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138th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery


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Bully les Mines,  April 1916 - May 1917

The Heavies arrived at L'Havre early on 14 April 1916 and, after one night encamped on the outskirts of the town, left the following evening for "The Firing Line", travelling overnight by train to a destination which the following morning revealed was Bèthune. For the next 13 months, until May 1917, the Heavies were to be in action in the vicinity of Bully les Mines, sited 5 - 10 kms south and east of Bèthune but, for one week in July 1916, positioned about 15 kms to the north west.

When the Heavies reached Bully les Mines the most significant fighting on the Western Front was at Verdun, some 250 kms to the south east. Yet the Heavies' position was far from quiet and the Battery often found itself engaged with hostile batteries. Contemporary observers noted that the Battery quickly adapted to the conditions of the front and effectively replaced the more experienced unit which had previously held the position.

During May 1916 the Heavies were located close to Ferme Sauvage at Bully-les-Mines where they were able to create dugouts and improvise billets whilst experiencing artillery duels throughout the month.


FS1   FS2
Ferme Sauvage before and after actions in May 1916

On 29 May a heavy German bombardment resulted in the Battery's first fatal casualties who were buried the same day with military honours in Bully military cemetery.

Occasional hostile shelling continued throughout June and early July but caused no great damage.

On 14 July 1916 the Battery was ordered to the Neuve-Chapelle front, at a position 15 kms north east of Bèthune, to support an attack on Aubers Ridge, scene of heavy and largely unsuccessful British attacks earlier in the year. The guns of the Heavies were continuously in action for long spells, a welcome change from the comparative inactivity of the past few months, with 90 rounds being fired in support of the ANZACS on 20 July. The following day the Battery was ordered to return to its former position south of Bèthune and was lucky to escape heavy German shelling of the position it had just left.

At the end of August 1916 the Heavies were made into a 6-gun Battery with the addition of a Section from 166 HB RGA fresh from England.

During Autumn 1916 , although the Heavies were liable to come under attack at any time, their portion of the front was relatively quiet and few casualties were experienced. Once again they were able to use their ingenuity to create comfortable dugouts and billets although bad weather and fuel shortages were constant problems. The front became more active again around Christmas, especially for the Left Section, which experienced a heavy bombardment with gas shells, the whole district around the village of Bully reeking of gas for days after.

After Christmas the Battery had a number of changes of Commanding Officer, the last being in March 1917 when Captain Paris, who had raised the Battery in 1915 and who had moved in January 1917 to 144 HB, was re-posted to the Heavies to take command as Major. Late March saw several changes of position in anticipation of the battle for Vimy Ridge, which began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.

On 9 April the Heavies carried out a bombardment in conjunction with the attack mounted by 3rd Canadian Division. The guns were in action all day, with those men not on guns or telephones carrying ammunition in very difficult conditions. The next day the Germans made a determined counter attack causing a number of casualties some of which proved fatal. The Battery was involved for two more days in intense activity but by 13 April hostile activity had begun to slacken.

On 16 April 1917 the Battery was ordered to move to Vermelles, 8 kms south east of Bèthune. The new positions were reached the following day, the men being billeted in the cellars of a nearby chateau. The Battery and its billets were persistently shelled for several days culminating in a severe attack on 27 April after which the Battery withdrew to Noyelles, 1 km to the west of Vermelles. Artillery duels with hostile batteries continued during the first half of May until, on 14 May 1917, the Battery was ordered to move to the wagon lines at Houchin, 8 kms south of Bèthune, where it was re-equipped.

Walter Wright in his description of the Battery's stay at Bully les Mines mentions the importance to the Heavies of the estaminet run by Madam Lavogiez. "To the majority of the men of the Battery, their true home in Bully was the little house of Madame Lavogiez in the Grand Rue. For any of our boys who liked to look in, there was always a welcome, with the inevitable cup of coffee from the coffee pot, which was everlastingly being replenished"

estaminet

The site of Madame Lavogiez's estaminet

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