At the end of January 1915 the British front line at was 800 yards to the east of the village of Cuinchy. The village was bounded to the north by the Canal d'Aire and the railway, both running in parallel west-east from Béthune to La Bassée; and to the south, by the main road from Béthune to La Bassée. The point at which the British line touched the main road was the end of the British sector of the front, and where the British line met the French.
Flat ground to the east of the village, between the railway and the road, contained thirty or so brick stacks, which had been made just before the war. The stacks were about sixteen feet high. Most were behind the German front line. However, some of those behind the British line had been used to form a keep, or small redoubt, through which ran a partially prepared second line of defence.
A little further to the east was a triangle of railway lines, formed by a branch line coming up from Vermelles, to the south, to join the main east-west line. This "railway triangle" was held by the Germans, which gave them an advantage, since it gave the enemy a fort which he could hold - the embankments provided a good view over the otherwise low, flat ground, and also provided cover from rifle fire.
The position had previously been held by the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion Scots Guards, half of them forward, in an advanced trench, and half holding the second line of defence. On 25th January a German attack was launched using mines, and the advanced trench was rushed. The British fell back to the second line of defence. Though they had suffered heavy losses, they were able to hold the "keep", and establish and hold a new line running through the "keep" from the canal and railway to the main road.
On arriving at the position at 7.30pm the evening of 30th January, 2nd Battalion Coldstream occupied the line, with the Irish Guards at Brigade headquarters in Cuinchy village in support and the 3rd Battalion Coldstream in reserve. 2nd Battalion deployed with No 1 Company on the right of the position, Nos 2 and 3 Companies in the centre, and No 4 Company on the left.
No 4 Company's position was next to the canal and railway, in an area of ground known as "the hollow". The hollow is described as a narrow strip of ground some four hundred yards long and about twenty yards wide, created by a long, narrow, spoil bank which ran parallel with the railway. It was connected with the towpath between the canal and the railway by two culverts under the railway, the "big culvert" (which was farther to the west) and the "lesser culvert". Both culverts were just behind the British line.
As a result of the attack on 25th January, the new positions of the German and British lines were extremely close. In particular, No 4 Company was holding a trench which was held at the other end by the Germans. Nevertheless, on coming into the position on 30th January, they were able to occupy it without difficulty, and on 31st January, though subject to sniper fire, they were able to erect a barricade for some protection.
However, at 2.30 am on 1st February, No 4 Company were attacked by bombs (grenades), and were forced to evacuate their end of the trench. They moved back behind a second barricade of sandbags positioned across the Hollow, between the two culverts. The "lesser culvert" was now behind the German line, but as they still held the "big culvert", the Coldstreams still had access to and from the tow-path.
No 4 Company Irish Guards came up in support and a counter attack was organised, which took place about 4.00 am. The attack was made in three lines: the first, by a small party up the tow-path; the second, by a larger group up the Hollow on to the railway embankment; the third, against two barricades now erected by the Germans to protect their new position. But the counter-attack suffered serious losses. Men on the railway embankment were easily targeted by machine guns; while the ground in the Hollow was cut up with communication trenches and dugouts. This prevented any rapid charge being made, while men moving slowly across the various obstructions presented "a fine target" in the moonlight. Colonel Pereira (Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards) therefore cut his considerable losses and recalled the attack at 6.30 am, before dawn made things even worse.
A further counter-attack was then ordered, but this time with artillery preparation. The position to be recaptured was subjected to intense bombardment for ten minutes, beginning at precisely 10.05 am. The counter-attack was then launched at 10.15 am. Once again No 4 Company was to advance up the tow-path and up the hollow; following was a bomb-party from Nos 3 and 4 Companies, then 30 Irish Guards with sandbags, spades, and more bombs, accompanied by a party of Royal Engineers, to consolidate ground won; and finally, a further company of the Irish Guards in reserve, to hold the existing British position.
The attack involved several acts of great courage. Lance Corporal Michael O'Leary of the Irish Guards won a VC, for the single-handed capture of a German machine gun and two prisoners; while four members of 2nd Bn Coldstream were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The action was successful in recovering the ground that had been lost earlier in the morning. In addition, the capture of the position at the eastern end of the hollow enabled the capture of two further trenches held by the Germans, which were abandoned (according to the Regimental History) "in such a hurry that [the enemy] left his rifles behind still leaning against the parapet".
At about 8-9 pm the Battalion was relieved by the 3rd Battalion Coldstream, and marched to billets in Béthune, for two days rest. Subsequently on 6th February a further attack was mounted at the position, this time involving the 3rd Battalion Coldstream and the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, which was able to retake the brickstacks immediately in front of "the keep", and recover a little more ground, though not quite as far as the line lost on 25th January. The position reached on 6th February 1915 then remained much the same for the rest of the war. © Gail Ham & Phil McConnell.