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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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ground, had proved too heavy a handicap for units who
had each performed excellent service before. Major
Coxhead (9th Battalion) noted the state of the roads was
so bad that the transport took three hours and a quarter
to traverse the five miles to Becordel.

The 20th Battalion had a tour in the trenches north
of Morval in the last week of October, and suffered 75
casualties, including five officers. They then moved into
trenches to the north of Les Bceufs, and on November 6th,
after three attempts, established a bombing post about
midway between that village and Le Transloy. In this
small action they had about 100 casualties. So the month
wore on to the 13th, when the Battle of the Ancre was

The Battle of the Ancre. — In this action, which in
duration was only comparable to one of the many battles
embraced under the general title of the Battle of the
Somme, eight battalions of the Royal Fusiliers were
involved, though one of them, the 4th, was in brigade
reserve, and remained in the same position in Sackville
Street, opposite Serre, all day, as the assaulting brigades
did not reach their objective. The front of attack had
a bad history, for it was here that several divisions
attacked in vain, and suffered heavy loss, on July 1st.
The situation on November 13th was very different.
The gains south of the Ancre had placed the troops in a
position to take the German positions north of the river
in enfilade. On the other hand, " the enemy's defences
in this area were already formidable when they resisted
our assault on July 1st, and the succeeding period of
four months had been spent in improving and adding to
them in the light of the experience he had gained in the
course of our attacks further south ; . . . the villages of
Beaucourt-sur-Ancre and Beaumont Hamel, like the rest


of the villages forming part of the enemy's original front
in this district, were evidently intended by him to form
a permanent line of fortification. . . . Realising that his
position in them had become a dangerous one, the enemy
had multiplied the number of his guns covering this part
of the line. . . ." *

The Germans, indeed, were confident that they had
neutralised the disadvantages of the approach from the
south by their new precautions, and General Ludendorff
described the victory of the Ancre as " a particularly
heavy blow, for we considered such an event no longer
possible." f But it is obvious that the tip of the salient,
created by the Somme advance, was highly vulnerable,
and it was there that the greatest successes were won.
The preliminary bombardment had lasted two whole days,
with bursts of great intensity, and at 5.45 a.m. on Novem-
ber 13th it developed into a very effective barrage.

On the northern flank of the attack, as we have seen,
the 4th Battalion remained undisturbed the whole day,
so little had the attack succeeded on that sector. The
wire was insufficiently cut and the ground too sodden.
Four other Fusilier battalions belonged to the 2nd Division,
which lay north of Beaumont Hamel, between the 3rd and
51st Divisions. The 24th Battalion alone took part in
the initial advance. As the left battalion of the 5th
Brigade their flank was influenced by the failure further
north. At 5.15 a.m. the attacking companies left the
trenches in a dense fog, reformed in No Man's Land, and
moved forward with the general advance at 5.45 a.m.
The barrage was followed closely, the men being within
20 yards of it over the whole battalion front. Some
shells, indeed, fell short and caused casualties, but the
men followed coolly at a walking pace into the German
front line trenches, and a numerous dug-out popula-
tion emerged to surrender. The troops went on, and at
6.15 had taken the major part of their objective, the Green

* Despatch.

f " My War Memories," Vol. I p 290.


line — the German third line system. C and D Companies
were cleaning up the trenches. It was early realised that
the assault on the left flank had been unsuccessful, and all
trenches leading north were blocked. This advance, though
not spectacular, was useful in the general scheme of things ;
and it had not been achieved without considerable losses.
On the 14th the battalion's positions were taken over by
the supporting battalion, the 2nd Oxford and Bucks.

On the left of the 24th the 2nd Highland Infantry had
advanced, and the 17th Royal Fusiliers, as the supporting
battalion, had passed through, and with the 2nd Oxford
and Bucks had attempted to advance from the German
third line to Munich Trench and Frankfort Trench. At
10 a.m. the third German line was strongly held, and four
companies of the 17th Battalion, now reduced to a total
strength of 180, were well to the east. They had met with
a heavy enfilade fire owing to the units on the left of the
5th Brigade being held up. Some parties of the Fusiliers
with the Oxfords and Bucks had penetrated into Munich
Trench, but could not maintain themselves. After
10.30 a.m. the front line was reorganised with the battalion
holding Crater Lane Trench, a line that was apparently
further east than any other north of the Ancre held by our
troops.* Later in the day the line of Wagon Road was
also held. At 4.30 p.m. the Germans counter-attacked
the advanced positions and attempted to work across the
battalion's front towards Beaumont-Hamel, lying to the
south-west. Artillery support was called for and the
attack was not pressed. The 17th lost 187 in their advance,
including Lieutenant E. P. Hallowes, Second Lieutenants
K. W. Hamilton, G. C. Levon, C. W. Taylor, R. Davison,
R. Pearce and H. J. Riches wounded. Munich Trench,
reached but not held by the battalion, was attacked by
other troops f on the 14th and by another division on the
15th, but without success.

* There was, of course, a small party outside Beaucourt, still farther

t The 1st Royal Rifles and the 1st Berks, with the 23rd Royal
Fusiliers in support.


The 22nd and 23rd Battalions, belonging to the 99th
Brigade, who were in reserve, found themselves committed
to the support of the unsuccessful left flank of the Ancre
attack. The 22nd went up to form a defensive flank to
the 5th Brigade, but such were the difficulties that this
object was not achieved until 9 a.m. on November 14th.
But when the line was once taken up it was firmly held,
despite a persistent and very accurate shell fire throughout
the day. It was nervous and wasting work, but the
battalion bore it so well that, on the 15th, they were able
to leap forward and seize the Quadrilateral. They were
reinforced by the 4th Battalion, who crossed the open and
shell-swept ground with only 8 casualties. The position
was consolidated and held till 7 a.m. on the 16th, when
the battalion was relieved.

At 10 a.m. on the morning of the 13th A and C Com-
panies of the 23rd Battalion had been placed under the
orders of the G.O.C. 5th Brigade, and about 5 p.m. they
were sent to support the 2nd Highland Light Infantry in
the third German line. They were then in the rear of the
17th Battalion and on the right of the 24th. B and D
Companies had been lent to the 6th Brigade, and at 7 p.m.
they succeeded in canying the front forward to the second
German line. The whole battalion supported the unsuc-
cessful attack on Munich Trench by the 1st Royal Rifles
and 1st Berks, on the 14th. The 2nd Division's advance,
considerable on the right and gradually lessening on the
left, owed not a little to these four Fusilier battalions.

Another Fusilier battalion which took part in the battle
of the Ancre on November 13th was the 7th. This unit
formed part of the 190th Brigade of the 63rd (Naval)
Division, which was engaged immediately north of the
river. At 5.45 a.m. C and D Companies advanced with
the H.A.C. on their right. On their left was the redoubt
which, for the whole of the day, made a deep salient in the
British position. Both of the leading companies met with
heavy rifle and machine gun fire. The first two waves of
C were held up by the remains of the German wire, and

L 2


after losing heavily returned to the starting point. There,

in our front line, were the second two waves and about

60 men from other battalions. It was so foggy that no

one could see what was actually happening, and Captains

Foster and Clarke decided to make another advance with

all the men in the trench. The men came again under

heavy fire, and all the platoon commanders — Second

Lieutenant W. Ford, Second Lieutenant St. Aubyn,

Second Lieutenant Bouchier and Sergeant Cookson —

became casualties. Nevertheless, the German front line

was rushed in five minutes. In it were found 20 German

dead, and one officer and 50 men surrendered. A machine

gun was also captured. The trench line was consolidated

and blocked against the German strong point, and the

company remained there until ordered to proceed to the

Green line. Sergeant Bright with three Lewis guns and

13 men was left to hold up the German strong point. The

Green line was reached with little loss except from snipers

and was held till about 9 p.m., when, on relief by the H.A.C.,

they went back to the German front line. D Company,

in the meantime, had made three attempts to advance, the

last with the elements of several other battalions, and had

failed to make headway against the German rifle and

machine gun fire. At the end of the third attack the

company was reduced to 50, and Captain Rattigan decided

to hold on where he was in front of the German wire. They

remained in this position for four and a half hours-

During this time Captain Rattigan was killed, and Second

Lieutenant Downing, finding a mine shaft leading back,

went down it, reported to battalion headquarters and was

ordered to bring the remains of the company back to the

British front line.

Sergeant Bright held up the German strong point all
day. He was not a little assisted by the supply of German
bombs found in the trench, and by Private Hawkesley,
who daringly lay out along the parapet with a Lewis gun.
Captain Goddard, of B Company, took over this post at
3 p.m., and the captured trench was organised. The


battalion was reorganised about 2 a.m. on November 14th,
and at 6 a.m. the Fusiliers attacked once more. It was
at this point that the 7th Battalion came into contact
with the 13th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, who attacked
between the 13th Rifle Brigade and the 13th King's Royal
Rifle Corps. The 13th moved off a little too eagerly and
suffered some casualties from our own barrage. They
withdrew 50 yards and then resumed the advance under
a harassing machine gun fire from Beaucourt village.
A strong point on the left flank resisted with great deter-
mination, and the 13th Rifle Brigade were to the rear of
the 13th Royal Fusiliers when the first objective was
taken. Meanwhile, Captain Goddard, with the 7th, had
amalgamated the battalion's two waves, and after one
and a half hours' shelling of the final objective, advanced
and took it without much opposition. He had turned
to the right and with elements of the 13th Battalion, the
13th K.R.R.C, and the H.A.C., consolidated the right
flank on the bank of the Ancre, south-east of Beaucourt,
which had fallen a little earlier to the charge of Freyberg's

Up to this point the position on the left of the 13th
Battalion still caused trouble. Most of the casualties
suffered by the 7th in their advance to the final objective
had come from this quarter, and the 13th remained on
the first line captured. But the 10th Battalion, who, like
the 13th, belonged to the inth Brigade, had had the
pleasant experience of co-operating with a tank in the
reduction of the German redoubt which had held up the
centre of the 63rd Division. The mere appearance of the
tank seems to have been sufficient, and without firing a
shot the 10th Battalion took 270 German prisoners,* and
three machine guns. They also liberated 60 British
prisoners who had been well treated, but were naturally
glad to get back to their own army. The 7th Battalion
passed from this area and the 13th did not figure again in
the battle. The former had attacked 22 officers and

* Eight hundred prisoners in all were taken from this redoubt.


629 other ranks strong. They lost 13 officers and 331
other ranks, more than half the total strength. The
casualties of the 13th were 8 officers (including Lieut. -
Colonel Ardagh, wounded) and 130 other ranks. But the
victory was complete. It was a great blow to German
prestige, and it made an important improvement in the
British positions.

* * * *

There were still some local operations in this area before
the battle died down and a final line could be organised
for winter. The 10th Battalion took a prominent part
in these attempts to round off the gains of the first three
days. Part of the final line still remained in German
hands. The 13th Battalion, on the morning of the 14th,
had been held up by opposition on its left, and patrols
sent out failed even to locate the objective. Muck Trench,
as it was called, continued to lure the 111th Brigade, and
the 10th Battalion attacked at dawn on November 16th
with the object of capturing it. They were beaten back
by intense machine gun fire. In the afternoon two
bombing parties attempted to get forward and actually
reached the trench, but they were promptly attacked by
superior forces and compelled to retire. Lieutenant R.
Stephenson was killed on this occasion. The German
barrage prevented a third attempt, but Second Lieutenant
Ground succeeded in establishing two posts in the trench
on the left before dusk, and two others were established
during the night by Second Lieutenant Bainb ridge.
These posts were reinforced and organised. But during
the night of the 17th the machine gun team in the trench
was shelled and almost wiped out. At 6.10 a.m. on the
18th the battalion attacked on the right of the 32nd
Division and stormed all its objectives but one. Unfortu-
nately these gains had to be abandoned owing to the
failure of the right of the 32nd Division. On November
19th the 10th delivered yet another attack. Two patrols,
under Second Lieutenants Bainbridge and Hey wood,
respectively, reached the objective, but were compelled


to withdraw. During the night the battalion was relieved
after an extraordinary exhibition of tenacity of purpose.
The most important and most spectacular achievement
of the Fusiliers in the battle of the Ancre was the capture
of the redoubt which had almost brought the advance to
a standstill. But it was the least difficult task, and the
10th, who accomplished it, did more distinguished service
in the following days, though their repeated attacks merely
served to secure a few points of tactical importance.



The Battle of the Somme, which had formed a more
critical episode for the Germans than was at the time
appreciated, had obviously gravely weakened them, and
Sir Douglas Haig felt that it was desirable to allow them
no respite during the winter. There was consequently
little rest either in the Somme area or beyond it. The
mere routine of trench occupation at this period involved
much more than mere alertness. The movements and
disposition of troops were carefully watched by means
of repeated raids. One of these may be mentioned for a
singular coolness that marked its execution.

The 26th Battalion were in the line towards the north
of the Wytschaete Ridge. On December 15th, 1916,
Lieutenant C. R. W. Jenkins took a patrol to the German
front line trench in order to secure identifications. Leav-
ing a corporal on the parapet, he went into the trench
alone, and, meeting two German sentries, promptly shot
one ; but the other ran back and gave the alarm. Jenkins,
seeing how things were shaping, jumped out of the trench,
but, after waiting a few minutes, returned and took the
desired identifications from the body of the sentry he
had shot. For this act of coolness and courage he was
awarded the M.C. But the night was not yet over.
About 11.30 a party of Germans raided the battalion's
front line, and a number of men who were out attending
to the wire were caught in the barrage. The Germans
got into the front line, and there Private H. Jones, though
isolated, continued to handle his machine gun to such
effect that the raiding party were beaten off. He was
awarded the D.C.M., and Lieutenant M. B. Maude won


the M.C. for his persistent courage in helping to bring
back the men who had been caught in the German barrage.
The mud dragged his boots off, and his feet were badly
torn by the wire, but he continued to help until the work
was done.

There were many similar incidents on other parts of
the front. Just north of Loos a more elaborate raid was
carried out in broad daylight on January 26th by the 12th
Battalion, in conjunction with the 8th Buffs. Of the
Fusiliers 4 officers and 100 other ranks were engaged. The
German front and support lines were reached, machine
gun emplacements were destroyed, dug-outs were bombed,
many Germans were killed and 16 were taken prisoner.
The German barrage on No Man's Land and the Fusiliers'
front and communicating trenches was accurately placed-
All the officers were wounded. Lieutenant Murless died
on February 8th, and Second Lieutenant A. E. Hughes
was severely hurt. There were 24 other ranks casualties.
The British communique of February 1st included * the
12th Battalion among those who had specially distin-
guished themselves during January ; and they were also
warmly congratulated by the Army Commander.

Many, too, were the deaths which had no obvious
savour of heroism about them. Such was the death of
Captain R. L. Roscoe, M.C, who was mortally wounded
on February 3rd during his sleep in the company head-
quarter's post (Courcelette Sector). He was only nine-
teen years of age and one of the 22nd Battalion's most
efficient officers. Two days later the 22nd Battalion
carried out with the Berks a successful bombing raid.
The men wore white overalls, and guns and hats were
whitened. The ground was covered with snow, and the
raiders brought back 57 Germans at a very light cost.

A more important series of incidents from the point of
view of the German retreat was that which began with a
raid by A Company of the nth Battalion on the night
of February 10th. Second Lieutenants B. G. Sampson

* Only eighteen battalions were thus mentioned.


and B. P. Webster led the platoons in an attack on a
German strong point between Miraumont Road and
Sixteen Road. The position was captured, but the Ger-
mans concentrated a very heavy machine gun and gre-
nade fire on the garrison. Both officers and the N.C.O.'s
became casualties, and the Germans recovered the
position in a violent counter-attack. The few remaining
men were compelled to retire. The battalion was relieved,
but after a few days out of the line moved up once more
for the first concerted action of the year 1917. The
object of this attack was to carry our line forward along
the spur which runs northward from the main Morval-
Thiepval Ridge about Courcelette, and so gain possession
of the high ground on its northern extremity. This
would give us the command of the approaches to Pys
and Miraumont from the south, and observation over the
upper valley of the Ancre and its concealed batteries.
While immediately regarding Pys and Miraumont, the
operations were also designed to weaken the defences of
Serre, which these batteries supported.

Boom Ravine. — The three divisions engaged all con-
tained battalions of Royal Fusiliers ; but the 7th Batta-
lion, in the 63rd Division, was not called upon. On the
right of the 63rd Division, and south of the Ancre, lay the
18th Division, with the 2nd Division on its right. The
nth Battalion (18th Division) was the left assaulting
battalion of the 54th Brigade, and their role was to advance
from in front of Desire Trench to South Miraumont Trench,
crossing Grandcourt Trench and the deep sunken road
called Boom Ravine — a name which the Fusiliers and the
brigade always associate with the action. A thaw had
just set in. The night was dark and misty. In fine, all
the conditions were against the attack ; but the wire was
cut, and forming-up lines taped in the forming-up place,
the Gully, during the night. The assembling place was
very crowded at 4.45 a.m. on February 17th, and, unfor-
tunately, the Germans had discovered the plan in detail.
A heavy barrage was opened upon the Gully just before


zero and the Fusiliers suffered very heavily. It was rain-
ing, pitch dark, the Gully was slippery with mud and
packed with troops. Such an ordeal, gallantly over-
come, speaks volumes for the spirit and discipline of the
troops ; for the Fusiliers leapt forward at zero as though
no hour of horror had preceded it.

At zero only Captain Morton and Captain Colles Sandes,
of the officers of A and B Companies respectively re-
mained un wounded. At 5.45 came the barrage and the
men followed closely ; but little progress had been made
before these two officers joined the others, Captain Morton
with a serious foot wound and Captain Colles Sandes with
a wound in the neck. The two leading companies were
now without officers ; and the men continued their
advance over the shell-pitted slippery front in the dark-
ness and rain. Some delay occurred at Grandcourt
Trench, where the wire was not sufficiently cut, though it
was less uncut than in front of the battalion on the Fusi-
liers' right. The men pressed ahead and reached the 40-f eet
deep cleft called Boom Ravine. There was now not an officer
in the four companies who had not become a casualty.
The battalion was held together by the sergeants. C.S.M.
Fitterer (B), although wounded in the thigh, reorganised
the companies and directed the advance ; and Sergeants
Choate, Berry and Hazell, of A, C and D Companies
respectively, ably assisted him.

It was hardly light till 6.5 a.m., but by 6.30 Fitterer
had got the Fusiliers to resume their advance from the
Ravine, where they had taken over 100 prisoners. The
Middlesex were left in the Ravine to mop up. But already
there had been a serious delay and the barrage had got
too far ahead. As a consequence, the Germans were
ready in South Miraumont Trench ; and the weak force,
facing uncut wire in a heavily manned trench, could only
take refuge in the muddy shell-holes. At about 8.30 a.m.
a German counter-attack compelled the men to retire, and
it was while steadying the withdrawal that Lieut. -Colonel
R. J. F. Meyricke, who had only left the nth Battalion a


fortnight before to command the Northants, was killed.
For some time Second Lieutenant G. S. Pearcy, the
signalling officer of the battalion, rallied the Fusiliers
during this part of the battle until Lieut. -Colonel C. C.
Carr, D.S.O., and Captain Cumberledge, D.S.O., the
Adjutant, took control and the line was halted. The
remains of the assaulting battalions, with two companies
of the Middlesex, went forward once more in the after-
noon and recovered some of the lost ground. This battle
was one of the most tragic episodes in the battalion's his-
tory. Of the officers 2 were killed, 1 died of wounds, and
11 were wounded ; of other ranks 36 were killed, 162
wounded and 69 missing. But, on the whole, it was not
an exorbitant price to pay for an advance which carried
the troops so near the defences of Petit Miraumont.

The 22nd and 23rd Battalions (99th Brigade, 2nd Divi-
sion) were also engaged on the same day. The 22nd
assembled in battle position between East and West
Miraumount roads and began the assault with A and B
Companies, D forming a defensive flank from the old
British line to the final objective. In so doing, the com-
pany advanced along the east side of East Miraumont
road and came under a heavy fire from machine guns on
the right. For a moment it looked as though the attack
would fail utterly because of this check ; but Sergeant
Palmer cut his way through a stretch of wire under
a heavy and sustained machine-gun fire, and rushed the
trench running up to the north-east, on the company's
right. He established a block at a point where the trench

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 13 of 38)