The Hampstead Heavies
138th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery
(04/16 - 01/18)
(1915 - 1954)
The Hampstead & Highgate Express, 27 April 1956
Article by Wilfrid T Finch
Forty years ago this mouth the 138th Hampstead Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery landed in France to perform its share in World War 1. The Battery had been raised by the then mayor of Hampstead, Alderman O'Bryen, in the previous year, 1915, and most of its training took place on Hampstead Heath, the horses and equipment being quartered at first in the borough council's yard at Lymington Road. On 2 March 1916 Hampstead was left behind and journey by road made to Salisbury Plain for one firing test, then to Bordon Camp from which the battery entrained for Southampton Docks and so to Le Havre in the ss City of Dunkirk.
The writer of this article was one of the original members and served with the battery from the time it landed at Le Havre in April 1916 until it was disbanded in the spring of 1919 and has recently spent a holiday cycling over some of the places at which the battery was in action in France.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The first part of our journey took us from Calais to St. Omer where we spent the weekend visiting Hazebrouck and Cassel. Bethune was next visited and it seemed to be quite a prosperous town. It was here in April 1916 that the Battery finished its journey to the front, having travelled by train from the port.
It was only natural that from Bethune we should take the road to Houchin. This little village was the site of our wagon lines and here for many months the drivers and some 200 horses made their home. It now seems rather a poor village, and old members of the Battery may like to know that the wayside crucifix still stands at the entrance.
Just outside is the English cemetery and this is beautifully maintained and cared for. From here we looked out over the landscape which stretches from Vermelles to Lens.
Noeux-les-Mines was our next call. The red bricked church is there and we remembered that here we had our first gas test with the new respirators.
This is a mining village and here we had an interesting experience. As we were in the small cafe we were introduced to some Frenchmen as having once been in action there. Without more ado, one of them put his arms round me and hugged me, exclaiming in English, "Welcome! Welcome!"
We spent some time here going over old and familiar territory. Among the cemeteries visited was that at Vermelles. This is surrounded by houses and dominated by slag heaps. It is very well cared for.
A LONE GUN
On the main road from Bethune to Lens we visited the pit-head known to us as Fosse 7. I could not resist going to the gates and looking in, for here some of us manned a lone gun. It used to be a forward position and at times was an unhealthy place. The low brick wall is still there which shielded the Field Artillery gun pits.
A little farther up the road is the great memorial and cemetery known as Duds corner. Here we learned that 40,000 dead were recorded. This is the scene of the famous Loos battle. In our day it was a dismal plain, criss-crossed with trenches and noted for sudden barrages of artillery fire and the blowing up of craters at such places as Hulluch and Loos.
On the day we were there the sun was shining and, as we looked out, it was a joy to see ploughed fields instead of barbed wire and trenches and shell holes.
Continuing our journey over the brow of the hill we came to Loos-en-Gohelle and visited the British cemetery. No one who knew the sector in the 1914-18 war can fail to be moved by the great transformation which the years have wrought.
We did not continue our journey into the town of Lens but turned right through Vendin. This was often a target for the battery when it fired from Bully Grenay. This latter town was our intended destination that day so we cycled on through the thickly populated areas to Maroc, dismounting to visit the British cemetery in the main street. It was beautifully maintained. Bully Grenay was reached as the evening light began to fade.
Our first task was to seek shelter for the night and naturally we went to the home of Madame Lavogiez at No. 91 Grande Rue. This gallant lady was a real mother to many of us in those early days in 1916.
Alas, I was received with a blank puzzled face when the cottage door opened. Of course, 35 years had made a great difference, although it all seems so near still.
Eventually we were taken in hand by a Frenchman who knew Madame. He explained that she was now very old and lived in Paris.
We talked of many things that happened then and he seemed particularly delighted when I mentioned the guns of the French battery which used to be in position near the corner of his street. Any of my battery comrades who may read this will especially remember the Ferme Sauvage in the courtyard of which we used to draw water from the big pump. It is now restored and shows no signs of the shell fire it suffered.
Our shelter for the night was in a tumble-down estaminet at the end of the track where our first gun positions were. Except that our dug-outs have disappeared no change has taken place here and it was a real thrill to tread this ground again.
It was here that the battery suffered its first casualties on 29 May 1916, these being Gunners Brickwell, Jenks and Baxter. A courting couple were sitting in the small triangular copse where their bodies were laid before burial. They little knew the solemn memories we were having as we bid them good evening!
Alf Baxter came from Hermitage Lane, Child Hill, the same district as myself, and if any of his relatives should see this I should like them to know how wonderfully cared for is his resting place.
Aix Noulette, the adjoining village, was also a place of solemn memories. It was here that I held the giant frame of Lieutenant Hill of Hampstead as he was mortally stricken by a shell burst.
We had barely completed our inspection of' this cemetery when a terrific thunderstorm broke out. It was all very reminiscent of the intense bombardment which our guns shared in on 9 April. 1917, when Vimy Ridge was captured. Members of the battery will remember how this attack started before dawn in a snowstorm.
As we continued our journey to Vimy Ridge we went off the track to Bois Noulette cemetery. It. was a most inaccessible place but we found it tucked away on the edge of a wood, and it was truly a "corner of England" wonderfully maintained.
The whole lay-out of the Vimy Ridge memorial is majestic. To stand at the summit and look out across northern France is to understand why both sides fought so bitterly for its possession. Not far away is the French national memorial and its vast cemetery.
Continuing our journey we arrived at Arras and spent a comfortable night in a small hotel near the railway station. Our route now took us across the Somme district. Every village seems to have its signpost to a British military cemetery. We had lunch at Bucquoy and visited Bucquoy Road and Queens cemeteries and later made our way to Thiepval with its memorial to 70,000 unknown soldiers. Pozieres has its tank memorial and it is noted that most Australians fell here.
Warlencount cemetery was a restful spot to sit in. Haymaking was proceeding in the adjoining fields.
Bapaume was our resting place on this occasion and we were sumptuously entertained by some French friends.
The weekend we decided to spend in Paris. Our return was partly by train and we decided to journey to Le Cateau. It was near here at St. Souplet that the battery completed its days of action in November 1918.
In those days it was a very forlorn place, as old members of the battery will remember. What a business it was dealing with 200 horses at watering time in mud and slosh! After paying our respects at the trim cemetery here we cycled on through villages not likely to be forgotten by some of us to Estrees.
It was here on 6 October 1918 that our beloved commanding officer, Major H. G. Paris, MC, met his death while performing an act of mercy. We all counted it an honour to have served under him. The enemy blasted our position for hours through what was indeed a night of terror.
How strangely different it seemed now to be able to lie in a clean bed while across the road the village church clock sweetly chimed the hours of night.
Sergeant Taylor, MM, who was also killed, was speaking to me only a moment before he was stricken. The mortal remains of these two brave men were laid side by side in a small plot near Hargicourt Quarry and so it was to this sacred spot we next journeyed. Our journey took us through Bellicourt through which the Hindenburg line stretched with its miles of deep trenches and dug-outs and acres of barbed wire. Now all that can be seen are neatly cultivated fields.
Our visit to Hargicourt was, in effect, the climax to our pilgrimage. The cemetery is a peaceful spot and the inscription on Sergeant Taylor's headstone tells us he was but 19 and that of Major Paris that he was 31.
We left the shores of France deeply impressed by the loving care which is bestowed on these war-time cemeteries, and relatives of fallen ones can rest assured that the Imperial War Graves Commission has spared no efforts to keep these resting places worthy of comrades whom we left behind.Top of page