March - April
Front Line : Northern Section. Sketch by Jim Maultsaid
In the first week of March the weather began to improve, just as the Division extended its front South of the river to include all of Thiepval Wood.
“The Wood’ soon provided the Derry Volunteers with a baptism of fire. Throughout the afternoon of 10 March there had been unusually heavy fire from the germans, which had aroused suspicions. Then at midnight came a big sudden bombardment which lasted until 2am. When the shelling died down it was discovered that the enemy had penetrated trenches manned by the Derry men. Flares had failed to go off and the telephone lines had been cut at the start of the bombardment, so there had been a delay in getting the 36ths own artillery to open up in defence. The Germans had time to do sufficient damage to the British defenses to result in thirty dead and wounded - and a number of prisoners had been taken. But some Ulstermen had managed to inflict a toll on the Germans, once they had organised themselves in defence.
“In the hand to hand fighting with the Germans in the trench, there was a German caught in the wire and a fellow from Cookstown called Ned Anderson tried to send up a flare - well it caught the German on the wire. Now weather or not the fellow was alive or dead i dont know, but we could smell him burning as the fire blazed up. It fair turned your insides, but we had to fight on until the Germans went back....They tried to bomb a dugout we had at a cross-trench, but one of our men had the presence of mind to throw across the main trench a couple of rolls of wire and we sniped at them every time they tried to force their way across”.
Eventually, when dawn came, the casualties, including a number of German prisoners wounded or dying, were removed from the scene of the destruction. The incident stirred up serious talk of revenge raids but the immediate business in hand was to repair the trenches.
On 17 March the troops celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. At Hedauville, where they were resting, the band of the Armagh Volunteers woke the Battalion at 6 a.m. by playing ‘Irish Airs’.
By the end of March as Thiepval Wood was gaining foliage and birds were building nests in its branches, a decision was made to shorten at the North end the Front line held by the 36th. It was now to be a front ‘astride the Ancre’ - with two subsectors known as Thiepval Wood and Hamel. This was to become Ulster Territory, and was to remain so long after the 36th had departed, long after the war was over.
Now in the early spring of 1916, Ulstermen named their trenches in the Picardy soil after Belfast landmarks - Royal Avenue, Great Victoria Street and Sandy Row. With April came further severe bombardments and on 6 April a number of men were killed and wounded when the YCVs were shelled.
At this time preparations began for an attempted breakthrough in the Western Front. The sustained German assault on Verdun, which had begun in February, in the Southern, French-held sector, was putting increased pressure on the allies. THere had been 90,000 French casualties in the first six weeks. The Allied high commands therefore brought forward to early summer the planned date for opening a joint offensive along the Picardy front, where the British and French-held zones were adjacent. Sir Douglas Haig, hoped that the New Army Battalions, raised by Kitchener, would take the prime role in the new campaign. The Ulster Division would thus have an important task in what was soon referred to by the men as ‘The Big Push’.