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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 14 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 14 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

turned eastward and thus covered the right flank of his
battalion's advance. With a handful of men he held the
position for three hours, during which the Germans deli-
vered seven heavy attacks. When the supply of bombs
gave out he went back to headquarters for more, and
while he was away the post he had won and so skilfully
defended was driven in. He was badly shaken by a bomb
explosion ; but he collected a few men, drove back the
Germans and restored the essential flank-guard. He was

K S 2

H O ni •

H S .2 -


. o


£ 7.

■— S.

v. -

< ±


5 »<

* £ 2

z^ ~





granted a well-deserved V.C. for this act of courage and

Meanwhile A and C Companies found the wire uncut in
front of them. One platoon west of West Miraumont
Road was surrounded and captured. But the troops had
reached the road south of South Miraumont Trench when
an outflanking movement from the right caused them to
fall back to the first objective, which was consolidated
with elements of the 1st King's Royal Rifles and the 23rd
Royal Fusiliers. This engagement was marked by
numerous acts of gallantry. The Lewis gun section, who
bore the brunt of the German counter-attack from South
Miraumont Trench and brought back eight of its fourteen
guns, though three-quarters of the team had been killed
or wounded, deserves mention ; and the fine work of D
Company had its influence on the action to the end. Well
posted in an advanced position, it prevented the Germans
debauching on East Miraumont Road. But the battalion
lost very heavily. At noon only three officers remained.
Major Walsh, who had joined the battalion in February,

1 91 5, and had had command of a company since March,

1916, was mortally wounded. A natural leader of men,
he was a great loss to the battalion. The 23rd Battalion,
who co-operated on the right and carried their objectives,
were also severely hit, losing 13 officers and 227 other
ranks. The battalion held their final position during the
following day until relieved.

Retreat. — It was only a week after these actions that
the enemy was found to be evacuating his positions. The
17th Battalion, in the Courcelette Sector, on making this
discovery, advanced their front line to new positions. The
7th Battalion patrols had found evidence of the enemy's
withdrawal north of the Ancre the day before, February
24th. Strong battle patrols were therefore pushed for-
ward in co-operation with the neighbouring units. After
a thorough reconnaissance the battalion advanced early
in the morning of the 25th in artillery formation. The
eastern edge of Miraumont was reached without opposi-


tion, and an outpost line was established and a further
reconnaissance was made by scouts. The advance was
later continued under a weak artillery fire. The battalion
had advanced nearly two miles when, on the night of
February 25th, they were relieved.

Three days later this process of testing the German
grip on various positions was extended southwards.
The 2nd Battalion, whose march discipline while making
a move had been recently pronounced by the G.O.C.
29th Division " fit for an inspection parade," delivered a
successful attack in the Combles area. The advance was
finally held up by a shortage of bombs, and the battalion
had to fall back under pressure of a heavy counter-attack.

By the end of February the enemy had been driven back
to the Transloy-Loupart line, with the exception of the
village of Irles, which formed a salient in their position.
The 2nd and 18th Divisions were ordered to attack the
village, in preparation for a larger operation against the
whole of the Switch Line. The 22nd Battalion assisted
in this engagement by supplying carrying parties, a
covering company and several Lewis guns. The 23rd
gave more active assistance, taking the feature known as
Lady's Leg Ravine. They killed 20 of the enemy,
captured 30 and also a machine gun. The casualties
were slight, hardly more than the number of prisoners
captured ; and this was the case over the whole of the
battle front. Not long after this the general withdrawal
took place, and the Germans fell back to the Hindenburg

Arras. — Part of Sir Douglas Haig's pre-arranged plan
was not disturbed by this retirement of the Germans.
As far south as the Arras- Cambrai road, the position was
completely unchanged, and it was north of Arras that the
Canadians and seven of the British divisions were to
deliver their blow. The weather broke in April ; it was
cold, and on the 2nd it began to snow. At the end of
that day the snow lay an inch deep in Arras. Numerous
troops had been moved up to this part of the line and


found easy accommodation in the cellars. They were
dark and damp, but stoves made them a little more
comfortable. Some of the cellars were very deep, and
these accommodated battalion headquarters. To some
of the Fusiliers this cellar life proved an amusing episode,
and it was not sufficiently prolonged to become irksome.
Zero was at 5.30 a.m. on Easter Monday. Wire-cutting
had begun nearly three weeks before, and on April 4th
the preliminary bombardment started. On the 8th, a
fine cold day, the shelling seemed to die down ; but in
the dark of the Monday morning it began with extra-
ordinary intensity, and the troops moved forward.
Strange but very welcome rumours were heard by those
Fusiliers left behind in Arras, and the troops of cavalry
trotting by seemed to give point to them.

On the Arras battle front there were a number of
Fusilier battalions waiting to take their part in the
struggle. Farthest north were the 8th and 9th Battalions
(12th Division), just above the Arras-Cambrai road.
Behind this division was the 37th with the 10th and 13th
Battalions. Below the Arras-Cambrai road lay the 3rd
Division with the 4th Royal Fusiliers ; and farther
south, before Neuville-Vitasse, was the 56th Division
with four battalions of the London Regiment R.F.
(Territorials) .

The 8th and 9th Battalions reached their objectives,
and with small loss took a considerable number of
prisoners. The 8th was the left support battalion of the
brigade, and the men moved off so rapidly after the
barrage that in many cases they became merged in the
assaulting battalion, the 7th Royal Sussex. The front
German line was reached without a single casualty.
The attack went exactly according to programme.* The
enemy put up a resistance at two strong points, but they

* Message from Brig. -General C. S. Owen : " Please convey my very
best congratulations to all ranks who took part in the attack to-day.
They did magnificent work. They went forward and carried out their
job as if they had been on the practice trenches. . . ."


were outflanked, and at 10 a.m. the whole objective was
taken with two machine guns and 129 prisoners. The
total casualty list was 175 killed, wounded and missing
(only 7 of these last). On the right, the 9th Battalion also
gained all objectives and captured two machine guns and
220 prisoners. C Company captured 150 of these in one
dug-out. But the dug-outs were unhealthy places. One
of them, in the nth Middlesex area, was suddenly blown
up by the explosion of a mine ; and as a consequence
German dug-outs were afterwards forbidden. These
positions, the " Blue Line," were at once consolidated.

The 4th Battalion, south of the Arras-Cambrai road,
moved off with the 9th Brigade after the 76th had taken
the first objective. Advancing at 7 a.m. the battalion
came under heavy shell fire as they moved across the
open ; but they kept on until they had covered about a
mile, the men keeping their ranks and formation in spite
of casualties. In their path lay the highly organised
defensive system below Tilloy called the Harp, and in
conjunction with other battalions the 4th Royal Fusiliers
swept across it. Such a position in the Battle of the
Somme frequently remained a stumbling block for days
and weeks. W Company, leading on the right, suffered
very heavily from rifle and machine gun fire, and also
partly from our own barrage. All the officers were
wounded, Captain Furnie severely, and the command
devolved on Second Lieutenant the Earl of Shannon, who,
though wounded, led the company from Nomeny Trench
and was the first man to enter String Trench. Before
this trench, with its wire only partially cut, many losses
were sustained. A portion of the company carried on
with the 9th Rifle Brigade to Neuilly Trench. Z Company
were caught by the fire from the north-east corner of
Tilloy village, but, with the help of two platoons of X,
assisted in the capture of Lynx and String Trenches.
Captain A. E. Millson (CO., X Company) was mortally
wounded as he entered the latter trench. X and Y
Companies supported the two assaulting companies


mopped up Nomeny Trench and carried the battalion
forward to the final objective. The battalion gained
little support from the tanks, although one sat down upon
Nomeny Trench after they had carried it. Among the
captures of the day were 5 officers and 70 other ranks,
three machine guns, two minenwerfer and four granaten-
werfer. But the battalion lost 225 officers and men.
Besides Captain Millson, Second Lieutenant Paddock
died of wounds, and seven other officers were wounded,
Captain Furnie and Second Lieutenant K. C. Marlowe

The Territorial battalions had more obvious objectives,
and carried out their task well. The 3rd Londons lay
before Neuville-Vitasse, and with the 8th Middlesex early
got a hold on the village, and pushed on until at 10.30
the whole of it was in their hands. On this the 1st
Londons went ahead against the Cojeul Switch Line.
For a short time they were held up at a belt of uncut wire,
where they lost very heavily. Colonel Smith, with most
of his officers, became a casualty ; but, reinforced by the
7th Middlesex, the battalion held on until the line was
captured. The 2nd Londons entered the battle during
the night, and, by an advance to the trench junction at
Rum Jar Corner, and thence to the high ground sur-
mounted by Wancourt Tower, secured the flank.

Monchy le Preux. — Meanwhile the 37th Division had
moved up. The 13th Battalion reached Blangy at ir.30
a.m. without casualties, and at 1.10 p.m. orders came to
move forward and take up positions in Battery Valley,
along the line of Fred's Wood, which lies about 200 yards
north of the railway, and east of Blangy. At about 6.45
p.m. the battalion moved to the point from which they
were to begin the attack on Monchy le Preux, a village
standing on a small hill about 90 feet above the surround-
ing country. Up to the " Blue Line," which had been
taken and consolidated early in the day, there was no
shell fire ; but on crossing it the Fusiliers soon saw that
the next line had not been taken in their immediate front

F. M


and there was no alternative but to attack it preparatory
to the final advance. With the ioth Royal Fusiliers on
the right, the troops advanced steadily for about 2,000
yards and were at length brought to a halt just east of the
Feuchy-Feuchy Chapel road. Their left was in the air,
and the 13th Battalion had to form a defensive flank there.
In this position they dug in at nightfall. Shortly before
dawn they were withdrawn to near Broken Mill and
another brigade took over the positions. The ioth Batta-
lion had fallen back to Feuchy Chapel at 4 a.m., and then
later to the "Brown Line," farther back.

About noon on April ioth the Royal Fusiliers moved
forward once more. The 13th Battalion crossed the
northern end of Orange Hill and then swung half-left
towards the outlying woods west of Monchy. The ioth
Battalion on the right were in touch, and both units con-
tinued to advance under a heavy barrage until the ioth
were only 600 yards west of Monchy. The losses of both
battalions had been very heavy. At 7.40 p.m. only three
officers besides the CO. and the adjutant remained with
the 13th Battalion, and a provisional line of trenches had
to be dug west of the village, after consultation with the
Royal Engineers. This line was completed by about
4 a.m. on April nth. About an hour and a half later the
ioth and 13th Battalions made a last spurt forward and
the 13th established themselves north of the village, about
a hundred yards west of Hamers Lane ; and this position
they held throughout the day. The ioth Battalion, now
commanded by Major A. Smith, stormed the village itself
and occupied it under a heavy barrage. The west side
was entrenched and a small advanced post was established
on the east of the village. The cavalry entered the
village about n a.m. and were heavily shelled.

The Royal Fusiliers held these positions until relieved
at 11 p.m. that night. It was a memorable day. At one
time there was a blinding snowstorm ; but the troops
ignored such small inconveniences, and, though the Arras
front changed considerably in the subsequent operations,


the positions at this point were little changed. In Decem-
ber the line was not 1,000 yards farther east than that
achieved on April nth by the Fusiliers. When Lieut.-
General Sir R. C. B. Haking, G.O.C. XI. Corps, inspected
the 10th Battalion on January 5th, he said it was the best-
turned-out unit he had seen for twelve months. Their
achievement at Monchy le Preux must place them in the
front rank for courage, tenacity and skill. Their losses
were twelve officers (including Lieut.-Colonel Rice,
wounded) and 240 other ranks. The 13th Battalion had
also suffered very heavily, and Colonel Layton's words, in
reporting the detail of the action, " I consider that the
battalion behaved magnificently, and I have nothing but
praise for every one in it," were well merited.

Other divisions were now appearing in this area bringing
with them Fusilier battalions. On April nth the 2nd
Division moved up to the left of the Canadians and the
24th Battalion entered the forward trenches in the Farbus
line. On the following day the 20th Battalion took over
the trenches won that day about 1,000 yards west of
Heninel. On the 13th it was discovered that the batta-
lion on the left of the 24th Royal Fusiliers had found the
railway line unoccupied and it was decided to advance at
once. Under heavy artillery fire the Fusiliers reached the
railway line and then a line from the eastern edge of
Willerval to Bailleul. This line covered the sugar factory
in the orchard of which a German naval 6-inch gun was
captured. This line was consolidated for the night. On
their left the 23rd Battalion, who on the nth had relieved
the 1/5 Gordons west of Bailleul, advanced with the 24th
to the railway, and, pushing farther on, occupied Bailleul.
A line was established on the east of the village and patrols
were sent forward towards Oppy. A platoon of C Com-
pany, misinterpreting orders, went out to attempt the
capture of Oppy, and was itself captured, after a spirited
fight before the village. The 23rd captured four guns in
this advance. But they lost heavily, for, in addition to

the platoon cut off at Oppy, Captain Lissmann, the

11 a


adjutant, was killed by a shell as he walked with the CO.
towards the railway. They were relieved on the following
day. But the 24th continued their advance at 3 p.m.
on April 14th, and, despite a heavy artillery and machine-
gun fire, succeeded in getting to within about 500 yards of
the Arleux en Gohelle-Oppy line. This was a formidable
sector of the German front, and the 24th had to lie facing
it with both flanks refused, since the units on neither side
had advanced.

Guemappe. — It was on April 13th, also, that the 4th
Battalion were sent forward against Guemappe. Monchy
lay in an uneasy salient, and its importance suggested that
the sooner it was finally secured the better, if there were
any expectations of further advance or even if the position
was to be held easily. The attack was launched hurriedly
and was unsuccessful. The order (cancelling a previous
order and) directing the attack to take place that evening
was only received at 5.55 p.m. and zero was to be at 6.20
p.m. The battalion were formed up about ten minutes
before the barrage lifted and they advanced very steadily
although they encountered three German barrages. When
they approached the spur lying about 750 yards north-
west of Guemappe they came under a very sustained rifle
and machine-gun fire from both flanks, but particularly
from the direction of Wancourt. They continued to
advance and crossed the spur. But by this time most of
the officers who had gone into action had been wounded.
Captain Gibson, in charge of the right leading company,
was severely wounded ; Second Lieutenant the Earl of
Shannon, commanding the right support company, was
killed ; Second Lieutenant B. C. Martin was killed ;
Second Lieutenant C. A. Brasher and Captain K. J.
Barrett were both wounded. Still the battalion advanced
and the sunken road was reached. They had pushed for-
ward nearly 3,000 yards, an apparently irresistible
advance in defiance of all the enemy could do.

But now Captain Barrett, who had continued in com-
mand though wounded, was again severely wounded, and


was carried out of action. Before leaving, however, he
gave instructions in writing. It was now 8 p.m.
Lieutenant Hiddingh and Second Lieutenants Thoday and
Burr were the only officers left. The King's Liverpools,
who had started off fifteen minutes before the 4th Royal
Fusiliers, had not been seen since. The 12th West Yorks
whom it was intended to support were not seen at all.
The Royal Fusiliers had passed through some of the
1st Northumberland Fusiliers during the advance, and
this unit's right was found to be on the cross-roads north-
west of Guemappe, and practically in line with the 4th
Battalion, halted on the sunken road facing the village
about 500 yards away. This advance, launched almost
at a moment's notice, without any time for preliminary
reconnaissance, was a very wonderful performance. Success
could have added but little to it. The battalion were
ordered to withdraw at 1 a.m. on April 14th ; and the
movement was carried out steadily and skilfully. Of the
12 officers who went into action, five became casualties,
and there were 86 other ranks casualties.

It was on the same day, April 13th, that the 12th Bat-
talion made a striking advance near the extreme left flank
of the Arras battle. About 9-30 a.m., the Germans were
observed to be shelling their own third line. Maj or Neynoc
and Lieut. -Colonel Mobbs (7th Northants) thereupon went
forward to the 3rd line positions north-east of Souchez.
The trenches were found to be almost smashed out of
recognition by our fire, and unoccupied. At midnight
Nos. 3 and 4 Companies, in close support under Neynoc,
relieved the units in the front line, and at 8 a.m. on the
14th patrols were pushed ahead. On a report that all
was clear, No. 3 Company proceeded through Calvary
Trench and No. 4 Company, under cover in the Bois de
Rollencourt, advanced and occupied the sunken road up
to the mill in the outskirts of Lieven. At 2 p.m. the
companies went through Lieven and occupied the line of
the Souchez River. The latter part of this advance was
over open country, under the observation of low-flying


aeroplanes which directed a heavy fire. At night the left
of the battalion were in contact with the 17th Brigade at
the north corner of the Bois de Riamont and their right
with the 5th Division at the bridge on the Souchez river
in Cite de l'Abattoir. This flank was slightly drawn
back. Two fighting patrols under Second Lieutenants
A. H. Lee and Deakin were pushed forward on the 15th
into the Cite - de Riamont, but they were later ordered to
withdraw, as it was not intended seriously to engage the
enemy in this quarter. But this very decisive and
skilful exploitation of a chance discovery won warm praise
from the divisional commander, who told the commanding
officer that he had a battalion he might be proud of.

Oppy. — On April 16th another attempt was made to
test the strength of the Oppy line. A daylight raid was
ordered to be made by the 17th Battalion, and Lieutenant
Brodie and three men moved out at 3 p.m. It was not
the sort of adventure which encourages the soldier. The
small party were sniped from Arleux and never had a
chance of doing more than swell a casualty list. Brodie
was wounded and taken prisoner. Corporal Town was
killed. Another man was wounded and made prisoner.
Only one returned to report that the wire was thick and
unbroken. The battalion were ordered on the following
day to find three companies to enter the Oppy switch line
and bomb it clear with the help of the 2nd Oxford and
Bucks. Fortunately the division prevented this project
being carried out. Four separate brigades attempted to
take this line later on, and all failed. The defence had,
in fact, made a recovery, as the 20th Battalion also dis-
covered when they attacked south-east of Heninel on the
same day. This small operation attained no success.
Second Battle of the Scarpe. — On April 23rd, the
second Battle of the Scarpe began. The 7th Battalion's
share in this battle was an attack north of Gavrelle
which assisted the other units of the division to capture
the village. Even in the preparatory stage of the battle
the battalion fared badly. A new line, about 200 yards


from the German positions was dug ; but it was no sooner
ready than a sustained bombardment beat the trenches to
pieces, and a new line had to be constructed during the
night. The battalion proceeded to take up positions for
attack at 8-30 p.m. on the night of the 22nd, and at
4.45 a.m., zero, the infantry began the advance. The men
followed the barrage closely ; but on reaching the front
line found that the wire was only cut in one place, forming
a narrow south-easterly lane. The men were thus con-
gested and lost direction ; and they encountered bombing
parties and a very heavy machine-gun fire. Many
casualties were sustained from this cause until a party
was organised to attack and capture them. The guns were
rushed and twenty-three prisoners were captured. The
Fusiliers then pressed on to the support line, and established
a post against the Germans' bombers, who were shep-
herded back up the trench. The battalion had now
got forward to the railway where it was hoped to dig a
trench under cover of darkness. Posts were established
about 25 yards from the railway and were maintained in
spite of the activity of the low-flying German planes which
signalled the Fusiliers' position. At 8 p.m. the line was
linked up with that of the 6th Brigade on the left, and at
daybreak the battalion had been relieved after a successful
engagement. The number going into action was, 18
officers ; other ranks, 358. Four officers, Captain Gast,
Captain Granville, Lieutenant Wood and Lieutenant
Randall were killed, eight others were wounded. The
battalion had been practically wiped out.

The 10th Battalion also attacked at 4.45 a.m. on the
same day and took the German second line without much
difficulty, but further advance was held up by machine-
gun fire and snipers until the 13th Battalion came up on
the left flank. The advance was then resumed ; but the
10th Battalion lost touch with the right and left units
later on. At 9.30 a.m. the 10th, now consising of 3
officers and 50 other ranks, had occupied Cuba Trench,
and the 13th Battalion came up again about half an hour


later. But the 63rd Brigade on the right were not found
again until 9.55 p.m. The 10th Battalion had advanced
up to the road running due south of Gavrelle and estab-
lished a line not far from the north-western slopes of
Greenland Hill.

On the same day the 29th Division had gained ground
east of Monchy. But the attack as a whole had been
brought to a standstill short of the success which had been
expected, and orders were given for the resumption on
the 24th. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers advanced on a three-
company front from Shrapnel Trench at 4 p.m., zero.
Some 60 yards from the starting point, the battalion were
turned towards the right in order to avoid some British,
troops in front of them. At about 600 yards west of the

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 14 of 38)