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

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occasion had two companies, A and D, engaged, with the
3rd Rifle Brigade on the left and the 8th Queen's (72nd
Brigade) on the right. The Fusiliers advanced at 3.30 p.m.
" Hill Street " and " Brompton Road "were the objectives.
The ist Battalion got away with great dash, and after a
strenuous fight drove the enemy out of the trench in front
of Hill Street ; but the flanking battalions were both held
up, and, although the Fusiliers pushed well ahead, it was
necessary to withdraw to the trench already mentioned.
A Company, under Captain Bell, went into battle only 70
strong, and both the company commanders and Second
Lieutenant Jacobs displayed great courage and coolness.
The headquarters bombers also did good service, and
Sergeant Pye, though wounded, volunteered to take a
message to his company commander. He was wounded
again as he returned. This was the ist Battalion's last
period of service in the Somme battle. On relief, the
following day, they went to Happy Valley and later to
Bussus : "a very pleasant place," notes the battalion
diary, " after the desolation in and around the villages of
the battle area." The battalion had suffered 403 casualties
during the Somme operations. Captain Bell was awarded
the D.S.O., Second Lieutenant Jacobs the M.C., R.S.M.
Hack the M.C., and Sergeant Pye the D.C.M.
* * * *

Fighting still continued in and about Delville Wood,
but on August 24th the situation was much improved by
an attack in which the 20th Royal Fusiliers took part.
The advance began at 5.45, and the battalion sent up
two platoons to occupy part of the trench captured
by the 100th Brigade. The trench lay to the west of
the northern part of Delville Wood, and the Fusiliers
took over a bombing post at the corner of the new


trench, and at once set about connecting it with the
support line.

The 12th Battalion were suddenly ordered up to this
sector of the front on September 1st. On the way up they
were delayed for two hours in Caterpillar Valley owing to
a very heavy gas barrage and the guides going astray.
Many of the men were very sick from the effects of the
gas, and it was only at 3.30 a.m. that the battalion arrived
in Carlton Trench, which lay between Delville Wood and
High Wood. The front here had been lifted well to the
north-east since the 20th Battalion had left, but the 3rd
Rifle Brigade and the 2nd Leinsters were very much
weakened in the forward positions. No. 3 Company was
sent up on the 1st to reinforce the 3rd Rifle Brigade, and
on the following day a platoon, ten bombers and one Lewis
gun of No. 1 Company were sent to the 2nd Leinsters in
the bombing post in Worcester Trench. The day was dull
and misty, and the Germans attacked this post with great
determination, but were repulsed, though the Lewis gun
team had several casualties. Early in the evening the
remainder of the battalion took over the trench held by
the 3rd Rifle Brigade, and on the following day co-operated
in the general attack which swept over Guillemont into
Ginchy. The 24th Division was represented in this attack
by the 8th Buffs.

At midday the whole line advanced. The sector between
High Wood and Delville Wood was obstinately defended,
and the Buffs and Fusiliers could make little impression
on it. The Buffs' main objective was the strong point at
the junction of the Wood Lane Trench and Tea Trench,
which lay at the north-west corner of Delville Wood.
No. 4 Company, under Captain Anderson, bombed up
Wood Lane towards the strong point ; but though the
Buffs attacked twice, they failed to reach their objective.
The artillery preparation had not been sufficient to rub
the surface off the opposition. From Orchard Trench the
Fusilier Lewis guns did considerable damage, and claimed
to have caused at least 100 casualties. But this was the


only success achieved on this small sector, and the
battalion suffered 58 casualties, 10 killed. They were
relieved on September 4th and went south to Fricourt,
and later left the Somme area.

Ginchy. — On September 3rd Ginchy was seized, as
well as Guillemont ; but the former could not be retained
in face of the immediate German counter-attacks, and
after three days' struggle the greater part of the village
reverted to the enemy. Preparations for a further attack
upon Ginchy continued without intermission, and at
4.45 p.m. on September 9th the attack was reopened
on the whole of the Fourth Army front. At four o'clock
a heavy enemy barrage was put down on the assembly
trenches of the 4th Londons in Leuze Wood, but the
battalion went forward at zero in six waves. In little
over an hour the battalion captured its objectives and
pushed out two advanced posts to positions overlooking
Morval-Lesbceufs road. The Rangers were not in touch
on the left flank, and a strong point was established ; and
during the night the advanced posts were connected up
and manned by Lewis guns.

Meanwhile A Company of the 2nd Londons had been
involved in the attack of the London Rifle Brigade
further east. At 6 p.m. this regiment called upon their
support company, but the barrage was so heavy that
A Company of the 2nd Londons went forward instead.
Taking up their position in the north-east corner of Leuze
Wood, they began at once to suffer casualties. They
were ordered to bomb up Combles Trench. Captain J. W.
Long and Second Lieutenant E. W. Lockey were killed
by snipers, and, all the officers becoming casualties, C.S.M.
Pellow took over the command. But the attack failed.
The strength of the company had been weakened too
much. The attempt of B Company to support on the
following day similarly failed with heavy loss. But the
two battalions had contributed to the very considerable
advance of their (56th) division.

Flers. — The ground had now been prepared for


another general attack, and on September 15th " The
third phase — Exploitation of Success " * began. " Prac-
tically the whole of the forward crest of the main ridge on
a front of some 9,000 yards from Delville Wood to the road
above Mouquet Farm was now in our hands, and with it
the advantage of observation over the slopes beyond. . . .
The general plan of the combined Allied attack which was
opened on September 15th was to pivot on the high ground
south of the Ancre and north of the Albert-Bapaume road,
while the Fourth Army devoted its whole effort to the
rearmost of the enemy's original systems of defence
between Morval and Le Sars." f The Royal Fusiliers
were represented in this advance, the greatest that had
been made in any one day since the opening of the offen-
sive, by the 26th and 32nd Battalions, both of them in the
124th Brigade of the 41st Division, which was in the com-
mand of a Royal Fusilier, General Lawford ; and by the
2nd Londons. For thirty-six hours the positions to be
attacked had been prepared by a continuous bombard-
ment, which had, as usual, battered some places to dust,
but had left intact obstacles that might have wrecked
the plan. To deal with such eventualities, however, the
army now had a new instrument, the tank, which made its
first appearance in this battle.

For the 26th and 32nd Battalions it was their first
experience of battle. They had only been in France four
months, but both of them created an excellent precedent
in their first action. Each of them was in support, the
32nd on the right and the 26th on the left, following the
10th Queen's R.W.S. Regiment and the 21st K.R.R.C.
Three tanks were allotted to the brigade.

At 6.20 a.m. the leading waves moved off. The 32nd,
who had been assembled some fifty yards inside Delville
Wood, advanced with the utmost precision with the
14th Division on their right. The barrage was followed
very closely, and the battalion met with little resistance

* Despatch.
f Despatch.


in Tea Support Trench and Switch Trench, half-way to
Flers. They had been advancing in four waves originally,
but at this point the fourth wave was left behind to con-
solidate, and the other three waves became mixed up with
the survivors of the ioth Queen's and, on the flanks, with
men of the 14th Division and of the 26th Battalion, who had
lost direction. When Switch Trench had been won the
battalion was reduced to two parties, under Captain H. A.
Robinson and Lieutenant W. V. Aston respectively.
Robinson pushed on with his party, about 80 strong,
beyond Flers, capturing three field guns, five Bavarian
officers and about 40 other ranks. The field guns were
later destroyed by the Germans' concentrated artillery
fire. Aston's party, after being held up some time by
machine gun fire, advanced with a tank beyond Flers.
The battalion in this very successful advance lost 10
officers (wounded) and 283 other ranks killed, wounded
and missing.

The 26th Battalion advanced with the 32nd against
little resistance, but in the early part of the action the left
battalion passed through our own barrage. Captain
Etchells was at this moment senior officer on the left of
the brigade front, and he promptly and coolly reorganised
the line. With this readjustment the troops were able to
advance again.* Later in the morning there was a check
on the brigade front, but the same officer went forward to
a tank lying south of Flers and arranged that the 26th
would follow if the tank would lead. This arrangement
was carried out. The tank moved along the south side of
Flers, assisting the troops who were in the village by firing
on the retreating enemy and also assisting the 26th to get
well ahead. In the late afternoon the battalion were
north and east of the village. In the battle the 26th lost
9 officers (5 of them killed) and 255 other ranks killed,
wounded and missing. The losses of both battalions,
though very heavy considering the numbers involved,
were less than might have been expected, for the German

* Captain Etchells was awarded the M.C. for this service.


artillery, though late in starting, was most skilfully
handled. The smallest parties moving in the battle zone
at once became a target. At times even a single stretcher
party was marked down. It was for the greatest courage
and devotion to duty under these conditions that the
medical officer of the 26th, Lieutenant J. Mclntyre,
R.A.M.C, was awarded the M.C. He was four times
buried by shell explosions, but each time recommenced
his work of attending to the wounded.

One of the singular points about this action is that the
tanks impressed our own men more than the enemy,
though at one point the Fusiliers were amused to see a
panic among the enemy, who caught a drift of a tank's
exhaust fumes. They imagined it a new form of gas, and
attempted to adjust their gas helmets before retiring.

The 32nd Battalion were relieved on the morning of
the 16th, but one company of the 26th remained at the
front till night, when they followed the rest of the battalion
and the 32nd to support positions.

* * * *

The 2nd Londons also attacked the same day. Their
objective was the Loop Trench, connecting the sunken
road with Combles Trench. C and D Companies attacked
and very quickly gained all their objectives, with the
exception of the junction of the sunken road and Loop
Trench. Captain A. G. L. Jepson, Lieutenant P. C.
Taylor and Second Lieutenant A. G. Sullivan were killed,
and two officers were wounded, in the heavy bombing
attacks against the captured positions. So great were the
losses that all available men of A and B Companies were
sent to the line to reinforce before three o'clock. Two
blocks had been established, one in the north end of Loop
Trench and the other in Combles Trench, and the battalion
bombers were sent up in small parties to assist in holding
them. But they also suffered heavy loss, and reinforce-
ments had to be sent by another regiment. The battalion
held their positions with this assistance, and they were
later congratulated by General Guignabaudit, who, com-


manding on the French left, had watched the attack from
Savernake Wood.

Thiepval. — On September 26th the nth Battalion
took part in what Sir Ivor Maxse afterwards described as
a " distinct and memorable " episode — the capture of
Thiepval. The whole of the 54th Brigade, of which the
battalion formed part, was allotted only 300 yards of
frontage, but in the area were located 144 deep German
dug-outs, in addition to those round the Chateau Redoubt
and the positions in the original front line along which the
Fusiliers had to advance. This line was the western
bastion of Thiepval, and for nearly three months the
village had been the focus of the stern resistance on the
left flank of the Somme operations. The effect of the
successful action on the 25th was thought to justify a
rapid following up.

At 12.35 p.m., D Company, under Captain R. H. V,
Thompson, advanced against the German positions. The
British barrage was most intense, and the Germans, taken
by surprise, were at first thrown into confusion. " We
met Bosches running about, scared out of their wits, like
a crowd of rabbits diving for their holes. Men were
rushing about unarmed, men were holding up their hands
and yelling for mercy, men were scuttling about every-
where, trying to get away from that born fighter, the
Cockney, but they had very little chance." * But this
applies only to the first moments of the assault. D Com-
pany was soon checked on the left, at the junction of
Brawn Trench with the original German line. At this
point, about 250 yards below the south-west corner of
Thiepval village, the company was held up, and with it
the left flank of the Middlesex ; but Thompson flung part
of his men against the trench and led the rest against the
strong point at the junction. He was hit in the head, but
kept on until hit again and killed at the moment that the
post was rushed. He was one of the best company
commanders the battalion ever had.

* Captain Cornaby's diary.


In the hand-to-hand fighting, Lieutenant R. A. Mall-
Smith was also killed, and Lieutenant G. A. Cornaby was
wounded. But the Fusiliers killed numbers of the enemy
and took 25 prisoners. They then continued their
advance along the German line, fighting their way yard
by yard. Some relief was obtained by posting the Lewis
guns so as to fire along the trench, but the gun team
suffered heavily. About 200 yards west of the chateau
another strong point was encountered, and there followed
a protracted encounter. The attack was assisted by the
timely appearance of a tank, which also checked the fire
from the chateau, and so helped the Middlesex. D Com-
pany got forward north-west of the chateau, where
Lance-Corporal Tovey (B Company) captured a machine
gun single-handed. Such was the position about 1 p.m.

A Company, under Major Hudson, turned to support
the Middlesex at the chateau, and, diverging to the right,
made a small gap in the line. Captain Johnson promptly
put in B Company, and attacking northwards, gave the
last touch requisite to carry the first objective. This
company had already lost two officers, all but three
N.C.O.'s and half the men. Major Hudson was wounded
in the shoulder west of the chateau, but continued fighting
until the final line was won. He was shot through the
thigh as he left the line and died a few days later.

Colonel Carr went forward about 1.15 with Captain
Cumberledge, the Adjutant, and after visiting the CO. of
the Middlesex, went towards D Company. He was
immediately wounded in three places, and as Cumberledge
and Hudson were also wounded, Captain Johnson was in
command until the evening, when Major Meyricke, the
second in command, took over. The fighting on the
Fusiliers' left was full of incident. Before the first objec-
tive had been won they had cleared twenty-five dug-outs.
Some of them contained large bodies of men provided with
bombs, grenades and machine guns. One very deep dug-
out was garrisoned like a fortress, and the men, armed w^th
two machine guns, refused to come out. The Fusiliers


had to set it on fire. Eleven Germans ran out and were
killed, and 14 wounded were taken prisoners. Many more
probably were burned to death.

C Company, in command of Lieutenant A. E. Sulman,
had gone over with the Middlesex to clear up. They had
a vivid time and were successful in locating the German
telephone headquarters. Sulman was given a German
map, and quickly realised its importance. The men were
set to look for the place. It was discovered by Lance-
Corporal F. Rudy * with four men, who captured it, taking
20 prisoners, cut the wires, and so severed communication
with the German artillery. Sulman left two platoons to
assist between the chateau and the right flank, with which
he went forward. His company enfiladed numbers of the
Germans who were retiring to the north in front of D Com-
pany. While the left were advancing well to the north
of the chateau, A Company, with two platoons of C,
pushed to the second objective and established a position
at the north-eastern end of the village. The Middlesex
were now on the right, a considerable deflection from the
original direction of advance.

This was the position at 3 p.m. ; but the reports
reaching headquarters were largely contradictory. Most
of them were sent by N.C.O.'s, as the officers were out of
action ; and, without maps, their references could not be
expected to be more than approximate. Sulman, with
his composite party, could not be located. By 4.30 p.m.
the position was cleared up. D, B, and part of A Com-
pany were still holding their position north of the chateau,
and north-west of the mass of the village. There was a
gap of 100 yards between this position and Sulman's
flanking platoons, which were disposed diagonally across
the village on a line facing north-west. Two other
platoons of C and part of A were on the second objective
beyond the north-east end of the village. The Fusiliers
had not a bomb left ; they were perilously short of
ammunition, and their numbers were dangerously weak.

* He was awarded the D.C.M. for this serviceable achievement.


The left was still under constant attack ; sometimes as
many as twenty German stick bombs were in the air at
the same moment.

Captain Johnson reported his position to Colonel
Maxwell (Middlesex) , who was in chief command, and a
company of Northants was sent to him to fill the gap
between his right and left, and to reduce the strong point
which held up the further advance of the left. The
attack proved a failure, and at 5.45 p.m. Captain Johnson
was ordered to dig in on his present line and connect his
right and left. The Fusiliers, Middlesex and Northants
were then collected and the position organised, a stranded
tank making the nucleus of a strong advanced post. On
the left fighting continued till n p.m., and the Fusiliers
suffered heavy casualties, until a barrage forced the
Germans to retire northwards. " Thiepval," wrote Lieut.-
General C. W. Jacobs, the Commander of the Second Corps,
' has withstood all attacks upon it for exactly two years."
All but the north-west corner of the village had been taken
in less than six hours. At 4 a.m. the Bedfords arrived,
and Captain Johnson and Lieutenant Sulman were ordered
to put them in attack formation in front of the line. This
was done, and at dawn they carried the north-west corner
of the village in a dashing attack. The Fusiliers then left
the line. They had suffered very heavily, but they had
achieved much. Captain Johnson and Lieutenant Sulman
were each awarded the M.C.

Private F. J. Edwards, of the Middlesex, was awarded
the V.C. for " one of those decisive actions which deter-
mine the success or failure of an operation. His part of
the line was held up by a machine gun. The officers had
all become casualties. There was confusion, and even a
suggestion of retirement. Private Edwards grasped the
situation at once. Alone, and on his own initiative, he
dashed towards the gun, which he bombed until he
succeeded in knocking it out. By this gallant act,
performed with great presence of mind, and with complete
disregard for his personal safety, this man made possible


the continuance of the advance and solved a dangerous
situation." Private Edwards was transferred to the
Royal Fusiliers on April 13th, 1918, and was taken
prisoner eleven days later.

* * * *

The nth Battalion was in the line again on October
23rd, and the plan at that time was for it to attack Petit
Miraumont. " For this attack the assaulting battalions
of the brigade were to have been the Fusiliers and the
Bedfordshire Regiment. The weather was awful, and
the mud beyond words. Fortunately, the attack did not
come off. If it had, it must have been a colossal failure.
The first objective was, I believe, 1,700 yards away, and
in that mud, and after going that distance, the men
would have been dead-beat. The brigade was to go on
to the Ancre, cross the river, which was in flood and
about 300 yards wide, and hold the crossings for the
53rd Brigade to go through. It was seriously suggested
that trees might be felled across the Ancre, and the men
might cross on them." * The battalion went into the
line three or four times, but each time the attack was
postponed. It rained nearly every day. " The men
were soaked to the skin with liquid mud for days on end,
and after ration-carrying fatigues were dead-beat. It
was a long carry, and the mud was appalling. . . . The
sick rate in the battalions at this time was the worst I
have ever known. One morning each battalion in the
brigade had over 150 sick, and one had nearly 250." *

Bayonet Trench. — " These conditions multiplied the
difficulties of attack to such an extent that it was found
impossible to exploit the situation with the rapidity
necessary to enable us to reap the full benefits of the
advantages we had gained." f They also explain the
inconclusive character of much of the fighting between
the capture of Thiepval and the Battle of the Ancre. In
one of these attacks four Fusilier battalions fought side

* A Fusilier officer's account.
t Despatch.


by side. The Fourth Army operated along the whole
front from Les Bceufs to Destremont Farm in support
of the French advance on Sailly-Saillisel. The front upon
which the Royal Fusiliers were engaged stretched, roughly,
between the road running from High Wood to Le Barque
and the road running north from Gueudecourt, the 26th
and 9th Battalions being on the extreme left and right
respectively. Before them lay a network of trenches and
strong posts forming the outer defences of Ligny-Thilloy.

The 8th and 9th Battalions on this occasion suffered
very heavy losses, and did not reach their objectives.
When the attack began at 1.45 p.m. on October 7th
everything, from advanced headquarters, appeared to go
well. Within half an hour reports came back that this
was the case, but in an hour it was known that even the
first objective, Bayonet Trench, had not been reached.
The German positions were found to be held in great
strength, and it was later discovered that the attack had
coincided with a relief. The artillery and machine gun
fire were too heavy, and the front companies were mowed
down. The 9th alone had 15 officer casualties, and about
250 other ranks. They mustered, on relief, 144, with
B Company reduced to 12. The 8th had 9 officer
casualties and 244 other ranks. Each of these battalions
received from General Boyd Moss the following message :
" Will you please thank all ranks of your battalion for
the magnificent gallantry they displayed yesterday.
They advanced steadily under a heavy fire which only
the very best troops could have faced. Though unfortu-
nately unsuccessful, their gallant conduct has added to
the fine reputation which you have already won for

The 26th and 32nd Battalions, attacking at the same
time, fared no better. Despite all gallantry, no appre-
ciable headway was made. Each of the four battalions
was at this time much under strength, and went into
battle considerably less than two companies strong,
although organised as four. From first to last the 26th


only advanced about 300 yards ; but the position could
not be maintained, and their casualties were 14 officers
and 240 other ranks. Insufficient preparation and
support, reduced strength and the terrible state of the

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 12 of 38)