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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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area. Back areas came in for a heavy bombardment,
preventing rations being brought up. Four yards from
battalion headquarters — the coincidence is remarkable —
a shell blocked up the gallery. Lieutenant Martin was
partly buried by the explosion and gassed. Captain
Skene (R.A.M.C.) and Captain Simkins were also gassed,
and Major Hope Johnstone, Major Neyoc and Second
Lieutenant Fonteyn suffered slightly, but were able to



THE BATTLE OF MESSINES 181

remain at duty. Three days later when they relieved the

ist Battalion, a shell caused 19 casualties in a working
party.

The Battle of Messines was a prelude to the Ypres

battles of 1917. The Fusiliers had a distinct hand in the

launching stage, and also a very vivid and vital part in
rounding it off.



CHAPTER X

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES

The Flanders offensive was very elaborately staged and
was launched with high hopes. The Battle of Messines
was a prelude, which was very successfully performed,
but another part of the plan was anticipated by the
Germans. If the offensive achieved sufficient success
before the end of the season it was intended to attack
along the coast from the Yser positions.

The Yser. — But on July ioth the Germans made a sur-
prise assault on these positions and part of the bridge-
head was lost. At that moment the third battle of Ypres
had not begun, and the coastal and Yser defences were
still maintained for some time. In this part of the scheme
the 20th Battalion took part, and the novelty, if not the
importance of their role deserves some record. On the
opening day of the Ypres battle (July 31st) the battalion
detrained at Dunkirk and embarked on barges, in which
they slept that night. In the early morning of August ioth
they were moved up the canal to Bray dunes. On the
following day they took over the Bray dunes defences.
Posts between the frontier and Bray Plage were to be
manned in case of attack by the sea. It was not a very
strenuous life, and the battalion were able to put in a
fortnight's training. On the 15th they moved to Kuhn
Camp, near Oost Dunkerque, and on the following day
marched via Welpem and Nieuport to take over trenches
in the Lombartzyde sector. C Company occupied Nose
Trench below the Lombartzyde position and received a
welcome from gas shells on arrival. Little beyond the
ordinary routine marked this tour of the trenches, and
they were in support when B Company had to go up to



BATTLE OF YPRES, JULY 31ST, 1917 183

the line suddenly on the night of August 25th to support

the Camerons who had been compelled to evacuate the

Geleide Brook position. B Company took over and

organised Nasal Trench, and held two posts on the Geleide

Brook. It was their last active part in the work of this

sector, for they were relieved on August 27th, and on the

last day of the month went into training near St. Omer.

Though they had been involved in little beyond the

ordinary trench activity they had lost, in the month, 63,

including 12 killed.

* * * *

By this time the third battle of Ypres had been
launched and had shown those features that, in the end,
robbed it of the strategic significance expected when it
was planned. On July 31st two Royal Fusilier battalions
took an active part in the opening attack. They were
engaged on a sector that from the beginning meant hard
fighting and little success. The 26th Royal Fusiliers
attacked at Battle Wood, but little progress was made.
An hour before zero, which was at 3.50 a.m., a heavy rain
began to fall and the ground was a mass of water-logged
shell-holes. The men could hardly keep their foothold,
and it is surprising that the battalion lost no more than
160 killed, wounded and missing.

On the right of the 41st Division, of which the 26th
Battalion formed part, was the 24th Division, containing
the 1st and 12th Battalions. The 1st attacked at zero
with the 12th Battalion 200 yards in the rear. The
leading companies as usual clung closely to the barrage.
A number of casualties were sustained as the men crossed
the valley in which lies the sunken road towards the eastern
end of Shrewsbury Wood, but the Germans did not
attempt to stand until the strong point south of Jeffrey
Avenue was reached. This trench runs from the north-
eastern face of Clonmel Copse to the northern edge of
Shrewsbury Wood. At this point the battalion were
held up until Lieutenant Flack's party rushed it. Flack
knocked out the machine gun with a rifle grenade, and



184 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

was subsequently awarded a bar to the M.C. for this
service. This part of the line was then consolidated.
C Company, under Captain Leeming, reached the trench
on the south-western face of Bodmin Copse, and here he
was killed. The German snipers were very active, and
C Company was deprived of an efficient leader. This
company on the left of the advance alone maintained its
direction. A very sustained fire had been kept up from
Lower Star Post, in the heart of Shrewsbury Wood, and
it was owing to this, apparently, that the battalion on
the ist Royal Fusiliers' right swerved, causing the Fusiliers'
right company also to swerve.

At 4.15 a.m. the 12th Battalion passed through the ist
in Jeffrey Avenue. They had been held up while the ist
were reducing numerous strong points, and had suffered
heavy loss. Captain H. J. Cox, Captain H. D. Doudney,
Lieutenant A. J. Waby and Second Lieutenant W. F.
Cooper were killed, and Second Lieutenant E. Cohen was
mortally wounded. Captain F. C. Day was also wounded.
These casualties could not but gravely weaken the
battalion. Five minutes before the 12th passed through
the ist, Second Lieutenant H. Martin with the signallers
advanced, but he was killed on the way up. The advance
from Jeffrey Avenue had made but little way before it
was held up at a strong point on the western edge of
Bodmin Copse. No. 3 Company rushed this position,
and the 12th pushed through the copse to its eastern edge,
but were there held by machine-gun and rifle fire. The
advance had to be abandoned and a line was established
enclosing the greater part of Bodmin Copse. A strong
point was established in the trench about 100 yards to
the north-east of the north-eastern corner of the copse,
and there Lieutenant N. P. Mussbaum was wounded.

That night a final line was established some 500 yards
west of Bassevillebeek and held by the ist Battalion, the
12th, with the 3rd Rifle Brigade and the Leinsters. On
this day, the ist Battalion sustained 277 casualties, 12
being officers, 3 of whom were killed. The 12th Battalion



CASUALTIES ON JULY 31ST 185

lost 9 officers and 170 other ranks, killed and wounded.
One officer was killed at the jumping-off place and one,
the CO., had almost exactly the same fate as the officer
he succeeded. Battalion headquarters were moved up as
the advance made progress, and Lieut. -Colonel Hope
Johnstone was mortally wounded as he approached the
new position. Captain A. Simpkins took the command of
the battalion. Headquarters were moved again because
of the heavy shelling ; and even in its third position it
fell under a severe bombardment. Messages failed to
reach headquarters, the runners being knocked out on the
way. As the command of the battalion was so gravely
weakened, they were relieved at 11 p.m. Three-quarters
of an hour before it had begun to rain again, and the
ground seemed unnecessarily irritating to the weary men
who had to make their way back over it.

Fighting was still in progress on the line south of Shrews-
bury Wood, and the conditions at the front were very
terrible. Many wounded were still lying about in shell-
holes as the stretcher bearers had suffered so many casual-
ties. Seven officers and 69 other ranks were sent up to
the 1st Battalion from the transport lines on August 2nd,
and on the next day they moved back with the 12th

Battalion to Micmac Camp.

* * * *

The 32nd, who had moved up to the front near Klein
Zillebeke, had a strange experience on August 5th. The
Germans had delivered counter-attacks on various parts
of the front, and on that day the blow fell to the left of the
battalion front. At 4.10 a.m. the enemy barrage lifted
and the Germans advanced under cover of fog and smoke
bombs. Only half the front was involved ; and there the
attack was held up by rifle and machine-gun fire. But the
Germans broke through the right flank of the battalion
further north and a party of them got to the rear of the
32nd Royal Fusiliers. At midday it was ascertained that
the enemy were holding 100 yards of Jehovah Trench,
which was sited in a strip of wood lying north of Klein



186 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

Zillebeke road and some 500 yards east of the village.
This situation was cleared up by the bold and decisive
action of Major Robinson, Captain H. L. Kirby and Second
Lieutenant G. W. Murrell, and when the battalion moved
back on relief, the next day, the position was restored.
Major Robinson led a few men against the German detach-
ment who had got behind the centre post in the forward
zone and succeeded in killing part of them and dispersing

the rest.

* * * *

On August 10th the nth Battalion took part in one of
those minor operations which are the aftermath of all
great battles ; and it was their fate to fight over much the
same ground as that on which the 4th Battalion had
clashed with the Grenadier Guard Regiment in the first
Battle of Ypres. The Fusiliers, the right assaulting batta-
lion of the 54th Brigade, had their right flank near the
Ypres-Menin road ; and at 4.35 a.m. B Company (Captain
Fuller) on the left, D (Captain Gray) on the right, attacked
from this position. They advanced steadily against little
opposition until the machine-gun fire from Inverness
Copse — in the neighbouring brigade area — brought up
the right flank and made it swerve to the left. On the
left, however, the men penetrated some distance into Glen-
corse Wood, despite the ten or twelve " pill-boxes " stand-
ing like sentinels on the edge, some 200 yards from the
south-west corner of the wood. Some of D Company also
got well forward and, with Captain Gray, reached Fitz-
clarence Farm. Gray was there shot through both knees,
but continued to fire from a shell-hole. Fuller was shot
through the head in a gallant attempt to rush a machine-
gun emplacement.

As a natural consequence, a gap was made between the
nth Battalion and the brigade on their right. In less
than two hours all the officers of the assaulting companies
were casualties, and a counter-attack was initiated by the
Germans. The Fusiliers were out of touch with the troops
on both flanks ; and a skilful bombing attack down the



SECOND ATTACK AT YPRES, AUGUST i6th 187

Jargon and Jap Trenches rendered their position impossible
to maintain. Issuing from Inverness Copse the Germans
almost penetrated to the rear of (C) the support company.
Despite the cool and courageous handling of the men by
the N.C.O.'s, Sergeants Wilson, Berry and Burch, and
Corporal Hallett, the Fusiliers could only remain where
they were at the imminent peril of envelopment. They
were compelled to retire and establish themselves some
200 yards east of Clapham Junction, in touch with the
55th Brigade on the right. Some of the men were cut off,
and one of them gave a good account of himself. Private
Arthur Jakes remained calmly in an advanced shell-hole,
sniping all the day, and at night found his way through
the German lines back to his battalion. The nth re-
mained in their position until 4 a.m. on August nth
when they were relieved. They went back to Dickebusch
huts weaker by 17 officers and 328 other ranks than when
they entered battle.

Battle of Langemarck. — On August 16th the " second
attack " was launched, and the Royal Fusiliers were repre-
sented in it by the battalions of the London Regiment.
But practically no progress was made. The " pill-boxes,"
which had proved so formidable an obstacle to the Royal
Fusiliers on August 10th, and even at the end of the
Messines battle, now began to attract official attention.
Nothing short of a direct hit put them out of action,
and standing inconspicuously but a few feet above the
ground it was almost impossible to hit them except by
chance. It was the " pill-boxes " that proved too much
for the London Regiment. The 2nd Londons attacked
on the left of the London Rifle Brigade, eastwards and
slightly north from the western face of Glencorse Wood.
The men fought very gallantly and reached all objec-
tives, but the flanking battalions had found it difficult
to maintain themselves when the objective was reached.
The machine-gun fire was very heavy, and Nonne Boschen
and Polygon Wood provided ample cover. In spite of
this one officer reached the racecourse in Polygon Wood



188 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

with his platoon, where, fighting desperately, he was sur-
rounded and forced to surrender, when quite defenceless
from lack of ammunition. Before doing so, however, he
was able to send a message by pigeon : " Ammunition and
bombs exhausted. Completely surrounded. Regret no
course but to surrender." Colonel Kellett and almost all
the officers became casualties ; and at length the battalion
with their neighbour had to go back to the starting point.
With one officer, Captain Stevens, the adjutant, and about
50 other ranks, they were withdrawn.

The 4th Londons, attacking between Glencorse Wood
and Inverness Copse, had an even worse fate. They came
up against the " pill-box " system which had neutralised
the success of August 10th, and the objectives were never
taken. The battalion lost heavily in the unequal struggle.
And the 3rd Londons also failed to capture their objec-
tives. In each case where the troops achieved success
they found themselves gravely weakened when the speedy
and heavy counter-attack was launched. The bad
weather made aeroplane reconnaissance practically impos-
sible ; and hence there was no warning of the counter-
attacks and no artillery support against them. The new
tactics led to a modification of the artillery tactics and the
readjustment of the command, so that the Menin road
area could be placed as a separate feature under one com-
mander. The sector was entrusted to Sir Herbert
Plumer.

On August 16th another Fusilier Battalion, the 2nd,
were ready to attack north of the Ypres-Thorout railway,
if called upon, being attached to the 88th Brigade for the
purpose. But the 29th Division's attack was so successful
that the battalion were not called upon, and reverted
naturally to the orders of the 86th Brigade. It was on
this night that a shell falling outside headquarters severely
wounded Second Lieutenant Hewlett and killed C.S.M.
Rolfe — a great loss, for Rolfe had always carried himself
in action with conspicuous gallantry.

An amusing incident occurred in this sector of the line



PATROL ACTION, AUGUST 22ND 189

two days later. Two men of the 2nd Battalion were
carrying water to the advanced trenches when they lost
their way. They were unarmed, and they ought to have
felt duly depressed when they ran into an armed German
patrol of three men. However, arguing that the best
defence is a resolute offensive they at once attacked and
captured the enemy, a striking and amusing illustration
of the difference between German and British morale.

On August 22nd, a patrol of the 1st Battalion, who were
then in the line near Bodmin Copse, carried out a minor
operation which was thought sufficiently good to merit
the study of all the battalions in the II. Corps. The
G.O.C. sent round a report which may be printed here :
" Following account of a minor operation is forwarded
for information as an example of the success which attends
good leadership and initiative when coupled with the
correct use of fire to cover movement. Efficient recon-
naissance prior to the operation ensured that the fire of
the light trench mortars was both effective and accurate,
and this conduced largely to the success of the
operation.

" At zero two trench mortars opened fire on the enemy's
strong point, quickening the rate of fire at zero plus five
minutes. At zero plus seven minutes the trench mortars
lengthened range and the infantry advanced.

" The assaulting troops — about a platoon * — advanced
in two waves, and were stubbornly opposed by the enemy
with rifle fire and bombs. Second Lieutenant Stonebanks
at once ordered his flanks to swing round and come in on
the flanks of the strong point, the centre meanwhile
keeping up a heavy fire on the enemy's position and dis-
tracting his attention.

" The enemy, finding himself surrounded, surrendered.

" The assaulting party pushed on to a second strong
point which was found unoccupied. This was at once
consolidated and a German machine gun, which was

* One officer and 20 men actually, who accounted for double their
number, fighting in prepared positions.



igo ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

captured with a large quantity of ammunition, was
brought into action against the enemy.

" Five of the enemy were killed and 35 taken prisoner,
of whom five were wounded.

" Our casualties were four other ranks wounded, two
of whom are at duty."

It only remains to add that Second Lieutenant Stone-
banks was himself wounded, but the brilliant little
operation deserved the praise it received. Stonebanks

received the M.C.

* * * *

After the attack on August 16th the wet weather and
the arrangement of new tactics to suit the new elastic
defence of the Germans imposed a long interval in the
operations ; and, although minor assaults were delivered
here and there, no further concerted movement took place
in this area until September 20th. There was minor
activity on other parts of the line. Several heavy raids,
for instance, were carried out by the 4th Battalion in
the Lagnicourt sector. On August 8th, on taking over
trenches there, the battalion had discovered a German
telephone wire leading from the wire in front of one of
their posts towards the German line. Major Winnington
Barnes put an end to any usefulness it might have by
cutting it about 60 yards from the German wire. On
the 17th they began an exchange of compliments with
the enemy by delivering a gas attack, which was acknow-
ledged by a bombardment of 3,000 shells. Strong raiding
patrols carried out operations on the 23rd, 29th and 30th.

Menin Road Ridge. — In the Ypres area the second
line battalions of the London Regiment were engaged on
September 20th. These battalions were originally third
line battalions, but the second line battalions had been
amalgamated with the first in May, 1916, and the third,
thereupon, became the second. The 2/3 Londons were
in the 173rd Brigade and operated on the right of the
division north of St. Julien ; and all the battalions had
uniform success on this occasion, taking their objectives



ATTACK OF SEPTEMBER 20TH 191

with distinct skill. It was to some extent a justifica-
tion of the new tactics ; but it was also an endorsement
of the training and morale of these battalions in their first
major operation. Schuber Farm was gallantly rushed by
the 2/4 Londons, with the help of the 8th Liverpool Irish
and two tanks.

Below the Ypres-Menin road the 26th and 32nd
Battalions were engaged, their object being the Tower
Hamlets spur. The 26th were on the left and the 32nd
on the right of the brigade front, both battalions being
in support, with their front on the road running north
from the west of Lower Star Post. The approach was
characteristic of the time and place. The 26th had to
step off the duckboard track to allow the 32nd to get in
front. This meant stepping into the mud which clung
to several of the men so tightly that they found very
great difficulty in getting out again. At zero both
battalions moved forward so close to the barrage that the
German barrage fell behind them. The 26th ran into
heavy machine-gun fire almost at once ; but for the first
200 yards the 32nd found no opposition until the fire from
the left checked them. Lying out in shell-holes the
Germans inflicted heavy casualties on the right of the 26th
and the left of the 32nd.

At this point the majority of the officers of the 32nd
had become casualties. The front assaulting battalion
had been almost wiped out. But A Company, under
Second Lieutenant Christie, and B under the C.S.M.,
pushed right and left, respectively, and the advance was
enabled to resume progress. Through the check, the
advantage of the barrage had been lost, but the enemy
now put up little opposition. Small parties of Germans
began to come forward with white flags, and the Fusiliers
thus encouraged, made another spurt forward. By
9.0 a.m. the two first objectives had been captured.
The 32nd had now lost more than half its strength, and
no further progress could be made against the fierce and
sustainedjnachine-gun fire.



192 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

The 26th had fared no better. Lieut. -Colonel G.
McNichol, D.S.O., was killed early in the battle, and
Major A. Maxwell, who took over the command, was
awarded the D.S.O. for his gallantry and skilful leadership.
All the officers but one were either killed or wounded.
Indeed, in less than ten minutes there was only one
unwounded officer of the 19 who had gone forward. But
Lieutenant S. H. Firth and Second Lieutenant F. A. B.
Jones * finding they were the only officers in the front
line, held on with a small body of men. No communica-
tion could be obtained with headquarters until a staff
officer arrived with some pigeons. A message was at
once sent off by pigeon, and at four o'clock in the after-
noon the 20th Durham Light Infantry came up. The
enemy had now got the range of the position, and so
effective was their fire that the five Fusilier officers, who
were sent up just before dark were all casualties within
two hours, four being killed and one wounded.

At one time the line was broken on the left, and the
men in the support line on the right were turned about,
righting with their backs to the front line. Their unex-
pected volley checked the German advance and the left
flank recovered. On the morning of the 22nd no food and
little ammunition remained from what had been brought
up on the night of the 19th, and Private Sturgis volunteered
to go back for supplies. Three times on his way back he
was blown up, and when at length he found battalion
headquarters he fainted. But as soon as he recovered
he started off with a party carrying food and ammunition.
The enemy barrage caught them about half way, and the
party were inclined to run back. But Sturgis threatened
to shoot them if they did not go forward ; and at length
they came to the front line. When the battalion was
withdrawn in the early morning of the 24th, they had
suffered 363 casualties, including 23 officers. This was

* Second Lieutenant Jones was wounded in the chest early in the
fight. A little later a shell exploded near him and burst the drums of
both ears. But it was not until two days later that he reported wounded



FOURTH BATTALION AT BREMEN REDOUBT 193

the heaviest casualty list the battalion had ever incurred
in a single operation. The Menin road area continued to
be true to its reputation.

Battle of Polygon Wood. — On September 26th the
4th Battalion began a series of operations which add a
touch of relief to the bitter and unsuccessful fighting on
the Menin road area. So fine was their discipline, and so
skilfully were they handled that all orders were carried
out with precision that was only too rare in this terrible
battle. The battalion stood to in the Zonnebeke area at
zero, 5.50 a.m., while the 3rd Division attacked. At
3 p.m. the battalion received a verbal warning that they
might have to reinforce the line as the attack on Hill 40,
just north of the Ypres-Roulers railway, and near Zonne-
beke, had been unsuccessful, and in this case they would
come under the orders of the 8th Brigade. Major Win-
nington Barnes was at this time in command, as Colonel
Hely Hutchinson had been attached to the 4th Division
as liason officer the day before.

At 5.30 p.m. this order was confirmed in writing and
the battalion were ordered to occupy the old British front
line in Bremen Redoubt. This movement carried out in
daylight under full observation was the source of many
casualties. Low-flying German aeroplanes bombed them
as they were forming up, and signalled the position to the
enemy artillery. As a consequence a heavy barrage was
put down, but despite severe losses the battalion were in
no way disorganised and moved forward in great style.



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 16 of 38)