to Riez du Vinage (which can be seen on the map) and cut off the southern part of the wood, denying it to the enemy. The Rifle Brigade's objective was La Pannerie and they would be attacking on the right, outside the wood. The Hampshires had three companies in the attack, with one in support, and their objective was the wood itself.

The Google Maps image shows Pacault Wood with the canal to the south. The left flank of the battle was Riez du Vinage, which can be seen in the north-west corner of the image.
On the 20thApril 1918, the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Pacaut Wood. That night John lead an aggressive patrol with the purpose of testing the enemy’s lines, gathering intelligence and snatching a prisoner if possible. He returned with a prisoner from the German Army’s 471st Regiment. This was something about John that we never knew. He was only twenty years old. It must have been intensely exciting, hugely important and utterly bloody terrifying all at once. he must have been so relieved to get back to the British lines in one piece having done a decent job, got a prisoner and not made a hash of it. 

The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Pacaut Wood, capturing two wounded prisoners. In the words of the regimental history, April 21st was “relatively quiet”, but what that means in the reality of the Western Front one can only imagine. C Company pulled back across the canal in preparation for the next day's main assault.

On April 22nd, the Battalion launched another attack on the Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of Pacaut Wood and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The front line had been drawn back to the canal to allow for a heavy trench mortar (9.45 inch mortar) barrage along the southern edge of the wood. This meant that the Hampshires would have to recross the canal by footbridges laid for the purpose by the Royal Engineers. Stokes mortars (3 inch trench mortar) and machine guns (Vickers  .303) were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of gas if the wind was favourable. During the briefing, troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being allotted its own objectives, D company on the right, A Company in the center, B company on the left with C company in support dug in along the southern bank of the canal. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was attached to one of the infantry companies to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold.

Troops assembled at 05.00 and zero hour was 05.15am. It would have just got light. The artillery barrage that accompanied the start of the advance alerted the enemy and the Hampshires took casualties from German counter battery fire at 05.18 as they stormed across the foot bridges. This particularly hit A Company. They incurred many casualties including their commanding officer and many NCOs. The rest of the attack went forward well. D company came under heavy machine gun fire as they neared their objective. I think that it was at this point that John was wounded. He was hit twice in the same legs, machine gun bullets passing through the flesh of his calf muscle and through his thigh. Mercifully, the large blood vessel in his thigh was not ruptured or he would have died in minutes. 2/Lt. Abbott pushed two Lewis guns forward to deal with the enemy machine gunners and this allowed two platoons to move up on his right and get established on the objective within zero plus 25 minutes. B Company had secured their objective five minutes earlier, having met no resistance. A Company had regrouped and linked back up with the companies to their right and left by 05.40. 

At 09.00, a platoon from C Company was called up to fill a gap that had developed at a cross-roads between A and D Companies. This platoon was lead by Captain Causton. They encountered heavy resistance from machine guns and Captain Causton was killed, but the platoon pushed forward to over-run the machine gun unit and attack a reinforcing party who were coming up to bolster the German defences. Most of the German soldiers were killed. When the platoon was at their objective, they extended their flanks by bombing (throwing grenades). But A Company were still struggling to make their objective.

The map is taken from a war diary that now forms part of the Regimental History. It shows a very rough plan of the intentions of the Regiment before the battle began.
At 07.00 an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.

At 11.00 the German machine gun fire began to slacken, but shell fire increased along the canal bank and at 13.30 Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. By early afternoon the whole line was connected with A Company still slightly short of their objective. The Germans put down a heavy barrage with rifle and machine gun fire without much effect.

At 17.30 the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. As dusk fell the counter-attack was beaten off with accurate rifle fire and machine gun fire from the Hampshire’s Lewis guns. A Company were still bogged down, so twelve men were detached from C Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as C Company were themselves suffering heavy casualties on the canal bank. If the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance throughout the night. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day by the Somerset Light Infantry and “The Duke’s”. They marched back to their billets in Lannoy. 

The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, which was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of their Operation Georgette offensive. Pacault Wood was a highly successful operation. Over 70 prisoners and several machine guns had been taken and the captured territory facilitated further advances at Riez du Vinage on the Battalion’s left flank.

John was taken to an aid station. Family legend has it that he was so badly wounded that he was going to be left with the other no-hopers outside the tent to die peacefully. However, a brother officer grabbed my unconscious grandfather's arm and refused to let him go saying, "Cleggy's with me! He stays with me!" So John was not left to drift off, he was taken further back behind the lines and thence to England. By the Armistice on 11th November he was in a convalescent home in Devon, recovering from his frightful wounds. He survived his wounds and went on to serve with the Hampshires in Turkey, Egypt and on the North-West Frontier of India where my mother was born. He served in the Second World War in England, North Africa and Italy and left the Army as a Lt Colonel.

Hampshires paid a high price for their success. During the attack on 22nd April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. Twenty-two NCOs and privates were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing. These last unfortunate men were probably lost during the artillery barrages, there being nothing left of them to find. May God have mercy upon their souls. The words of Laurence Binyon's poem "The Fallen" have never been bettered, the fourth most famous stanza reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. 



Sources: 
James Daly’s blog https://dalyhistory.wordpress.com

Vol.2 Regimental History, C.T. Atkinson. April 22nd 1918

Thanks to Lt. Col. HDH Keatinge OBE, Curator, Royal Hampshire Regiment Association, Serle’s House, Winchester. 2011.




Friday, 15 June 2018

Wessex to West Cork - a photographer's adventure!

Three Castle Head, The Mizen, West Cork, Eire

This is just a picture to reassure you that I have actually been to all the remarkable and exciting places I'm about to tell you about! Once you have seen a bit of this and realised that it's a place for you and your camera, scroll down to the bottom of the posting for a bit more info on how you can visit ....



Three Castle Head is at the end of the Mizen Peninsula. If you have ever tuned in to the Radio 4 shipping weather forecast then this is one of the Irish promontories that thrust out into the Atlantic in sea area Fastnet. It has Atlantic weather: windy, wet, furious, unforgiving, spectacular, inspiring exciting, sunny, warm, freezing, clear and foggy - usually all in one day. The light seems to come from all around you with an astonishing clarity. The main quality is it's blueness, so coming from smoggy south east England I had to change all the settings on the camera so as not to over-expose every image. Most of the images below are taken with a circular polarising filter or I waited until the sun was slightly filtered by cloud.

The landscape is Medieval, the stone walls and fields have not changed in centuries.
Dry stone wall study, Mizen Head
Wonderful subjects are everywhere you look: wild flowers, stone wall, castles, cattle, amazing sea views sothwards towards the Cork coast and northwards to the Beara Peninsula, crashing waves that seem to climb the 100 metre high cliffs and constantly birds flying over head, riding the wind and calling around you.

Three Castles 
The Medieval history is what gives Three Castle Head its name. Dun Lough castle (Dun a Locha, "Fort of the Lake"). It is one of the castles built by the O'Mahoney clan. Donagh na Aimrice O’Mahoney (Donagh The Migratory - so named for his pilgrimages to the Holy Land) built it in 1207, the O'Mahoney clan having been pushed ever westward by the invading Normans under Richard 'Stongbow' de Clare in 1170. 

The walls of the castle run from the massive sea cliffs to the lough which is itself defended by another wall at it's far end where it meet the other side of the promontory and some equally terrifying cliffs. It was an impregnable fortress with good supplies of food and water. The O'Mahoney descendants lived there until the 1620s. The last occupants with the O'Donahues who all died tragically by murder or suicide. A drop of their ghostly blood is said to fall each day into the lake from the largest tower.


Dun Lough Castle, Mizen

Dun Lough Castle, Mizen. The Beara Peninsula is just visible in the back ground.

Dun Lough Castle, Mizen

Dun Lough Castle, Mizen. Main entrance

Brave souls! A photographer peers over the edge of the cliffs into the maelstrom below

Dun Lough Castle, Mizen. The Castle never has many visitors, but there are usually a few folk around.

The main tower of Dun Lough Castle, Mizen. Black and white photography can really pay off here - the area is rich in patterns and high contrast opportunities.



The nearest village is Crookhaven, a lovely Atlantic coast fishing village. the welcome is typically fulsome and the Murphy's stout is delicious! There is, as you would imagine, great sea food here.



THE PLAN

OK, so the plan is to organise at least two trips a year for up to six photographers to West Cork. We stay at, or near to, the lovely Liss Ard Estate, Toe Head and Skibbereen. Here's a reminder of what they are like:

Lough Abisdealy

Lough Abisdealy
 And there are other amazing locations such as Lough Ine, a marine nature reserve.

Lough Ine
Lough Ine
And other great opportunities such as astrophotography in James Turrell's incredible Irish Sky Garden ...


The Irish Sky Garden.
More on this in a few weeks, but in the mean time just let me know if you are interested ...











Monday, 11 June 2018

Return to Toe Head

It's been a long time coming, but I have finally managed to return to West Cork. I lived there, in the Lake Lodge (which looked a lot smarter then than it does now), from 1989 until 1992 and established the wildlife garden and wildlife reserve around Liss Ard House (now Hotel), near Skibbereen. In my mid-twenties, I was ready to learn a huge amount about the natural world and was just about equipped with the knowledge and skills I needed to do so. Landing amidst the comparative wildness of West Cork, meeting otters, reedbeds, carr woodlands, bog bean and seeing huge alms (which I had to fell) was a wonderful education that I draw upon all the time to this day. The people I worked with, like Ken Bond (one of the best lepidopterists in Europe), Paddy Sleeman, John Early, Declan O'Donnell and academics in all the Irish universities were an inspiration. I met fascinating people such as Jim Turrell (who created the Irish Sky Garden at Liss Ard), learned masses from my boss Mike Hayes and mixed with a hugely eclectic set of folk who passed through the house and garden.

My old home is now a men's project. The interior has been stripped back to bare walls. I bet the bathroom is not bright pink anymore! Shedless blokes gather here to make bird boxes and sets of shelves ...
This is the entrance to Liss Ard House Hotel. But it did not always look like this ...


... in fact, before I got my hands on it, it was a field, and I did this to it:


The photo above is taken from almost precisely the same spot as the one of the entrance today. In the picture from 1990 you can just make out the trees I planted. I used a 10lb mattock to plant each one, each tree required three swings of the mattock, then the head of the mattock would be used to thump the sods back in place around the tree. It took ages to plant the 10,000 - 20,000 trees around the estate. I could not wear gloves as the mattock would slip, so had to work bare-handed. This meant blisters and torn skin so I bathed my hands in white spirit in order to toughen the skin. But every aching back, blister and pulled muscle was worth it so that I could return nearly 30 years later and see all these trees growing so well. The woodland is just as I wanted it to be; dense, wet, full of young trees and dead fallen trees. The bluebells have come in, yellow flag grows where I blocked the field drains with willow wands and it is full of life of every description.



This is the Signal Tower at Toe Head. It was one of a chain of towers built in 1804 or 1805 to warn of French invasion. The French never came and after Bonaparte's final defeat in 1815 they quickly fell into disuse. However, when I used to visit Toe Head a lot, i knew a lady who had been brought up in the Tower, so I know this one as Sheila's Tower. Her father moved them into the Tower as they had no house and they scraped a living farming and labouring around Gortacrossig (the hamlet nearby), kept livestock in the ground floor and lived above. But threats of invasion were not over. In 1942, Sheila's father joined the Coastal Watch whose job it was to make sure that combatant forces in the "Emergency" (or World War 2) did not land on neutral Ireland. One of their jobs was to build signs that would be visible from the air, telling bomber crews that the land was Ireland. The wrote in large letters, in white painted rocks placed on raised banks. They are still visible today:

With thanks to http://eiremarkings.org
It was a bit more visible in 1943 ... but not much. So imagine you are in a Dornier 17, a Heinkel 111, a RAF Lancaster or a USAAF B17 Flying Fortress and you are trying to work out where in Europe you are so that you and your young crew can survive the night. Even if you do see this as you fly through the wild Atlantic night, how is some young man from Dortmund, Leeds or Pittsburgh going to know what "EIRE" means?


The Stag Rocks, just off Toe Head, where the bulk carrier "Kowloon Bridge" lies wrecked. She went down in a huge storm in 1986, having left Bantry Bay where she had sought shelter. The bow was caved in by the storm and the crew abandoned ship, she then foundered on the Stags releasing all her bunker fuel, iron ore cargo and a host of noxious toxins.

But these days, Toe Head is better known for being on the "Wild Atlantic Way" coastal route, for the wild flowers, inspiring views and for its great bird life. The rare chough, a member of the crow family, is a real favourite of mine and it was lovely to photograph them nesting in the Tower. Toe Head is also a great place to spot vagrant birds. I have seen hoopoe, purple heron, pied flycatcher and American robin around Toe Head. There was little sign of the peregrines that used to bring me such delight, but I get great views of them in Bracknell: times have changed for the better in that way at least.

Chough, their lively zipping, buzzing calls are so unlike the other crows.

Chough flight is graceful, balletic: their long primary feathers are more like adornments than purposeful wings.

I was also rewarded with a bonus hen harrier!
The hen harrier was a lovely surprise. These birds are usually only seen in southern Ireland in winter. This female was hunting hard - so maybe she was breeding? I'll just have to go back next year to find out!
















Monday, 14 May 2018

Great trees, Cistercians and the Blackwater Valley

I lived in Eire from 1990 to 1993, I have not been back to Eire since I visited Co. Clare in 1996. So when an old school friend invited me over I put up very little resistance. Springtime in Ireland is special.

Kathy lives with her family in Co. Waterford, within sight of the Knockmealdown Mountains. On my first day with them I explored the area with her youngest, Daniel.


Kathy's family had, in previous centuries, been significant land owners in this part of Ireland and the nearby Cistercian Abbey now occupies what had been one of the family homes. The drive curves down from the road, finally revealing the church and abbey against the backdrop of the wooded Blackwater valley. Of course, what caught my eye immediately was the great tree in front of the building! When I got up to it, I did not know (and am still unsure) of the species. It is a truly remarkable tree. Great height coupled with the expansive open-grown form gives the tree a symmetrical beauty and majesty from its sheer size that makes you stop and stare.


The hour-glass trunk makes it difficult to measure, but at 1.5 metres off the ground (where we would usually measure the girth of a veteran tree) it is over 7 metres in circumference.

As I looked around, I could see several other great trees: copper beech, Scots pine, common beech and of course Irish (or Western) oak.




The views down the Blackwater Valley are fantastic. Daniel and I went on down to explore the river, finding more lovely old oaks in the flood meadows.

A pollard oak, sadly misused by management and cattle.
Daniel was reluctant to become a tree hugger at first, but soon got the hang of it!
The River Blackwater itself is a strong lowland river as it winds through the broad valley, drawing waters from the mountains and rolling farmland on either side. Daniel and I searched for signs of otters, found none but we did find where the deer had been swimming the river and scrambling out.


Our feet got soggy in the long valley grass as we tramped back towards the Abbey. Climbing up through the woods, we had a look into some interesting burrows amidst the bluebells and wild garlic.





Friday, 11 May 2018

Last days on Islay

My last couple of weeks on Islay, which could have been a nightmare of packing the house, selling all the stuff I could not get off the island, making bookings for vans, flights, storage and finding somewhere to live (not to mention cancelling flights, car rental, etc), was hugely alleviated by the presence of good friends who saved my sanity and offered practical help.

The first visitor to my home arrived the day before my employment ended. She sat me down in front of a spreadsheet and worked through the process of getting off the island with my belongings, making a move to a new location and ensuring that I was able to make the vital hospital appointments the following week. Friends and family came up with offers of accommodation, invaluable career advice was forthcoming and pretty soon I had a plan. How that plan developed, dissolved and had to be re-made on the hoof has provided me with proof that the military adage "no plan survives contact with the enemy" is God's own truth. That whole litany of stress and disaster will not be the subject of a future blog ... I'll just let it sink back into the murky waters of my memory, hopefully never to surface again.

The best thing about having my visitors with me was that I was able to get out into the increasingly nice weather to enjoy bits of the island and share them with others. The lovely walk up to Rhuval Lighthouse (subject of my first Islay blog) was so much more enjoyable with a friend striding beside me, a stroll around the Mull of Oa and beach combing in search of shells; all things that you need to share with others. The hard core photographic trips are peculiarly painful for anyone with me, so are best done alone, but the pure enjoyment of a beautiful natural environment, full of wildlife and alive with wind, sun and rain is enhanced by the company of a friend or three.

Beach combers

Finding shells

Skimming stones - who can resist it?
The wildlife was not quite so forthcoming. The promises of eagles I had made at Rhuval and Oa did not materialise (I blame the RSPB for this, they are in charge of birds after all) and the Bunnahabhain otters also hid from us. However, there was a lovely sighting of an otter for me as I left on the ferry from Port Askaig to take the first load down south. A female was sheltering from the ferocious tide by  hunting close to the rocks in the lee of the ferry itself. She popped up like a submarine surfacing, looked at me, winked (she DID!) and then disappeared.

I was very pleased that the hares, that abound (literally) on the island, performed superbly for the amazing friends who came to join me for my last three days. They helped me pack, load the van, get the house sorted out and ensured that I was able to take whatever remains of my sanity with me when me and the van were squished onto the ferry by the skilful CalMac folk at Port Askaig.

So, now I am resident in sunny Bracknell, but am sitting in Heathrow Terminal 2 while writing this before travelling to Cork for the weekend. The weather in Cork promises to be a series of 'soft days' (gentle rain), but I am looking forward to seeing it all again after so long.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Goats and grey seals


I have started to explore the rocky coasts of Islay. It is full of caves, arches and tiny lonely beaches. Along the coast are the mysterious duns: the remains of prehistoric round houses. It is so full of nooks, crannies and ottery hidey-holes that I don't get very far along the coast: exploring takes time!

One of the more surprising things to see along the coast are the wild goats. They breed very early. This nanny had a tiny kid at foot and this was taken before the recent period of cold weather. These early kids will be very luck to survive. bad for goats, but great if you're an eagle.

Wild Goat and kid. Islay
The secluded beaches are safe places for seals to haul out and rest. I came across the two below last weekend. One sunbathing on a rocky about 150 metres off the shore and the other came swimming in towards me and popped up to get a closer look. Their faces are rather odd, a bit mask-like with huge goggle eyes that I find a bit un-nerving.

Grey Seal. Islay

Grey Seal. Islay









Monday, 5 February 2018

Islay: sand, sunburn and scenery.


My third weekend on Islay. Sunday dawned clear and still. Gone was the mix of rain and hail that, when driven by a blustery gale, really hurts a bald head. So I set out to walk from Bunnahabhain to the lighthouse at Rhuvaal on the north-east coast of the island. I parked near the distillery and went through the deer fence gate. Almost immediately, I came upon the Margadale River where it debouches into the sea. Where a river meets the sea is always the best place to find sign of otters and sure enough I quickly found lots of evidence: fresh spraint that had been perched on top of small mounds. The mounds are actually made of old spraint. If you dig into them it is a mass of old fish bones deposited for decades. 

Looking north towards Rubha Bachlaig and up the Sound Of Islay. Jura is just visible on the right.
Across the Sound, Jura's twin peaks, The Paps, had lost the snowy mantle that had shrouded them for most of the last two weeks. Little tufts of cloud adorned their summits as the air moved across them and its moisture condensed.

The Paps of Jura




The Paps, with their distinctive cloud caps.
As you might expect from one of the Estate's best stalking areas, there were plenty of deer around; even if the otters contrived to be elsewhere. Both red deer and roe deer were making the most of the morning sun. They had found banks and sunny hollows where they could sun bathe. With the sun at my back and the light breeze in my face off the sea, I was in a good position to stalk in close with the camera.

A roe buck let me get very close, about ten metres away, before he quit his sunny place and moved off.
I spotted a stag lying fast asleep in the sun. He heard the first few shutter clicks (I had not silenced the shutter) and stood up to get a better look before ambling off.
I took my time as I made my way up the coast, taking every opportunity to descend from the ATV track to the pebbly shoreline. Ringed Plover could be seen flittering across the pebbles in small flocks.

Ringed Plover.

As I scanned the rocky foreshore for otters, a large bird came into view flying powerfully along the coast towards me. A juvenile white-tailed eagle flew past at head height as I stood on the small cliff over a beach.


White-tailed eagle
White-tailed eagle
A little late I saw it flying across the hill just inland of me. They are hugely curious birds so, the second it saw me, it veered towards me and came to soar above me. Then, having satisfied itself that I was not going to do anything that some other more interesting humans do such as throw fish from boats, shoot deer and find dead sheep, it grew bored and flew away over the hill.

Whit-tailed eagle
Almost as soon as the eagle left me, two juvenile peregrine falcons appeared over the Sound, chasing each other across the line of snow-capped mountains in the distance.


Looking northwards to the snow caps of Mull.
Colonsay rears up white and wintery to the north of Islay.
Rhuvaal Lighthouse, from near Glen Dubh.
I finished the day back home, standing beside the monument to John Francis Campbell, watching the sun go down over Loch Indaal and listening to thousands of barnacle geese gently honking as they settled to roost on the mud flats.