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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 15 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 15 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Bois du Vert, the right (Z) Company were held up by
machine-gun fire, and the left Company (X) turned half
right to take the wood in flank. But at this point the
company were very weak, and contact could not be
achieved with the troops on either flank. There was one
officer left, and he had 30 men with him. At 6.50 p.m.
the position became untenable and they withdrew ; but
W Company went round the north side of the wood, took
up the position X had occupied, and beat off the enemy
attacks, while Z Company on the right at length succeeded
in overcoming the German resistance. The positions
were consolidated and many German dead bodies were
found on the ground with much equipment, packs, rifles,
etc. If the 2nd Battalion had paid heavily for their
success, the Germans found their resistance even more
expensive.

The 20th Battalion on the same day took over the
advanced positions in front of Fontaine les Croisilles,
from which the Germans had just retired. An outpost
line consisting of ten strong points was organised and

patrols were pushed out up to the Sensee.

* * * *

On April 28th began that series of attacks which aimed
principally, if not wholly, at assisting the French. The



OPPY WOOD, APRIL 29TH 169

13th Battalion attacked from the trenches about 300
yards east of the Gavrelle-Roeux road. Their objective
was the Whip cross-roads, south-east of Gavrelle. The
attack began at 4.25 a.m. About four hours later No. 3
Company were sent up to the right of the 13th Rifle
Brigade, who had secured their objective ; but the
company could not get into contact with any troops on
the right, and a German machine gun was in action at
the cross-roads. At 10.15 a.m., however, the position
had been cleared up and the two companies, Nos. 3 and 4,
held the road, including the cross-roads, for some 250
yards. The success was complete though the Fusiliers
had been constantly harassed by fire from snipers and
machine guns. The positions were retained intact until
the battalion were relieved on the night of the 29th.
While the Fusiliers were on their objective a body of the
63rd Brigade swept across their front leading towards
Square Wood from the south-west. They had lost
direction, but they succeeded in carrying a body of
Fusiliers with them until they were recalled. The 10th
Battalion, in support of the 13th on their right flank,
had made persistent attempts to get into touch with this
brigade, but without success.

Oppy. — The attack was continued on April 29th, and
four battalions of the Royal Fusiliers made another
attempt to conquer the Oppy defences. The Canadians
took Arleux on the left and the 24th Battalion formed
the left of the attack on Oppy Wood. They went forward
at 4 a.m., and A and B Companies reached their objective,
the sunken road between Arleux and Oppy, capturing 64
prisoners, only to find that the right battalions had not
reached their positions in the wood. Their right flank
was therefore in the air. A furious bombing attack took
place on the left flank, and such were the losses that it
was decided to swing the right flank back to Oppy Trench,
west of the sunken road and gradually retire along it.
This was successfully accomplished. C and D Companies
were sent that night to relieve the 2nd Highland Light



170 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

Infantry, immediately north of Oppy Wood, who had
suffered very terribly from the fire from Oppy Wood.
The 17th Battalion, who had been supporting the 24th
during the day with B Company, finding their right in
the air, formed a defensive flank. The line along this
front was, in fact, pitted with gaps. Farther south the
22nd Battalion advanced in perfect order, but were held
up against dense wire, and when this was partly cut came
under heavy machine-gun fire.

On the right B Company found the wire still unpene-
trable and Second Lieutenant J. Steele had a whole
platoon shot down. At this juncture Second Lieutenant
S. F. Jeffcoat, a newly-joined officer, found a gap, and with
a handful of men jumped into the trench and throughout
the morning was engaged bombing up it to the right.
At every traverse the Germans resisted, but Jeffcoat,
assisted by a few men of the 63rd Division, cleared a
considerable length of the trench by sheer personal
courage and leadership. He was mortally wounded, and
was recommended for the V.C. C.S.M. Roger also ably
assisted. The whole objective of the battalion was taken
chiefly owing to Jeffcoat's fine work, and the 23rd
Battalion reinforced on the final line.

The 7th Battalion on the right had gallantly fought to

the sunken road just north of the railway. Repeated

bombing attacks on the left flank were beaten off, and a

strong post was established near the ruined cottage,

south of Oppy and 300 yards north of the railway. At

one time the Bedfords, whom the 7th Battalion were

supporting, were in touch with men of the 22nd Battalion.

But for the most part the battalions engaged this day

fought small engagements under peril of envelopment

from both flanks ; and in the final result the general

position was little changed. Three days later a company

100 strong of the 22nd attacked north of Oppy as part of a

composite battalion, but with little success.
* * *

On May 3rd another attack was launched for the same



THE BATTLE OF MAY 3RD 171

purpose as that of April 28th, but on this occasion the battle
front totalled sixteen miles. The 8th and 9th Battalions
were engaged just south of the Scarpe and fought a very
amazing battle. Together they totalled no more than 900
men and their role was to cross about 1,000 yards, and
their objective was almost 9,000 yards long. The 9th
Battalion on the right started off from a trench which was
partly in German hands, with a block dividing them from
the Fusiliers. Zero was at 3.45 a.m. Scabbard Trench,
the first objective, was reached by both battalions, and
the line held for the moment lay just south of Roeux,
south of the Scarpe. But a bombing attack along the
river pushed both battalions out of the position, and at
noon the British artillery put a 12 minutes' barrage on
Scabbard Trench. A small party of the 9th had gone
ahead and were now cut off, in advance of this line.
Surprisingly enough they rejoined the battalion in the
evening. They had been taken prisoner, but, caught by
our own machine-gun fire on the road to Douai, they had
escaped as the Germans ran away. Major Coxhead,* the
acting CO., was killed in this battle. He had gone out
into the open, as the trench was packed and he wished to
reorganise. When he left the trench the first waves were
well ahead ; behind them a desperate fight was going on
for the possession of Scabbard Trench, and in the starting-
off trench the Germans were counter-attacking from the
block. Few positions have been as involved as this ;
and it was due to Coxhead's courage and decision that
something solid emerged at the end of the day. The 8th
Battalion had gone through a similar train of vicissitudes.
The machine-gun fire from Roeux caused numerous
casualties and there was the same bold advance, a sudden
and temporary crumpling in the intermediate positions,
and active fighting on the jumping-off position. They
took 1 officer and 44 other ranks prisoners. At night
they formed one company, and the 8th and 9th were

* Major Coxhead's diary, dispassionate, critical and detailed, has
been almost invaluable for the period it covers.



172 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

joined under the command of Lieut. -Colonel N. B. Elliot-
Cooper. The 8th alone had lost 282 officers and men.
The unit on the left had failed to carry Roeux and there
was no support on the right.

It was the strange vicissitudes of this engagement that
provided Corporal G. Jarratt, of the 8th Battalion, with
the opportunity for a splendid act of heroism. He had
been taken prisoner with some wounded men, and was
placed under guard in a dug-out. In the evening the
troops drove back the enemy and the leading infantry-
men proceeded to bomb the dug-outs. A grenade fell
into the dug-out in which were Jarratt and his com-
panions ; and, without a moment's hesitation, he placed
both feet on it. He had instantly seen that the lives of
all were at stake and he risked his own to save those of his
companions. In the subsequent explosion both his legs
were blown off. The wounded were later safely removed
to our line, but, before this, Jarratt was dead. " By this
supreme act of self-sacrifice the lives of the wounded were
saved." He was subsequently awarded the Victoria
Cross.

Farther south, the 4th Battalion had attacked from a
line about 1,000 yards east of Monchy, and had reached
positions 100 yards east of the Bois des Aubepines. The
men followed the barrage closely ; but the 1st German
line had apparently been missed, and heavy loss was expe-
rienced there. A hostile counter-attack from the east and
north-east was beaten off ; but a second counter-attack
got round the flanks of the 13th King's Liverpools and
4th Royal Fusiliers. The two leading waves, with all the
officers casualties, were cut off ; but the remainder of the
battalion held their ground till nightfall, when, with only
one officer left, they retired to the original position. It
had been impossible to maintain communication with the
front line. Runners were almost invariably shot down ;
and one who got through took five hours to make the
journey. The battalion on this day had 299 casualties,
including 11 officers. About 1 a.m., on May 4th, Second



THE TERRITORIALS ON MAY 3RD 173

Lieutenant E. M. Buck returned from beyond the German
front line system. He had lost all his men and had him-
self been blown up. On the night of the 9th, six days
later, there also returned three men who had been east of
Infantry Hill since the morning of May 3rd.

The nth Battalion were engaged opposite Cherisy in
mopping up, moving dumps and supporting the assaulting
battalions of the 54th Brigade. B Company, under Cap-
tain Neate, were to mop up the village. The Middlesex
with B Company got into and cleared Cherisy ; but the
small band who had accomplished this serviceable achieve-
ment were practically wiped out in a counter-attack from
the right. No officers of either regiment returned. Neate,
a young, spirited, and very efficient officer, was last seen
with his revolver in his hand at the head of his men. C
Company made an unsuccessful attempt to take Fontaine
Trench which had not been captured by the assaulting
companies, and merely sustained heavy loss.

Another gallant but abortive action was fought by the
2nd Londons who, with the 56th Division, lay on the left of
the 3rd Division. The battalion went forward gallantly
in the darkness, and took Cavalry Farm on the Arras-
Cambrai road and the German position 100 yards to the
east of it. The left battalion had not advanced in step
and the 2nd Londons' left flank wavered a little before it
got into its stride, when, after the farm buildings had been
taken, it formed a defensive flank. These positions were
held, despite heavy losses for nearly twenty-four hours,
when, both flanks being exposed, they had to be aban-
doned. A sergeant on this occasion distinguished him-
self by an admirable piece of bluff. In his endeavour to
find the left flank battalion he crossed the Cambrai road
and walked into a German dug-out where he was taken
prisoner. Before dawn on May 4th he had persuaded the
seventeen Germans to surrender. By this time the batta-
lion had retired ; but the sergeant safely brought his little
flock across to the British line. On the north of the 2nd
Londons, the 1st Londons had fought a very costly



i 7 4 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

engagement to as little purpose as most of the units

attacking that day ; but on May 14th Cavalry Farm was

recaptured by them with practically no loss.

It was in May that the 3/4 Londons and the 3/3

Londons took over from the Australians a sector of the

line on the right of Bullecourt. On the 14th of the month,

after a bombardment of nineteen hours, they were attacked

by the 3rd Prussian Guard. The two battalions fought

magnificently and crushed the attack with rifle and

machine-gun fire before it reached the trenches. Both of

them suffered heavy loss ; but the line was maintained

intact, and Lieut. -Colonel Beresford, who directed the

3/3 with great courage and skill, was awarded the

D.S.O.

* • * *

This long-drawn-out narrative may be terminated here.
The battle had been initiated for distinct and valuable
objectives ; but it was continued from loyalty to the
French. It was in the latter period that the smallest
gains and the greatest losses were recorded. But the
struggle called on the gallantry and skill of the Fusilier
battalions, who gave of both very remarkably.



CHAPTER IX

THE BATTLE OF MESSINES

The Arras offensive gradually died down after May 3rd,
though there were actions on the Hindenburg line and
about the Souchez River and Avion until almost the end
of June. But it was on May 4th or 5th * that it was
agreed " to give immediate effect to the British plan of a
Northern Offensive." To this plan the Battle of Messines
formed a preliminary operation, and, after elaborate pre-
paration, it was launched on June 7th, 1917.

The objective was the Messines- Wytschaete ridge,
which formed a most important observation post in the
British positions, and the chord across it running slightly
east of the hamlet of Oosttaverne. In the plan of battle
the first German defensive system and the second, follow-
ing the crest of the ridge, were to be carried in a first
assault ; and the Oosttaverne line was to be captured by
a second distinct movement. Four battalions of Royal
Fusiliers took part in the battle, two of them being
engaged in the opening attack. The 41st Division lay
near St. Eloi, toward the north-west face of the salient,
and the 26th and 32nd Royal Fusiliers, who belonged to
it, went forward with great dash and secured their
objectives.

At 3.10 a.m., zero hour, there was a terrific explosion
caused by the mines which had been driven under the
German position, and at the same time the enemy lines
were deluged by a bombardment that seemed the heaviest
of the war. Then, in bright moonlight, the 26th Batta-
lion advanced promptly and steadily, under the direction
of Lieutenant R. C. Brockworth, M.C., suffering very few

* Sir Douglas Kaig's Despatches, p. ioo, Note.



176 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

casualties. They were the first troops on the Damm-
strasse, Lieutenant Brockworth sending back the report
of its occupation. So swiftly and successfully had the
advance gone that Brockworth was awarded a bar to his
M.C. Some 203 casualties were sustained before the day
ended ; but up to this point there had been little appear-
ance of resistance and very little loss.

The 32nd advanced in support of the 26th Battalion.
They went forward in four waves, keeping admirable
order, and reached the first objective without opposi-
tion. There, a pause was made for reorganisation ;
and the battalion passed through the 26th at Damm-
strasse, and moved towards their final objective. It is
amazing that the units kept to their orders so well, for
the whole of the ground was beaten out of recognition
and the objectives were originally definite trenches. Near
the final position most of the Germans fled. About thirty
were taken prisoner, the majority of them very eager to
give themselves up ; but a few were bombed out of dug-
outs. But at the Black Line, from Goudezoune Farm to
a point on Obstacle Switch 250 yards to the north, there
was no opposition. The battalion dug themselves in
about 100 yards beyond Obstacle Trench and established
advanced posts with seven Lewis guns. The engagement
was admirably carried out largely owing to the efficiency
of the signalling under Second Lieutenant Home Galle and
Sergeant Scoble. After passing the first objective, the
Red Line, the companies were kept in constant touch with
headquarters by visual signalling. The battalion went
into action 17 officers and 551 other ranks strong and came
out with 11 officers and 384 ranks. For an attack with
important objectives which were secured in schedule time,
the losses were not excessive.

At 8.10 a.m. the work of these two battalions was over,
except for the consolidation and organisation of the
positions. It was 3.10 before the second phase of the
battle began with the advance upon the Oosttaverne
Line. The 1st Royal Fusiliers attacked in this part of



THE BATTLE OF MESSINES, JUNE 7TH 177

the battle, forming the right assaulting battalion of the
17th Brigade. The 12th Battalion were left in dug-outs
on the north and west edges of the Etang de Dickebusch
in support ; but as this position lay nearly three miles
from Dammstrasse they were not engaged during the
battle. At 11.15 a.m., the Fusiliers learned that all the
objectives of the 41st and 19th Divisions had been taken ;
and an hour later they were ordered to move to the old
front trench at 11.30 a.m. The battalion moved forward
five minutes afterwards in artillery formation. It had
become a swelteringly hot day, and the advance in such
conditions was not over-enjoyable. At 2.10 p.m. Damm-
strasse was reached and the battalion moved through the
26th preparatory to the attack.

The 1st Battalion had about a mile to go to their final
objective. At 3.10 p.m. the advance began and the men
moved very close to the barrage. Although the Germans
had had a certain amount of time to recover there was
still little organised opposition. The wire had been well
cut, the strong points were battered, and the Germans were
demoralised. But the swiftness and completeness of the
Fusiliers' success was due to their splendid dash. Second
Lieutenant Field, with a handful of D Company, rushed
a strong point which was holding out and captured 25 -
prisoners and two machine guns. B Company crossed
Odyssey Trench and, despite a strong opposition, with the
help of a platoon of A Company under Second Lieutenant
Douglas Crompton rushed the strong point which formed
part of the final objective. Crompton was unfortunately
killed, as also was Second Lieutenant Shoesmith, who had
also shown great gallantry in attack. At one point when
B and D Companies had drawn apart and there was
danger that the Germans might profit by the gap between
them, Second Lieutenant Mander ran forward with his
platoon and filled the gap. Sergeant Haldane's unselfish-
ness in attending to the wounded of his two sections is also
worthy of record. The sections being all casualties, he
carried the wounded back, and bandaged them before

F. n



178 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

reporting himself, when he fainted from loss of blood
and exhaustion. The Rev. Studdert Kennedy also did
excellent work for the wounded.

The final position was gained early, and at 4.30 p.m.
the companies reported all objectives attained and that
they were in touch with the battalions on the flanks.
The line extended from the point where the Roozebeek
cut Odyssey Trench to within a few yards of the road
running north-east of Oosttaverne. At this point the
position lay some 500 yards north-east of the hamlet. The
1st Battalion in this battle took 130 men of the 150th
Prussian Regiment prisoners, with a machine and two
field guns, for a loss of 5 officers and no other ranks.

When the 1st Battalion were consolidating the
advanced positions, the 12th moved up to the old front
line and before midnight went forward to the Dammstrasse
near Hiele Farm. From this position they took rations
and supplies to the 1st Battalion and the 3rd Rifle Brigade
in the front line. At 9.30 p.m. on June 9th they moved
forward to relieve the front line about the Roozebeek
stream. The battalion headquarters were established in
Oosttaverne Wood, near the Wambeke road ; and it was
close to this place that the battalion suffered a very search-
ing blow. They were destined to take part in rounding
off the battle and yet at one stroke they lost four of their
chief officers. A shell fell close to headquarters, catching
Lieut-Colonel Compton, Captain Gordon, Captain J. V.
Wilson and Captain Whittingham (R.A.M.C), and
wounding them. Captains Gordon and Whittingham
died at midnight. Lieut.-Colonel Compton lingered till
July 7th, when he too succumbed. At 10 p.m., Captain
Ventres assumed command of the battalion, pending the
arrival of Major Neynoc, who reached headquarters about
3.30 a.m. At 9.35 that night (June 10th) the battalion
was relieved, and suffered 52 casualties in the barrage
during relief. It was an unfortunate tour.

Major Hope Johnstone of the 1st Battalion took over
command on the nth ; and at 11 p.m. on the 12th, the



ATTACK ON BATTLE WOOD, JUNE 14TH 179

1 2th Royal Fusiliers relieved the Durham Light Infantry
in Impartial Trench preparatory to attack. Their role
was to round off the battle by the capture of the dug-outs
north of the railway, at Battle Wood, in conjunction with
the 8th Buffs. The battalion attacked at 7.30 p.m.,
June 14th, on a two-company front, and a very stiff
right ensued. The bombardment had left the dug-outs *
undamaged ; they were well garrisoned and a very strong
resistance was offered. The right leading company,
No. 4, came under intense machine-gun fire from the flank
on reaching the line of dug-outs on the railway embank-
ment. The first dug-out contained 1 officer and 20 men
and a machine gun, and the platoon ordered to deal with
it had a fierce hand-to-hand battle and had to kill prac-
tically the whole garrison. Another dug-out had a
garrison of 40 and the men came out and fought it out in
the open. The platoon ended the resistance by a fierce
bayonet charge in which 20 Germans were killed and 20
taken prisoner. These encounters had so weakened the
company that reinforcements had to be sent for. Two
platoons of No. 2 — the reserve — Company were sent up,
and had to go through a heavy barrage ; but with careful
leading they came through without too heavy a loss.

Meanwhile No. 1 — the left leading — Company had met
with little opposition, except at a post in the ravine in
Impartial Trench. This ravine was the objective of the
right platoon of the company, but the platoon commander
saw that another ravine which ran along the road 100
yards farther south offered a better site for a strong post,
and accordingly this was made good under heavy machine-
gun fire. The battalion had orders to establish five strong
posts, but the conditions made this task extremely
difficult. The pill-boxes were very hard to cope with,
and one of them kept up a consistent machine-gun fire

* This was the first experience of the real formidableness of the " pill-
boxes," as these concrete dug-outs came to be called. They had
survived the attacks of another division and had won a certain unfor-
tunate notoriety already.

N 2



180 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

during the process of consolidation. The work, however,
was pushed through in full view of the enemy, and before
darkness fell the posts were consolidated and an organised
defensive established. When it is remembered that the
attack was only launched at 7.30 p.m., it will be
appreciated that the battalion had added a considerable
achievement to their record. The organisation was not
only remarkably good ; it was even remarkably successful
in weathering the stresses and strains of battle. Tapes
were laid from the forward posts to battalion head-
quarters and to the dressing station. These tapes were
of great assistance to the stretcher bearers. Second
Lieutenants W. S. Nathan and H. A. Bayly were killed,
Second Lieutenant Bescoby was mortally wounded and
died four days later, four other officers were wounded,
and there were 92 other ranks casualties. Considering
the nature of the fighting, and that all objectives were
gained, and 28 prisoners and a machine gun captured,
these casualties cannot be considered excessive.

Appreciative messages followed speedily. The com-
mander of the division congratulated the battalion on
their success. The Second Army Commander sent a
message congratulating " all concerned in the success of
last night's operations which have succeeded in sub-
stantially advancing our whole line. The operations
reflect much credit on all concerned."

In action the 12th appeared to have a fair share of luck.
Out of it, they seemed to suffer every sort of mishap.
The loss of four officers by a chance shell has already been
recorded. A little later in the month they were in Hill 60



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 15 of 38)