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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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reached Equancourt, some 8,000 yards from the nearest
point of the British front line. They advanced to Dead
Man's Corner, marching through Fins and Queen's Cross,
and were in assembly positions on the right rear of the
16th Middlesex at 5.20 a.m. on the 20th. An hour later
they began to move up, in diamond formation, W Company
being in front, X and Y on the right and left rear respec-
tively, and Z in support. They marched on a bearing of
40 degrees until the original front line was reached, when
they halted in front of Plough Support. At 10.20 a.m.
they resumed the advance on the same line of bearing
until they passed through the 6th Division, who had cap-
tured and were holding the Hindenburg line. Shortly
afterwards they came under heavy machine-gun fire and
extended, continuing the advance in two waves, with the
support of numerous tanks. This was the period of the
general movement towards the final objective, and the
resistance which had been inappreciable in the earliest


stages was now, in places, very obstinate. At the out-
skirts of Marcoing several Germans ran forward and gave
themselves up ; but at the cross-roads the advance was
temporarily held up by machine-gun fire and a small
amount of rifle fire. However tanks reduced all obstacles,
and the battalion went forward again. Second Lieu-
tenant Burton was killed in the approach to Marcoing,
and Captain Learning and Second Lieutenant Piper were
wounded. Two platoons, under Captain Griffiths, went
through the village, and, after some brisk street fighting,
captured about ioo prisoners and some machine guns.

In the approach to Noyelles the enemy's fire was once
more experienced, the resistance on the Marcoing road
being very stubborn. But this was overcome and the
battalion reached their final objective at 3.15 p.m. and
dug in. A patrol of W Company at once pushed forward
to secure the bridge over the canal, north-east of Noyelles ;
but the intermediate bridge over the Scheldt, on the
Noyelles-Cambrai road, had been blown up, and the canal
bridge could not be reached. The wooden bridge over the
river farther south had been blown up within sight of a
scouting party. Z Company went forward to hold the
village and link up with the post beyond the cemetery, on
the north-western outskirts of the village. X dug in
between the River Scheldt and the canal, making two
strong points, one facing eastward and the other towards
the north, as a protection to the right flank, which was in
the air. Z Company promptly put the village in a state
of defence. A patrol of the 4th Dragoons, who had come
up a little after 4 p.m., were posted on the northern out-
skirts of the village. The blown-up Scheldt bridge was
seized and held ; and also the wooden one still intact in
the grounds of the Chateau, on the east of the village. So
the battalion lay that night. A German patrol was beaten
off by Lewis-gun and rifle fire. Not three miles away was
Cambrai. In front of them across the Scheldt Canal was
the enemy's Marcoing line. Behind them lay a greater
depth of country than had ever before been covered in


one day's advance ; and the success had been achieved
with much less loss than had almost invariably accom-
panied the fierce battles in which the battalion had taken

The following day, November 21st, appeared like a
reversion to type. By some oversight the outskirts of the
village had been abandoned early in the morning by the
Dragoons before the relief troops arrived. As a conse-
quence, when the enemy counter-attacked about 7.30 a.m.
they secured an immediate success, and the eastern end
of the village was overrun up to the church. There a
machine gun was established, and throughout the day a
bitter struggle took place. Second Lieutenant Peel very
gallantly destroyed two German machine guns in this
phase of the fighting and Second Lieutenant R. L. Sparks
was killed. The 18th Hussars, who were now in the
village, were involved in this fighting, and little headway
was made until about 4 p.m., when the two tanks Ben
Mychree and Buluwayo II. came up. These, advancing
with moppers-up of the 2nd Battalion and the 18th
Hussars, cleared the village, which was handed over to
C Company of the 1st Buffs, who relieved the Royal Fusi-
liers. This phase of the battle had not been bloodless,
but the 2nd Battalion had the satisfaction of handing over
intact the position which they had won at first. They
had captured 400 prisoners, two light and ten heavy
machine guns and three granatenwerfer. The battalion
billeted in Marcoing, where General de Lisle called to con-
gratulate them. The Mayor visited brigade headquarters
and thanked Captain Hood and the men who had fought
in Noyelles.

Meanwhile, on the southern flank of the advance the 8th
and 9th Battalions had also advanced successfully. The
8th formed up north and the 9th * south of the Cambrai

* The 9th Battalion had been commanded since July 3rd by a very
remarkable officer. Lieut. -Colonel W. V. L. van Someren, D.S.O.,
M.C., was reading for the Bar when war broke out, and, joining the
Inns of Court O.T.C. in August, 19T4, he went out to France with the
9th Royal Fusiliers as the junior subaltern. He was only twenty -oae


road in the Gonnelieu Trenches, in the rear of sections of
the Tank Corps. A certain amount of machine-gun fire
was encountered ; but both battalions captured all objec-
tives. Barrier Trench, south of la Vacquerie, was taken ;
Sonnet Farm was cleared, and also parts of the Hinden-
burg front and support line. The 8th captured 35 pri-
soners and two machine guns for a total casualty list of
22, including Second Lieutenant Symonds and 15 other
ranks killed. The 9th Battalion lost 94 all told, including
Captain A. Greathead and Lieutenant G. Hall, M.C.,
Second Lieutenant E. C. Butterworth died of wounds
later. At 10 p.m. that night the 9th moved up and
relieved the 7th East Surreys in the front line of the defen-
sive flank between Bleak House and Bonavis Farm, and
held this position during the night. The 8th Battalion
relieved the 9th on November 22nd, and two days later
carried out a local attack on Pelican Trench towards
Banteux, in conjunction with the 35th Brigade. They
attacked at 8 a.m. In seventeen minutes they had secured
their objectives, and within fifteen minutes were heavily
counter-attacked. There had been no time to consolidate
and 400 yards of Pelican Trench between B and D Com-
panies were lost. Bombing blocks were established in
the rear of the section of trench lost and the positions were
handed over on the following day to the 7th Royal Sussex.
In this brisk little engagement the battalion lost 58, in-
cluding Second Lieutenant Reed killed, and they took 28

Tadpole Copse.— The Londons had by this time
entered the battle. On November 20th they had co-
operated with the main assault by a Chinese attack, but
now they were to take their share in the actual fighting.
The early successes of the advance had been at once too
little and too great. If they had carried the troops no

years of age when he took over the command of the battalion,
and must have been one of the youngest, if not actually the youngest,
of commanding officers. He retained command of the unit until it was
disbanded in June, 1919, and was in charge of the 36th Brigade for the
two weeks'preceding the Armistice.


further than Flesquieres ridge, a position would have been
gained which was possible to hold without undue risk.
But the line had been flung out to the north well beyond
the ridge, and this ground could not be held unless the
Bourlon ridge which commanded it was also in our posses-
sion, except at excessive cost. On the west of the ridge
the 56th Division was involved. Tadpole Copse, lying
about 1,000 yards west of Mceuvres, formed " a command-
ing tactical point in the Hindenburg line . . . the posses-
sion of which would be of value in connection with the
left flank of the Bourlon position." * It was stormed on
the evening of the 22nd by the Queen's Westminsters. The
trenches in advance of the copse were retaken by the
enemy on the 24th ; and at 1 p.m. on the 25th bombers
of the 4th Londons, with the Rangers, attacked and re-
captured the trenches. A patrol of D Company under
Captain A. M. Duthie pushed forward and captured three
machine guns. Late at night the Germans attempted to
rush one of the battalion's bombing blocks, but they were
beaten off. The 2nd Londons on the left of the position
spent several days beating off the intermittent German
attacks. Constant vigilance was necessary and, it may be
added, was forthcoming. On the Lagnicourt sector a
patrol of the 1st Londons distinguished themselves on the
night of the 22nd. Second Lieutenant Long and three
men of A Company crossed to the enemy wire, passed
through and lay in a German outpost trench until a hostile
patrol, sent out to examine their own wire, passed them.
The Londons allowed them to pass and then surrounded
and captured the two Germans.

Bullecourt. — In the subsidiary attack about Bulle-
court the 4th Royal Fusiliers were cast for the role of maid-
of-all-work. They had to be prepared to support the
Connaught Rangers (16th Division) on their left ; a com-
pany was lent to the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, and
another to the 12th West Yorks. They held the remainder
of the 9th Brigade front on the flanks of the battle front,

* Despatch.
f. P


holding 300 yards of the 16th Division sector. During
the night work was begun on a communication trench to-
wards the left of the objective, and a post was dug in
advance of the line and made defensible before zero. Four
platoons advanced at a minute after zero (6.20 a.m.) and
began their work of establishing posts between the old
front line and the objective. A listening post was encoun-
tered by the right company, two of the enemy being made
prisoners and the rest killed. With their aid, in a con-
fused battle, the assaulting troops completed the work of
the Spring Campaign by capturing the remainder of the
Hindenburg support trench on this sector. Another
spirited advance was made on November 25th, in which
the 4th Battalion passed through the enemy wire without
opposition, and took and consolidated the German first and
second lines north-west of Bullecourt. Finding a German
post unoccupied due north of the town, they seized it and
worked along Bulldog Trench until held up by a block.
Consolidation was at once carried out, and the positions
were firmly held.

The Counter-attack. — The 2nd Division had now
come up to consolidate the new positions, and the four
battalions of Royal Fusiliers were disposed about Bourlon
Wood. But already it was evident that the Germans did
not intend to admit the finality of the British success. The
increased registration of hostile artillery, the movements
of troops and transport behind the German lines, pointed
to the imminence of a counter-attack. The ground
gained in the Battle of Cambrai made a distinct salient in
the German lines, and the German activity embraced not
only the front affected by the advance, but extended as far
as Vendhuile. When the German advance began it was
directed upon converging lines against the northern and
southern faces of the salient.

On the latter sector the 8th and 9th Battalions felt the full
shock of the German assault. The 8th, on the left, lay east
of La Vacquerie, and the 9th, on the right, lay in trenches
south of the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road. At 6.45 a.m.


on November 30th an intense artillery bombardment began,
and at 7.40 infantry attacks developed. Almost imme-
diately the resistance of the 35th Brigade and part of the
55th Division on the right of the 9th Battalion was over-
come, and C Company was forced to withdraw, taking up
a position astride the Cambrai road. The Germans
advanced down the Hindenburg front line after the troops
of the 35th Brigade to the brigade headquarters. B Com-
pany at once delivered a counter-attack over the open,
forced back the Germans 200 yards, when bombing blocks
were made in all the trenches and the position was held
firmly. D Company, on the left, were surrounded, and
most of them became casualties. Only 1 officer and
13 other ranks succeeded in fighting their way back
to the main body of the battalion. Contact was made on
this flank with the 8th Battalion, who had taken up the
trench near the road running vid Good Old Man Farm to
Ribecourt ; but the right flank was still in the air until
10 a.m., when the 7th Royal Sussex manned the reserve
line immediately in the rear of the battalion, and this
position was connected with that of the 9th Battalion.
Throughout the day bombing encounters continued.
Neither water nor rations could be obtained. German
aeroplanes flying only about 50 feet above them harassed
them continually with machine-gun fire, despite the
attempts of Lewis guns and rifles to drive them off. Yet,
with the help of about half a company of the 7th Norfolks,
they held to their positions.

The 8th Battalion, on the left, had gone through a
similar ordeal. The Germans, who had broken through
on the south, appeared in great strength on the right rear
of the front line companies, who, in a few minutes, were
completely cut off. Some 12 men only fought their way
back to the reserve line. D Company went up to support
and were overwhelmed and fell back, fighting, to the
reserve line where the Battalion headquarters were estab-
lished. The Germans were only 50 yards from the reserve
line when the Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel N. B.

p 2


Elliott-Cooper, D.S.O., M.C., collected all available men
of battalion headquarters and C and D Companies, about
120 in all, and led them in a counter-attack. The position
was critical, but Colonel Elliott-Cooper's forlorn hope
achieved an immediate success. The small body went
forward cheering ; the Germans wavered and were then
driven back over the Cambrai road. But there heavy
machine-gun fire was encountered. Elliott-Cooper him-
self fell. All the officers became casualties ; and, seeing
the impossibility of maintaining and consolidating the
position, he ordered the withdrawal. He was only 29
years of age, and by this order he deliberately accepted
the bitter fate of falling into the hands of the Germans.
His advance had been daring and resolute. His order for
the withdrawal was marked by high courage and selfless-
ness. He deserved, as he received, the Victoria Cross ;
but, unfortunately, he died a prisoner in Germany.

The survivors fell back as they were ordered and with-
drew to the reserve line. The German advance was
checked in this quarter, and, with the 37th Brigade on the
left and the 9th Battalion on the right, the new line was
established. All enemy attacks were beaten off. The 8th
lost 10 officers and 247 men. The 9th had lost 13 officers,
including Lieutenant H. Reeve, Second Lieutenants
Levi, Wason and Disney, killed, and 208 other ranks.

There was no further attack that night. But at 7 a.m.
on the morning of December 1st the Germans attempted
to cross the Cambrai road on the front of the 9th Battalion,
towards La Vacquerie. They were repulsed by rifle and
machine-gun fire ; and the attack was repeated seven times
with the same result. At 12.30 p.m. the enemy opened a
heavy bombardment and then began bombing attacks.
These were beaten off until about 1 p.m., when the supply
of bombs had completely given out. The battalion were
forced to withdraw 150 yards to a point just north of the
Cambrai road, where they held the enemy. These two
battalions had fought an engagement in conditions that
were not paralleled until the German offensive of March,

Lieut.-Colonel N. B. Elliott-Cooper, V.C., D.S.O., M C, who won


Battle of Cambsai.


1918, and, never ceasing to be an ordered fighting force,
had given ground only when no troops could possibly have
held it. At the end they handed over an organised
position to the relieving troops. The 9th Battalion were
the only troops to retain their positions south of the
Cambrai-Gouzeaucourt road for these two days, during
which no rations reached them, and the supply of bombs
completely failed.

Les Rues Vertes. — The 2nd Battalion had come back
into support on November 28th as counter-attack bat-
talion ; and when the German assault began Y and Z
Companies were lying about the sugar factory at Masnieres,
W was in the quarry and X off the Cambrai road. Mas-
nieres was heavily shelled from 2 to 5 a.m., and at 6.15
the battalion stood to arms. At 7 a.m. the German
attack from Crevecoeur made such rapid progress that the
battery positions were taken in reverse, and the southern
flank of Masnieres was uncovered. X and Z Companies
were quickly brought across the canal by the lock bridge
near the sugar factory to form a defensive flank as far as
the old Brigade rear headquarters in Les Rues Vertes, while
two platoons of X Company were sent to help in the street
fighting. For the Germans had not only penetrated the
suburb, but had even captured the ammunition dump.
The troops in point of fact were called upon to defend a
position which virtually had already been lost.

Into this picture it is difficult to fit the achievement
of Captain Gee, who won the Victoria Cross for multiplied
acts of daring that seem, on calm reflection, to outshine
the inventions of writers of fiction. At 8.50 a.m. the
position in Les Rues Vertes seemed to be lost ; and the
amazing thing is that it was not abandoned. No one
exactly knew where the Germans were, but they appeared
to be everywhere and certainly in the most inconvenient
places. Captain Gee, who was then at brigade head-
quarters, was ordered by telephone to form a defensive
flank with servants and headquarters details. He at once
sent Captain Loseby with 6 men to get into touch with


the right flank. Taking 4 signallers and 2 orderlies with
him, he then set out to get a grip of the situation. But at
the first corner firing was heard. A little further on the
Germans could be seen. With four of the men he opened
fire, while the other two seized whatever came first —
tables, chairs, etc. — to form a barricade. The enemy were
held off for about five minutes, and then a Lewis gun came
up, and there was time to breathe. The second house
beyond the barricade was the Brigade ammunition dump,
full of small arm ammunition, bombs, etc., and Captain Gee
determined to get to it. He knocked a hole through the
wall of a house on his own side of the barricade and crawled
through to the first dump, only to find both dump men
dead and the quartermaster-sergeant missing. He then
climbed a wall to the bomb store and was immediately
seized by two German sentries.

He had a bayonet stick with him and a revolver, but he
could not reach the latter, and in the struggle he killed
one of the sentries with the stick while an orderly shot the
other. He got back to the road again with a better
realisation of the desperate nature of the crisis. Some
30 or 40 men had now arrived. Half of them were sent
to Captain Loseby, others were set to the task of building
another barricade ; and, with the six remaining, he recap-
tured the bomb store and cleared three houses. Two
companies of Guernsey Light Infantry now arrived from
brigade headquarters. These were sent to the uncovered
flank, posts were established on the three bridges across
the canal, and a strong company were sent to the out-
skirts of the village with orders to build a barricade and
link up on the left.

After this a bombing party were organised to set about
clearing the houses on the Marcoing road. At this point
the Germans' nerves appeared to wear thin, and they ran
from house to house as the bombers got to work. Captain
Gee, seeing that this part of his task appeared to be
approaching completion, began to attend to the supply of
ammunition and bombs to the troops across the canal and

Captain R. Gee, V.C., M.P., who won the V.C. at the Battle

of Cambrai.


at the bridges. He then worked up to the chateau and
through a hole in the wall into the brewery yard. The
Germans had already left ; and it was evident that when
the houses on the other side of the Marcoing road were
cleared, the village would again be in our possession.
This task was handed on to a small party, and Captain Gee
went up to the roof of the chateau to take stock of the
position. The Germans were seen to be digging in about
100 yards clear of the village. He at once got a supply of
bombs, and with the help of another orderly he put the
machine-gun team out of action and captured the gun.
Another machine gun was in the house near the Crucifix.
A Stokes gun was ordered up, and Captain Gee now saw
that there were posts all round the suburbs.

At the end of the village the men were still being troubled
by a machine gun, and there were also numerous snipers
at large. For a moment he had to take refuge in a shell-
hole ; but it was necessary to order up a Stokes gun before
dark to deal with the machine gun, which was situated in a
corner house. So he made a dash for the barricade,
reaching it across the open in safety, but was caught in the
knee by a sniper as he jumped the barricade. He had had
four orderlies shot at his side, had been a prisoner for a
few minutes and had come through almost unprecedented
risks. He wished now to carry on, but was ordered back
to have his wound dressed.

Meanwhile part of the open flank had been held stead-
fastly by the 2nd Battalion. At 2 p.m. Captain Lathom
Browne, with two platoons of W Company and the re-
maining platoon of X, took over the defences of Les Rues
Vertes. The remaining platoon of W Company, under
Second Lieutenant Brain, was sent to the sugar factory to
hold the lock bridge. To these positions the troops held
firmly. At 6 p.m. warning orders were issued in case the
Brigade had to evacuate the area ; but, later in the
evening, congratulations and orders to hold on to the end
were received from army headquarters.

At six o'clock the next morning a heavy hostile barrage


was put down and a counter-attack followed. The enemy
were beaten off by machine-gun and rifle fire. At 4 p.m.
the enemy attacked in great force once more. On this
occasion the advanced posts were driven in and the
Germans entered the village. They were checked ; but
it was clear that the thin line of weary men could not
hold out indefinitely in so precarious a position. At
7.30 p.m. the order to evacuate Masnieres and Les Rues
Vertes arrived ; and at 11.15 the withdrawal began.
In exactly an hour from the beginning of the retire-
ment the last post at the sugar factory moved away.
In small parties the battalion moved off westward, crossed
the canal near Marcoing, and thence marched south of the
Villers Plouich road to the Hindenburg support line,
about 500 yards east of the Bois Couillet. At this point
the battalion found their cookers and blankets. They
were very weary ; but they had steadfastly held to their
positions in a time when the front line was like a leaky
dam ; and their defence must be accounted one of the
great episodes in the battle.

Bourlon. — But it was in the Bourlon area that the
main attack was delivered some two hours after the
assault was made in the south. The density of the attack
was extraordinary. Against the three divisions in line,
the 56th, 2nd and 47th, four German divisions were
directed with three more in support. From high ground
within the salient, officers could see through their glasses
the enemy advance, and the area seemed to be packed
with men. The 2nd Division had taken over the section
of the line between Bourlon Wood and Mceuvres. In the
front line, lying between the 1st Royal Berks on the right
and the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps on the left, were the
17th Royal Fusiliers. At the opening of the battle they
were holding a long trench (the " Rat's Tail "), which ran,
almost at right angles from the main British line, 1,000
yards to a point overlooking the enemy's position. B
Company, under Captain Walter Napoleon Stone, were
occupying the sector nearest the German front line when

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 18 of 38)