H. C. (Herbert Charles) O'Neill.

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 10 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 10 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the line was handed over to the 88th Brigade, and on the
following day the battalion embarked for Mudros, and after
a day's rest proceeded once more to Helles. Here the time
was spent in training and fatigues until December 31st,
when the news of the approaching evacuation was received.
A line of defences was at once mapped out, and work
begun on them. At 10 p.m. on January 2nd the two
companies embarked on a trawler from " W " beach. A
few hours earlier the beach was being shelled, but the
actual embarkation was uneventful. The next day the
battalion was transhipped to S.S. Caledonia on arrival at
Mudros, and the course was set for Alexandria. On
January 8th they arrived at Alexandria and entrained for

It was little more than a year since the battalion, a
splendid fighting unit, had reached this very place,
travelling in the opposite direction. The intervening
period enshrined one of the most terrible experiences any
soldiers were called upon to suffer. But the 2nd Battalion
can look back with pride on this campaign in Gallipoli.
In attack, in defence, in endurance they were, as a close
observer said more than once, " beyond praise." j

* The 2/3 Londons also suffered very terribly in this storm, being
reduced to 4 officers and 60 men.

f Brigade Major, 86th Brigade. See p. 96.



By a strange coincidence the 2nd Battalion made its
second debut in major operations in another attempt to
achieve the impossible. On this occasion it took part with
the 29th Division in the holding attack, north of the Ancre,
which was launched simultaneously with the opening of
the Somme battle on July 1st, 1916.

At the battle of Loos the role of the British Army had
been subsidiary to that of the French. Neither men nor
material justified the hope of the army playing a part of
decisive importance. But at the battle of the Somme
there were ample numbers ; and the army had increased
until, on the Western Front, it commanded 660,000
bayonets and sabres. And the atmosphere in which the
battle was launched was completely changed. Loos was
fought when the Russian Army appeared to be at its last
gasp. Russia had already won a striking victory when
the battle of the Somme began ; Italy had recovered from
the Austrian attack in the Trentino, and France had
weathered the attack at Verdun, though with heavy loss.
The expansion of the Royal Fusiliers was symptomatic of
the change in the equilibrium on the west. There were
now twenty-one battalions in France, in addition to
battalions in the Balkans and in Africa.

Beaumont Hamel. — From first to last no fewer than
twenty battalions of Royal Fusiliers were engaged in the
battle of the Somme. But no other Fusilier unit fought
so unsatisfying an action with such heavy loss as did the
2nd Battalion. Its role was to hold the German reserves
and occupy his artillery in order to assist the main attack
south of the Ancre. But, as ill-fortune would have it, the


enemy had expected the main attack on the front allocated
to holding and subsidiary attacks, and the units engaged
there suffered accordingly.

The preparations for the opening of the first great British
attack in France had been very elaborate, and on the front
of the division, north of the 29th, they included the driving
of an enormous mine towards the Hawthorne Redoubt.
The explosion of this mine was to launch the battalion's
attack and provide its first objective. The Fusiliers lay
just north of the Ancre, below Beaumont Hamel, which
nature and artifice had turned into a very formidable
fortress. The troops were in position at 5.15 a.m., and
the bombardment became terrific. Shortly afterwards
a smoke barrage was put down, and then at 7.20 a.m. the
mine was exploded, filling the air with a cloud of debris.
At once D Company rushed forward with machine guns
to occupy the crater, but they were met by a heavy
German barrage and machine gun fire. Five minutes later
was zero hour, and the whole line advanced.

Upon the battalion front the attack never had any
chance of success. When D Company reached the mine
crater they were only able to occupy the nearer lip as the
other side was already held by the Germans. No advance
could be made there, and, on the rest of the front few of the
men reached the enemy's wire. The British barrage was
persistent in its attentions to the second and third lines
of the German first defensive system, with the consequence
that the battle was restricted to the first line where, armed
with an ample supply of machine guns, the enemy was
able to crush every attempt to rush it. At mid-day the
few men remaining in No Man's Land had to give up the
futile attempt and retire. The losses of the battalion had
been very terrible. Major Cripps who had been ordered
to brigade headquarters to be brigade major, was
seriously wounded within two hours. Lieut. -Colonel A. V.
Johnson was buried and wounded in the front line trench
by a shell from one of our own batteries. He attempted
to carry on, but was clearly unfit to do so and was evacuated.

Major-General Sir W. B. Hickie, K.C.B., who commanded
the i6th Division from December, 1915, until it was broken

up in April, 1918.


Captain Goodliffe, who was to have occupied the
German front line when captured, examined the wounded
in order to gain information. One poor fellow, whose
jaw was shattered, could only mumble, but he insisted
on telling his story. A guess was made at his meaning,
" We are doing no good on the right." When this was
repeated to him, he nodded and smiled, and went off to the
dressing-station. Such was the spirit of the men in one
of the worst experiences of the war.

The total casualties for the day amounted to 490,
including 20 officers, three of them killed. This was in
addition to the eight officers who became casualties during
the preliminary bombardment. Lieut. -Colonel G. S.
Guyon was killed while gallantly leading the 16th Battalion
West Yorks. The battalion had suffered, in fact, worse
than in the landing in Gallipoli, and drastic reorganisation
was necessary. Captain Swifte assumed command with
Captain Goodliffe as second and Lieutenant P. T. 0. Boult
as Adjutant.

Dearden and Baldwin alone of the officers who went over
the top did not become causalties and the former had his
steel helmet dented by a shell. For forty-eight hours the
wounded dribbled in, some of them mad. The Germans
left their trenches under a Red Cross flag and collected
some of the wounded. They also removed Lewis guns on
stretchers, a slight blot on otherwise unexceptional
behaviour !

On July 2nd the artillery was extremely active on both
sides and the day was given over to the salvage of dead
and wounded. On the 4th the 2nd Battalion were relieved
by two battalions of the 4th Division, and later in the
month they passed from the Somme area.

Gommecourt. — Farther north, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th
Londons had been involved in the subsidiary attack south
of the Gommecourt salient, the 1st being in divisional
reserve. The 2nd Londons lay in the front line until
1.30 p.m., when D Company were ordered up to the
first German line (Ferret Trench) ; but Lieutenant H.


W. Everitt and several men were hit as they left the
trenches and the company made three unsuccessful
attempts to cross the open in the face of the artillery and
machine gun fire. A little later A and C Companies were
directed to make good the German front line on the left
and right of Ferret Trench and to recover parts of the
trenches beyond. C, on the left, was held up before the
German wire. Captain Handyside was wounded about
15 yards from the front line but crawled forward encourag-
ing his men until killed by a shell. After dark about fifty
of the men, including many wounded, crawled back.
A Company fared similarly, losing all its officers and all
but 35 men ; and at 3.15 p.m. the battalion were ordered
to cease the attempt to reinforce and to hold the old front
line. Soon after noon the Germans showed a white flag
in Ferret trench and an informal truce took place for about
an hour for the collection of wounded. Ten minutes
before the end of the truce the Germans gave warning by
firing shells over the men. Some of the wounded stated
that the Germans had given them coffee during the night.
On July 3rd the battalion received the congratulations
of the divisional general on their gallantry. Indeed,
there was no lack of courage and the 2nd Londons lost
12 officers, including Captains Handyside and Garland
killed, and 241 other ranks.

The role of the 3rd Londons was to dig a communication
trench from " Z" hedge to the junction of Fir and Firm
Trenches — on the left of the point which C Company of the
3rd Londons attacked ; but when this was begun at
10.10 a.m., the German barrage was so heavy that the task
had to be abandoned. " Z" hedge, occupied by Second
Lieutenant Johnson and No. 15 Platoon was so heavily
shelled that at 1.15 p.m. only Johnson and one man were
left. The battalion lost 3 officers and 120 other ranks.

The 4th Londons supported the attack on the right of
the 3rd, and they also came under so heavy a fire that any
considerable or lasting success was impossible. At
8.45 a.m. two companies were ordered to support the


Rangers in the German front trench (Fetter) ; but, although
six runners were despatched with the message by different
routes and two others after an interval of fifteen minutes,
only one returned, having failed to locate the left company.
The others were all killed. A Company, very gallantly
led by Captain A. R. Moore, went forward and pushed up
to the second German line, but at that point all the officers
had become casualties and all but 18 men. The two
platoons of C Company who went forward suffered little
more than the two who had not received the order, owing
to the front line trench being destroyed by the German
barrage. The company lost all their officers and were
brought out of action by C.S.M. Davis. B Company,
whose role was to " clear up," lost very terribly, and only
about 10 men got back from the German line. The
battalion had 23 officers and 700 other ranks, head-
quarters and firing line on going into action, but only
7 officers and 356 other ranks answered the roll call that
night. But they had shown a fine courage and discipline,
and, in the end, the function of the 56th Division had been

Montauban. — The nth Royal Fusiliers took part
in the attack of the 18th Division towards Montauban.
It was their first battle and they engaged in it with
peculiar zest. They had already tested the effect of our
bombardment in a raid on June 27th/28th, in which
Second Lieutenant W. R. Havard gained the M.C. ; and
by 2 a.m. on July 1st they were in battle positions, as the
left assaulting battalion of the brigade. About 4.30 a.m.
tea was sent up and was warmly appreciated, for a fine
rain was falling and the men were thoroughly chilled.
About 7 a.m. a thick mist shrouded the foreground ; but
before 7.30 it had cleared and the men went over the top
" like bloodhounds let loose from the leash." The
German trenches had been so battered that it was only
with the utmost difficulty the men carried out the pre-
arranged plan. The Fusiliers ran through the German
barrage and went across their front line in great style.


An attempt to check the advance from Austrian Support
was dealt with, one of the machine guns being rushed by
Lance-Corporal A. Payne. Between Bund Trench and
Pommiers Trench, a space of some 500 yards, uncut wire
was encountered by the battalion on the right of the
Fusiliers, and the consequent check was seized upon by
the Germans in Mametz to strike against the battalion's
left flank. Second Lieutenant Parr-Dudley turned his
platoon half-left and, with a vigorous charge, accounted
for the small enemy party, but lost his life in the action.

A small party bombed up Black Alley, leading to
Pommiers Trench. Private W. T. Taverner, locating a
machine gun in the latter trench, and unable to get at the
gunner, won a M.M. by standing on top of the emplace-
ment and directing the waves right and left. Private
J. Nicholson shot six German snipers and then knocked
out a machine gun. And so by numerous acts of indivi-
dual bravery and initiative Pommiers Trench was won,
the Fusiliers securing a machine gun. There was then a
pause and a Fusilier officer noted that " the men were by
this time quite cool and collected, and apparently very
happy. Several of them were holding miniature sing-
songs, whilst others were energetically shaking hands and
wishing their officers good luck."

Pommiers Redoubt had still to be taken, and this was
the worst stage of the day's fighting. Captain Johnson
was held in Black Alley by a machine gun, and could not
approach that way. He then attempted to take the
redoubt from the rear. Second Lieutenant Savage
accounted for the snipers in Beetle Alley, on the north-
west, and Johnson was able to bring his machine guns up
to enfilade the front of the redoubt. With this assistance
the Bedfordshires were able to advance frontally, and the
obstacle was won at 9.30 a.m. Beetle Alley was rushed
shortly afterwards, but an hour's delay was experienced
here, as the flanking battalions were not up. At length
the advance was resumed, and in the afternoon the
Fusiliers were 1,000 yards still farther ahead, in White


Trench, below Mametz Wood. A line of strong points
was begun later in the day. " It was very hard for the
diggers, but it was really pitiful to see the others. Every-
body was tired out, and I had to keep on constantly
waking the men up, for as soon as they touched the
ground they automatically succumbed into deep sleep.
It is not altogether fun being so tired as we all were in the
face of the enemy." * Digging was continued until dawn
was breaking.

The battalion had made one of the deepest advances
of the day. On July 2nd the Bedfordshires were with-
drawn, and the Fusiliers took over the defence of the
brigade front till the following day, when, on relief, they
returned to Carnoy. They had lost very heavily. Savage,
Parr-Dudley, Mild and Greenwood were killed, and
49 O.R. ; 148 were wounded, four were suffering from
shell-shock, and 17 missing — a very much smaller casualty
list than that of the 2nd Battalion, who had fought
their heroic abortive battle at Beaumont Hamel. On
July 5th they were visited by officers of the 4 th Battalion,
who were later to take over from them.

La Boisselle. — On the following days the victory of
July 1st was rounded off in a series of local operations.
On the 3rd the 9th Battalion were in support, just north
of Oviilers, during the 12th Division's unsuccessful attack
on that day. Four days later the 13th Battalion had
moved to the right of the 9th, and delivered an attack.
La Boisselle had fallen on the 3rd, with part of Oviilers.
But the latter and Contalmaison were unreduced, and the
13th Battalion struck between the two.f At 2 a.m. on
July 7th the 13th Battalion was assembled in the old
German line in front of La Boisselle, with orders not to
attack without orders from the brigade, or until the
flanks were well ahead ; but at 8.25 the flanks had
advanced, and, touch being lost with the brigade, the

* Captain Aley's diary.

t This attack was of some importance, but it is not mentioned in
the despatch, nor in any book that I have seen .

1 %


order to advance was given. Major Ardagh led off with
Nos. i and 2 Companies, with bombing sections covering
the flanks. Due east of La Boisselle some resistance was
encountered that held up No. 2 Company for some time,
and when this was overcome, the right flank had lost
touch with the brigade on the south. The battalion had
lost direction, and at 9.30 a.m. the right flank was swung
back to within about 1,000 yards due west of Contal-
maison. The line was consolidated, and it was at this
point that casualties were experienced from the German
artillery. On the following day the battalion was ordered
to push on to the next line. Captain Nelson took Nos. 3
and 4 Companies to this objective, which stretched from
a little below the main Albert road to about 700 yards
west of Contalmaison. A small party pushed too far
ahead, and suffered severely ; but in the two days'
operations, with fairly moderate casualties, the battalion
had advanced the line materially, captured a battery of
field guns, a few machine guns, and nearly 200 prisoners.
Lieutenant Bleaden was killed on July 7th ; Captains Bliss
and Nelson and Second Lieutenants Lewis and Morgan
were wounded. The casualties in other ranks were 20
killed, 127 wounded and 13 missing.

Ovillers. — On the 7th two other Fusilier battalions
were also engaged in the battle. The 8th and 9th
Battalions of the 36th Brigade, with the 7th Sussex
between them, made another attempt to capture Ovillers,
and few more costly actions were fought in the whole of
the battle of the Somme. The 8th Battalion was on the
right, and the plan was to take Ovillers from the S.W.
flank. The bombardment began at 4.30 a.m., and at
8.26 the two leading companies, A and D, crawled over
the parapet and lay out in the open. The weather was
bad ; and though no rain fell during the night, the fumes
of the gas shells were blanketed into the hollows of the
ground, and formed a death-trap for many who fell
wounded. Lieut. -Colonel Annesley, waving his stick, led
the attack as the barrage lifted, and the men leaped


forward into a withering machine-gun fire. The Prussian
Guards who held these battered positions were worthy
foemen, and though the first and second trenches were
captured, the cost was very terrible. Annesley, a most
gallant officer, was early hit in the wrist. Later he was
wounded in the ankle ; but he still kept on, and for a
time the final objective was in the 8th's hands. Annesley
was at length shot above the heart, and fell into a shell-
hole, where he lay till evening, when he was taken to
Albert and died that night. Shortly after noon the
Fusiliers were in Ovillers, and the brigade held about half
of it on a north and south line. But every officer engaged
was either killed, wounded or missing. Captain Feather-
stonhaugh, who had been wounded, but refused to leave,
was killed. So also were Captains Chard and Franklin.
Captain and Adjutant Robertson- Walker was never heard
of again, and Second Lieutenant Procter was killed ;
17 other officers were wounded. The battalion had gone
into action 800 strong ; they mustered 160 at night, but
held on until relieved on the following day.

The 9th had fared similarly. They had fought under
the same conditions, and their losses were only slightly
less than those of the 8th Battalion. Rawlins, Cook,
Philipps, Street, Osborne, Bindett, Peacock and Manson
were killed, and Vere-Smith later died of wounds. Spiers,
Brown, Bastable, Twiddy, Garrood (missing), Mackenzie
and Evans were wounded. In all about 180 men came
out. The gallant survivors of both battalions were
congratulated, and it is merely the sober truth that
the ordeal through which they had come was unique.
Ovillers held out some days longer, and it was not taken
until the village had been more completely obliterated
than any other in the Somme area and its garrison reduced
to 126. The two Fusilier battalions carried the reduction
to its penultimate stage.

When the 10th Battalion came up on July 10th they
left one amazing experience to go to another. On the
night of the 9th the battalion camp at Albert was heavily


shelled, and a grenade dump (50,000) detonated, wounding
an officer, killing one man and wounding two others. But
in the front line death and desolation were everywhere.
La Boiselle was level with the ground. The trenches were
battered and exposed. Dead bodies lay about on all
sides. At 9 p.m. on July 10th C and B Companies were
pushed up in relief of the 13th Rifle Brigade, who, attack-
ing towards Pozieres, had suffered from machine-gun fire ;
and the battalion lay in advanced positions under heavy
shell fire for two days. The men preferred attack when
losses sustained went to pay the price of some tangible
success, or at least to further an obvious purpose.

Trones Wood. — One platoon (No. 14) of D Company
of the nth Battalion assisted the 12th Middlesex in their
successful attack on Trones Wood on July 14th to 15th.
As they were moving up from Maricourt in the early hours
of the 15th they ran into a barrage on the Maricourt-
Briquetin road. They had " one casualty, a poor devil
who gets his head blown off by a large piece of shrapnel.
Still no signs of fear. The men keep in their fours, and go
on as if nothing had happened." * Aley was wounded in
Trones Wood, and the platoon suffered heavily. After
serious losses from the continual bombardment the
battalion left the Somme area on the 18th.

Pozieres. — Meanwhile the 10th Battalion had been
engaged, and had fought their way to the orchard on the
south-west entrance of Pozieres. At 9 a.m. on July 15th
they had advanced up Sausage Valley in support of the
main attack. About 300 yards from the village they were
held up by machine-gun fire. The hollow road seemed to
be blocked with troops ; and it was obvious the attack
had failed before it was abandoned. The CO. asked per-
mission to place a barrage at the southern end of the
village and to take part in the attack. The battalion
advanced with a dash, and Lieutenant F. M. Taylor, with
D Company, seized the orchard, and an attempt was made
to penetrate the outlying orchards. But this movement

* Officer's diary.


was defeated by concentrated machine-gun fire, and the
advanced positions had to be evacuated. Headquarters
in chalk pit, about 900 yards from the edge of the village,
had been in constant communication with all the com-
panies, and in the afternoon a renewed effort was made.
After a pause for reorganisation the village was bom-
barded from 5 to 6 p.m., and the signal was given for the
advance. But at this point there was an unfortunate
mischance. The rockets failed, owing to dampness ; and
the battalion did not start in unison. Some advanced,
others still waited, and the blow failed. Most determined
and repeated attempts were made to rush the village, but
nothing could live in such a machine-gun fire. The
battalion were driven back to cover in the afternoon
positions, and the 10th Loyal North Lancashires took over
the positions after dark. All the company commanders
were casualties, and so heavily had the battalion lost that,
with the division, they were taken out of the line.

High Wood. — To the south-east the 4th Battalion were
assisting in the capture of the Bazentins. On July 8th
they had relieved the nth Battalion at Carnoy, and on
the 14th they provided working and carrying parties for
the brigade attack on Bazentin-le-Grand. A few days
later the 20th Battalion were sent to hold the front line in
Bazentin, and, later, supported the 19th Brigade attack
on High Wood. As the brigade cleared the southern end
of the wood the battalion cleared up and consolidated in
their rear, and at least this part of the wood was securely
held that night. They organised a front and support line
across the wood from east to west, with a strong post in
the support line, and held on to the position until relieved
at midnight. Their task cost them dearly. Lieut. -Colonel
Bennett was wounded ; Captain Toller, Lieutenant Wall-
work, Lieutenant Rawson, Lieutenant Palmer, Second
Lieutenant Price and Second Lieutenant Coventry were
killed ; Second Lieutenant Hine was among the missing ;
Captain Hollingworth, Second Lieutenant Bell, Second
Lieutenant Cooke, Second Lieutenant Brooke, Second


Lieutenant Fabricius, Second Lieutenant Ives and Second
Lieutenant Herbert were wounded. The casualties in
other ranks were 375 killed, wounded and missing.

Delville Wood. — On the 20th the 4th Battalion moved
up to Delville Wood, which saw a number of Fusilier
battalions in the next few days. This wood, which the
soldiers aptly called " Devil's Wood," was one of the many
German positions which were apparently captured many
times without ceasing to be the scene of very bitter

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 10 of 38)