South to the Somme
Noel left for Infantry School on 26 October. He returned a month later when, just moving up to the front line NW of Ypres and SW of Poelcappelle on the evening of 24 November, 5 men were killed and 14 wounded (map). The casualty totals for the regiment over October/November were 44 dead, 154 injured and 87 gassed. December saw an improvement. The men spent two periods in a camp west of Popperinge, a town the Allies held throughout the war. With its shops and restaurants it was a place just behind the front line for much-needed R and R and the regiment was able to enjoy a Christmas dinner in comparative peace.
Activities in January and February were fairly routine with stints in the line at Poelcappelle - a German raid killed one man and captured two others, along with a Lewis gun - and at Houthulst Forest. On the night of 28 February the regiment put out two patrols under a barrage from the Allied artillery. A shell falling short killed an officer and two men of one raiding party. The other raiding party met with great success, knocking out a machine gun post, damaging enemy wire, killing at least twenty Germans and capturing several more though they failed to collect any intelligence - the farm buildings were ablaze - and were forced to withdraw when the Germans started shelling.
On 21 March, the enemy launched their largest offensive of the war, on the Somme front. The overwhelming attack caused initial chaos and broke deep into the area south of the Somme, taking ground that had been occupied by the 35th Division when Noel first arrived in France. Many Divisions, including the 35th, were rushed to the area. It was the start of the First Battle of the Somme, 1918. The officers of Noel’s Battalion were holding a fancy-dress party, together with some nurses from local casualty clearing stations, when their evening was interrupted by the signal from Divisional HQ, informing them of their urgent move south.