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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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fighting. The South Africans had their outposts on the
outer fringes of the wood on the night of July 15th ; but
on the 1 8th a heavy German counter-attack swept away
the British troops, and in the recoil only the southern end
of the wood could be retained. The following day was
occupied by the struggle to clear the wood once again ; and
it was in the lull after the fighting had temporarily died
down that the Fusiliers took over from the Essex, Suffolk
and Welsh Fusiliers in the south-east of the wood.

It was a deadly area. Even in getting into position
40 casualties were experienced, but the battalion, who had
been complimented for their steadiness after Le Cateau,
showed no trace of wavering. There were practically no
trenches, and the position was methodically consolidated
under the worst conditions. A continuous trench line was
constructed, though the men were working so close to the
Germans that many British shells fell into the trench.
At 10 p.m. on the 21st the Germans delivered a local
counter-attack. Well prepared and vigorously pressed, it
still disturbed the Fusiliers very little. The repulse cost
the battalion a number of casualties : Major Wrenford,
Second Lieutenant Cook, and 30 other ranks were wounded.
Second Lieutenant Sparkes was shot through the head
earlier in the day. He was in command of Z Company,
and was looking for a place for two of his platoons. His
was a well-known Fusilier name.

When the 4th Battalion were relieved at midnight on the
24th they had lost 12 officers and 340 other ranks, killed,
wounded and missing, in thirteen days, without taking


part in any attack. In beating off the counter-attack in
Delville Wood they lost scarcely more than the daily
average. The losses under such conditions form a striking
illustration of the plane on which the Somme battle was

The 2nd Division had now been brought to the Somme
area, and the first of its four Fusilier battalions to enter
the battle zone was the 17th. It was also their first
entrance into any battle zone when they took over the
support line at Longueval Alley on July 25th. We have
already seen that actual attack was not necessary for
the suffering of casualties, and Lieutenant Richmond was
the first to succumb. There was a heavy bombardment
with tear shells, and he was gassed on the first day in the
trenches. On the following day there was little inter-
mission in the German shelling, and with every precaution
15 further casualties were suffered. On the 27th A and B
Companies went to Delville Wood in the afternoon, and
on this occasion there were 118 casualties.

But this was the day on which Delville Wood was again
overrun. Four battalions of the Royal Fusiliers had their
share in this memorable exploit, and the place of honour
was given to the 23rd Battalion. They had had an uncom-
fortable time in Bernafay Wood previous to the attack.
Words fail to do justice to the situation at this moment.
It was hot weather. The ground was pitted and torn by
shell fire. Dead bodies lay about, and before the troops
began to move up the Germans had indulged in a heavy
bombardment with gas shells. Fortunately a welcome
breeze made the wearing of masks unnecessary. The
approach was covered by the British barrage, and near
Longueval one shell fell close to the Fusiliers, badly
wounding one man.

" It's hard lines," said the man when the CO. went to

" I know it is," said the CO., " but you'll soon be all
right. The stretcher-bearers are coming."

" Oh ! it's not that," was the man's rejoinder. " It's


being hit just now ! Here have I been all this time in

France without having a real go at the b s, and now

the chance has come, here I go and get knocked out." *

The battalion formed up in a trench at the edge of the
wood with the ist K.R.R.C. on the right and the ist Royal
Berks in support. The coolness of the men was remark-
able, and one man, hearing that there were still five
minutes to zero, calmly went back to his breakfast. The
position to be assaulted was as difficult as any in the
Somme area. The wood was now merely a collection of
bare stumps, but the trees which had crashed and the thick
undergrowth provided ideal obstacles and cover. The
ground seemed to be alive with machine guns, and the
German barrage effectually cut off all approach to the
wood. The defending troops were the Brandenburgers ;
and after the first objective had been captured, numbers
of them were taken prisoner.

The barrage lifted at 7.10 a.m., and the first wave, con-
sisting of A and B Companies, who had formed up in front
of the existing trenches when the barrage began, went
forward, and with little opposition captured the Princes
Street line. This avenue practically cut the wood in two
from east to west ; and it was occupied and consolidation
begun within nine minutes of the advance. D and C
Companies had occupied the line vacated by the first
wave, and when, at 7.40 a.m., the barrage lifted again,
the second wave passed through the first. The barrage
had lifted again (8.10 a.m.), and the advance began on the
final objective, while the second wave was struggling with
a redoubt on the left front. Excellently covered and
strongly manned, the obstacle seemed to defy capture
until two Lewis guns were sent up and placed so as to take
the redoubt from the flank. Assisted by bombers, the Lewis
guns soon put an end to the resistance. Two machine guns
were put out of action, and Sergeant Royston, finding a
third intact, turned it upon part of the garrison who were

* Major N. A. Lewis, D.S.O., M.C., quoted in " The 23rd (Service)
Battalion Royal Fusiliers."


escaping. Shortly afterwards (9.40 a.m.) the final objective
was captured, and the men dug in on the further edge of
the wood, with a good field of fire. The rest of the day
was occupied in dealing with attempts to get round the

At n a.m. the 1st K.R.R.C, who held the exposed flank
on the right, were attacked by German bombers, and B
Company bombers and a machine gun were sent to support.
At this moment also began the enemy bombardment of the
whole of the wood, and, persisting until midnight, it made
life very precarious. Most of the casualties suffered by
the 23rd were sustained in this ceaseless fire. But their
position was safe compared with that of the K.R.R.C. The
17th Battalion Royal Fusiliers lay south of the wood with
the 22nd Battalion forward on their left. A and B Com-
panies of the 22nd were sent up as carrying parties, and
passed the headquarters of the 17th with S.A.A. and tools.
At 1 p.m. a message was sent to the 22nd to reinforce the
K.R.R.C. At 2 p.m. A and B Companies of the 17th
moved up to Delville Wood, and before the end of the
day every available man of the 22nd was thrown into the
struggle on the right. At 3.30 p.m. a strong counter-
attack was delivered by the enemy on this flank, and the
situation was only cleared up by the assistance of the
23rd's bombers and the full remaining strength of the 22nd.
Captain Walsh collected all the carrying parties, to the
number of about 250, and organised them into a fighting
unit. Captain Gell took the last 100 men of C and D Com-
panies up to the wood from Bernafay Wood, and with
them held the south-east flank of the wood. The wood
undoubtedly justified its nickname on this day. Wherever
the men stood they were under shell fire, and it seemed
impossible that any troops should be left to hold what had
been won.

But at the end of the day the wood was handed over
intact ; and the 23rd, though they had lost 12 officers
(5 killed) and 276 other ranks, came out at night, jauntily
enough, smoking German cigars and well pleased with


themselves. Theirs had been the straighter task of over-
running German positions. They had taken six machine
guns and, with the K.R.R.C., 160 prisoners. The 22nd,
who had had the less stimulating task of beating off the
continued attacks of the enemy and of suffering their shell
fire, had possibly achieved a greater thing. Largely owing
to them, the flank was held up, and unless this had been
accomplished the wood would have been lost almost before
it was won. They lost Captain Grant, commanding the
brigade machine gun company, killed, 4 other officers
wounded, and 189 other ranks killed, wounded and missing.
The 17th lost Lieutenant Fletcher and Second Lieutenant
Penny killed, 3 officers wounded, and 113 other ranks
killed, wounded and missing.

On July 30th C Company of the 24th Battalion was
engaged. On the previous evening the battalion had
taken over the front line from the southern edge of Delville
Wood to Waterlot Farm, and on the 30th they advanced
against a German trench some 600 yards east of Waterlot
Farm. A thick mist lay over the ground as the men went
forward, and it was very difficult to keep direction. When
this initial and serious handicap had been overcome, it was
found that the German wire had been uncut. " The king
of the war," as the French called barbed wire, exercised
its sovereignty once again. Captain C. S. Meares was
killed on the wire, leading his men, and the company
fought valiantly, but to no purpose. C Company attacked
with 3 officers and 114 other ranks. One wounded officer
and 11 other ranks remained at the end of the day. Such
was the price paid for co-operation in the attack on

During the next few days the 17th, 22nd and 23rd
Battalions saw further service in this very perilous sector.
On August 1st the 22nd Battalion moved into Delville
Wood. Lieut. -Colonel Barnett Barker was placed in
command of the wood, with the 23rd Battalion in support.
These dispositions remained in force until the night of
the 3rd, when the Royal Fusiliers were relieved during


a heavy bombardment which caused a number of

3^ Jf* 3|C JfC

Pozieres Ridge. β€” The 8th and 9th Battalions were
engaged once more in the first week of August in operations
about Pozieres. That these were minor operations does
not detract from their interest or from their influence on
the capture of the Pozieres Ridge. The 8th Battalion
attacked with the 6th Buffs. Their objective was a
section of 4th Avenue, a trench north-west of Pozieres.
The attack was made at n p.m. on the night of August 3rd,
and as the barrage lifted two platoons of A and B
Companies walked slowly forward until within 50 yards
of the trench, when they charged. The Germans were
taken completely by surprise, and the trench was captured.
The Germans sent up phosphorus red flares which lit up
the storming troops ; and they fought very well. Colonel
Cope, commanding the Buffs, personally reconnoitred the
ground during the attack, and owing to his prompt
decision, part of the 5th Avenue trench was also seized
and held. By midnight the position was being consoli-
dated, and the two battalions had captured 2 officers (one
wearing the Iron Cross) and 89 other ranks. Lieutenant
Wardrop and Second Lieutenant A. Stiles were killed in
the attack, and Second Lieutenant R. W. Hampton was
wounded, and there were about 150 other casualties.
About 1 a.m. a bombing block was established in the new
trench, and Captain Clarke held it against two enemy
attacks. As day broke on the 4th a company was seen
to be charging down on the battalion's right flank. Only
by good luck was disaster averted, for it was soon realised
that these were the Sussex, who had lost direction in the

The darkness made it difficult to determine the positions
with accuracy. At one time it was thought that Ration
Trench had been taken. When the mistake was discovered
later it was decided to attack the position in the evening
with the three battalions of the 36th Brigade, the 2nd


Anzac Division co-operating with an advance to the north-
east of Pozieres. Night attacks have their own peculiar
difficulties and terrors. Even in broad daylight actions
could rarely be carried out exactly as they were planned.
So severe and constant was the bombardment by both
sides that even villages were difficult to recognise, and
trenches appeared to be little different from the pitted lines
of shell-holes.

In the attack on Ration Trench on August 4th many
circumstances conspired to add to the strain on the men.
The battalions engaged advanced on lines which might
have led to hopeless confusion and did, in fact, result in
isolated encounters of almost unimaginable horror. The
Sussex were moving against a section of the trench which
involved an attack in a westerly direction. The 9th
Fusiliers were directed partly to the north. The New
Zealands were striking north-east. Germans seemed to
turn up everywhere during the night : in front, on the
flanks, even in the rear, and the Fusiliers appeared to form
little islands in a sea of enemy. Zero was at 9.15 p.m.,
but detailed attack orders were not issued till 8.17, and
everything had to be arranged in less than an hour. The
9th Battalion moved off at 3 p.m. to take over part of the
8th Fusiliers' trenches, and were at once spotted by the
Germans and shelled on the way. About 6.30 p.m. they
were in position in parts of 3rd and 4th Avenues, approxi-
mately 1,000 yards due west of Pozieres, after losing
about 15 men while moving up.

An intense bombardment began at zero. Five minutes
later the two battalions advanced, and at about 50 yards
from Ration Trench charged. The objectives were gained
in less than an hour on the left, but on the right an
unknown trench held up the attackers. At 1 a.m. on the
5th came the first reports of Germans still existing between
the lines. The Fusiliers began to be sniped from the rear,
and the situation was not cleared up until the afternoon.
The 8th Battalion had charged over the trench on their
way to Ration Trench, and left unnoticed 2 officers and


100 other ranks. Lance-Corporal Camping * and one or
two men who could speak German crawled out of their
trench, though exposed to constant sniping, and threatened
the Germans with a severe bombardment if they did not
give themselves up before dark. The whole party then
surrendered. They were part of a Jaeger battalion who
had reached the trenches only a day or two before, and
they had decided to break through Ration Trench to their
own lines during the evening.

The two battalions were now in contact and engaged in
the work of consolidation. Bombing posts were organised
in Ration Trench, and the day (August 5th) was generally
quiet. But shortly after midnight a heavy bombardment
of the lines began, and the shelling continued until 4 a.m.
(6th). The 9th Battalion, lying west of the 8th, were
subjected to a determined counter-attack during this time.
Many of the men were quite new to warfare. For some it
was their first experience of actual righting, and their
bearing was admirable. The assault was made by
flammenwerfers, supported by bombers using smoke as a
screen. The flames burst through the clouds of smoke
from various directions, and all the conditions of panic
were present. The fumes alone were sufficient to over-
power some of the men. But no panic took place. The
situation was handled very coolly. The attack was made
on the north-east end of Ration Trench, and about 20 men
were extended in the open on either side of the trench with
two Lewis guns. The attack was thus beaten off with a
loss of only 40 yards of trench. Many fine incidents

* I have been continually amazed at the uncanny skill with which
published accounts of the various incidents of the war wrongly identify
the units engaged. The Royal Fusiliers came in for more than their
share of being passed over. An ironic poem written by Corporal
Warren, of the nth Battalion, in the rhythm of the British Grenadiers,
comments on this tendency.

" The papers get the money,
So they praise the Royal West Kents,"

is, perhaps, the least offensive distich. I am reminded of this by
Mr. Gibbs' attribution of the whole of this incident to the men of
Sussex, which in this case means the Sussex Regiment or nothing.


marked this defence. Private Leigh Rouse * (9th), who
had never visited the trenches before, was in the sap when
the flammenwerfer attack began. He managed to get
back along the trench and, though nearly choked with
fumes and with his clothes burnt, refused to go to the
dressing station. He continued to throw bombs until his
arm gave out, and then, joining the covering party, used
his rifle with great effect.

During the next night, when another attack was
expected, he remained close to the barricade. Sergeant
Charles Quinnell f twice went out from Ration Trench
with a patrol, and obtained valuable information. Most
of the men in his platoon had never been in a front line
trench before, and their remarkable coolness and endurance
were largely due to his fine example. Lancc-Corporal
Cyril Cross f took his Lewis gun into a shell-hole outside
the trench during the flammenwerfer attack, and engaged
the enemy, who were in great strength, at close range,
inflicting many casualties until his gun was put out of
action. Private Tom Crow f continued to throw bombs
from the very edge of the flames, showing a complete
disregard of the enemy. He was finally wounded by a
sniper as he was closely pursuing the enemy. All these
men belonged to A Company, commanded by Captain
G. L. Cazalet, M.C., who had led his men across the open
on the night of the 5th, in less than three-quarters of an
hour had taken his objective, and was responsible for the
defence of 500 yards of Ration Trench, the flank of which
was held by the enemy. Though wounded, he refused to
leave the trench ; and it was chiefly owing to his fine
example that his company, though almost quite new to
warfare, behaved so finely. He was awarded a well-
deserved D.S.O.

All day on the 6th and 7th the German bombardment
of the Fusiliers continued. In the afternoon of the latter
day the two battalions were relieved. Both had lost very

* Awarded M.M.
t Awarded D.C.M.


heavily. In addition to those already mentioned, the
8th lost Lieutenant J. A. Pearson ; Captain S. H. Clarke
was wounded, and there were about 30 other ranks killed
and wounded. The losses of the 9th were heavier.
Green, Stevens, Lupton, Heaver and Bungay were killed ;
Knott, Cazalet, Pilgrim, Calwell, Fox, Thornton and
Fifoot were wounded ; and there were 281 other ranks
killed, wounded and missing. But they took prisoner
2 officers and 1 wounded officer with 135 other
ranks, and received congratulations from the Commander-
in-Chief. The battalions marched off to Bouzincourt,
and on the 10th lined the road at Senlis for the inspection
by the King and the Prince of Wales.

* * * *

Guillemont. β€” On the other operative flank of the
British attack several other Fusilier battalions were now
engaged. Of the two great pivots of the German defensive
in what Sir Douglas Haig calls the second phase of the
battle of the Somme one, Guillemont, still remained
untaken. It had been entered on July 30th, but was
evacuated, as the flanking positions still remained intact.
It was entered once more on August 8th, and again
abandoned for the same reason. From these two failures
it was evident that the capture of the village could not
be regarded safely as an isolated enterprise, and it was
accordingly arranged for a series of attacks in progressive
stages in conjunction with the French, whose sphere of
action was not 2,000 yards to the south.

Three battalions of the Royal Fusiliers played their
part in these operations. In " the first stage of the
prearranged scheme " * the 4th Battalion was engaged.
At this time Major H. E. Meade was in command, as
Lieut. -Colonel Hely-Hutchinson had been thrown from
his horse on the nth and had been removed to hospital.
On August 15th the battalion took over the trenches
facing the southern corner of Guillemont. The 1st
Battalion was only 1,000 yards to their rear, preparing

* Despatch.

F. K


to take its share in the struggle. On the way up the
4th had lost Second Lieutenant Goolden, who was killed
by a shell. The approach was across open country over
which the enemy had direct observation, and the Germans
had concentrated a heavy volume of machine gun fire in
the village. This may serve to explain why the attack
failed in spite of the most gallant and persistent efforts
of all ranks. The 4th had on their left flank the 24th
Division, and on their right the King's Liverpools. X and
Z Companies led the attack at 5.40 p.m. (August 16th)
after a short but intense bombardment, but they encoun-
tered a very heavy machine gun fire. Both company
commanders were killed as they crossed the parapet, and
before the fighting ceased every other officer had been
killed or wounded, and there were 160 other ranks
casualties. It was a discouraging episode ; and the badly
weakened unit were left to hold the original front line
under a heavy bombardment until the 18th, when a
further attempt was made by other troops. The battalion
passed to brigade reserve, and was organised into two

After this abortive attempt to eat into the Guillemont
defences the positions were bombarded for thirty-six
hours, when the 1st Battalion co-operated in immediate
support. They had been in the area from August 8th,
when they took over trenches from Delville Wood to
Trones Wood, with headquarters in Waterlot Farm. It
was a warm quarter, and two days after taking over the
line the situation was made still more uncomfortable by
one of those unhappy mischances which, apparently, could
not be altogether prevented. A number of our own
0/2 shells fell upon B Company, and caused 23 casualties.
Lieutenant W. van Grierson * showed great gallantry
in rescuing buried men, and, unfortunately, was mortally
wounded in so doing. Private Tanner * and Corporal
Silcox * courageously brought Private Lynch from No

* Van Grierson was awarded the M.C., Silcox and Tanner the M.M.,
for the same operation.


Man's Land in broad daylight, from within 100 yards of
the German trenches, under heavy machine gun fire.

After a few days in the rear trenches, they took up their
positions for attack on the 17th. C Company was in
Trones Wood, supporting the 8th Buffs, A in Sherwood
Trench, in support of the 3rd Rifle Brigade, while B and
D occupied Dummy Trench and Longueval Alley. The
attack began at 3.30 p.m. on a broad front, with three
other divisions co-operating. The objective of the 3rd
Rifle Brigade was Guillemont station, while the 8th Buffs
were directed against a trench some 200 yards from the
front line in the direction of Ginchy. Both objectives
were attained. The station, lying on a light railway
just outside and to the north of Guillemont, had become
a tactical feature of some importance, and later in the
month it was the scene of a vigorous counter-attack.
Only on the extreme right of the 24th Division did the
attack fail, and this led to the postponement of a third
advance timed for 5.30 a.m. on the 19th. The battalion
on this occasion suffered 66 casualties, including three
officers wounded.

The 12th Battalion had been in reserve during the
battle. They had assisted in covering the attack on the
16th by putting up a smoke barrage on part of the front.
On the 18th they provided a party to consolidate during
the attack, and carrying parties for S.A.A. to the front
line. After dark No. 4 Company, under Captain Ander-
son, went up to the front fine and dug a communication
trench from the old fine to the new positions.
* * * *

One of the minor excitements of the battle occurred
early on August 21st. An ammunition dump in Bernafay
Wood was fired. Continuous explosions came from the
Stokes mortar ammunition. Flying splinters filled the
air, and men were blown bodily into the fire by the
explosion. R.S.M. Hack (1st Battalion) very gallantly
rescued wounded in the midst of the flying fragments of
exploding bombs, and there were many casualties in the

k a


attempts to put the fire out. Second Lieutenant Tiffany
(12th Battalion) rescued several men who had been blown
into the fire, and at length the mishap expended itself
without compelling the postponement of the afternoon
operations against Guillemont. The ist Battalion on this

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 11 of 38)