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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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the attack began ; and he was ordered to withdraw his
company to the main line, leaving a rearguard to cover
the retirement, as the position was judged to be too
exposed. Captain Stone sent back three platoons, but,
with Lieutenant Benzecry, remained behind with the
rearguard. The action of this rearguard, under their
inspiring leader, stands out remarkable in a day of extra-
ordinary exploits. With bayonet, bullet and bomb, they
held off the whole of the German attack until the main
position of the battalion was fully organised, and they
died to a man with their faces to the enemy.

Captain Stone's behaviour will never be forgotten while
heroic deeds continue to inspire. The attack had deve-
loped against him and his small rearguard with un-
expected speed, owing to the enemy being concealed in
some dead ground. He stood on the parapet with the
telephone, under a tremendous bombardment and hail of
bullets, closely observing the enemy, and sending back
valuable information. When last seen, the enemy had
closed in upon the little band. Stone was seen fighting
to the last, until he was shot through the head. The
extraordinary coolness of this officer, and the accuracy of
his information, enabled dispositions to be made just in
time to save the line from disaster. In the official account
of this incident, published at the beginning of the year
1918, Captain Stone's action is described "as a devoted
example of the greatest of all sacrifices." He was granted
the Victoria Cross. This was the third to be won by the
Royal Fusiliers on the same day.

At 1 p.m. the 17th Battalion reorganised their line. The
two advanced companies in the " Rat's Tail " had been
withdrawn to the main line ; but C still retained two
blocks beyond it, and these were held throughout the day.
Their line was intact. Their positions were closely linked
up with the units on the right and left ; and the men
" were really enjoying the experience of killing Germans
in large numbers at point-blank range." *

* Official account.


Early in the afternoon a very heavy attack was deli-
vered on a front a mile west of Bourlon Wood. This was
beaten off except on the extreme right of the 2nd Division,
where the ist Royal Berks lay on the right of the 17th
Royal Fusiliers. Three posts were there lost, and a gap
was formed at the same time between two battalions of
the 47th Division. A company of the 23rd Royal
Fusiliers were sent up, and, by a sharp counter-attack,
re-established the Royal Berks' line. Another company
assisted the 17th Battalion later in the day ; and at 10 p.m.
the battalion were relieved by the 24th Royal Fusi-
liers. The strength of the 17th Battalion on leaving the
line was 20 officers and 351 other ranks.

The 22nd Battalion relieved the 13th Essex with two
companies and the Highland Light Infantry with one
company on the night of December ist. The 13th Essex,
on the left of the 2nd Division, had been heavily engaged
on November 30th, but the 22nd Battalion's tour of the
trenches was comparatively uneventful, except for a
bombing attack on December 3rd, which was beaten off
after half an hour's brisk fighting ; and on the 5th the
battalion were withdrawn to support in the old British
line east of Hermies.

On the night of December 4th the 24th Battalion
evacuated their positions according to orders ; and on the
following day, when the Germans began to make their
way cautiously forward, they did considerable execution
on them. On December 6th, at 6.15 a.m., the enemy
attacked one of the battalion's bombing posts about 100
yards south of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. For about
half an hour the Lewis gunners and bombers fought at
close quarters, causing the Germans considerable damage.
The defence rallied round the cool action of Sergeants A. F.
Wood, E. Tarleton and Lance-Corporal G. Day, and the
enemy were driven off. These three men were awarded
the Military Medal for their skill and courage. A little
later the enemy penetrated through a gap in the lines into
the village of Graincourt. Sergeant D. McCabe was sent


out, with a patrol of two men, down the sunken road on
the east of the village. By skilful and daring handling
of his patrol, McCabe located the position of the enemy
and inflicted heavy casualties upon them. McCabe also
was awarded the Military Medal.

Another evacuation, the final one, was carried out on
the night of the 6th, and by the early hours of
December 7th the troops had successfully reached the new
positions. The 17th Battalion had taken up positions in
front of Lock 7, on the canal, on December 4th. At that
time the guns were passing through them and dug-outs
were being destroyed preparatory to the first stage of the
withdrawal. Two days later the rearguards were with-
drawn in front of the advancing Germans. At 1 a.m. on
December 7th the battalion were ordered to establish
three posts roughly 500 yards in front of the line, to be
held at all costs. But it was impossible to site them in the
darkness, and they were not established until dawn. On
the following day the battalion were in touch with advance
parties of the enemy. Corporals Whitson and Lowry
made a gallant attempt to capture seven Germans, but
they were unable to sprint fast enough ! Intermittent
bombing engagements took place during the whole of the
day, and the Germans began to register on the front line.
Shelling continued during the night, and the following day
they were repeatedly attacked. They were holding at
this time 2,000 yards of the front line ; and when they
were relieved on the night of the 9th they were thoroughly
exhausted. But by this time the fighting had died down.
The positions remained substantially the same for some
months until the German offensive began.



The period which filled the interval between the Battle
of Cambrai and the German attack on March 21st, 1918,
marked a change in the general outlook which had its
influence on the character of the training and daily
routine. The High Command issued in December orders
" having for their object immediate preparation to meet a
strong and sustained hostile offensive. In other words a
defensive policy was adopted. . . . "*

In any case the winter imposed a truce on the armies,
though it was impossible, in the earlier part of the period,
to rule out the possibility of further operations on the
Italian front, and several British divisions were sent
thither. Included in this force were the 41st Division
with their two Fusilier battalions.

But the lines were never quite at rest. Raids and
counter-raids took place intermittently even on the quiet
sectors. One incident that deserves mention is the German
raid on the extreme left of the 17th Battalion's front.
They were stationed on July 24th, 1917, in the canal sector,
the training ground of numerous units, when a German
patrol of about nine men suddenly fell upon three men hold-
ing a post in East Surrey Crater. A desperate struggle took
place. One of the men contrived to make his escape and
warned the front line. The other two were wounded,
and the Germans dragged them back towards their front
line. But the wounded men, finding the prospect uncon-
genial, kept their wits about them, and one of them
suddenly broke away, and although wounded in five or
six places, braved our own Lewis guns, which had opened

* Despatch.

WINTER RAIDS, 1917— 18 221

fire, and regained our lines. One German was left dead
in the crater, and in this way both sides secured identifi-
cations at equal cost.

Another raid upon the same battalion, but in the
Cambrai sector, had also a slightly paradoxical result.
On December 21st some 30 Germans suddenly raided the
battalion front at 10 o'clock in the morning. They were
beaten off with ease by D Company, as the enemy
obligingly forgot to pull the strings of their bombs before
throwing them. A prisoner was taken and an interesting
trophy secured. This was one of the new automatic
pistols, which held 32 rounds in its magazine. The
17th determined to return the compliment, and on the
following day a fighting patrol went out. But suddenly
the fog lifted, and modesty suggested a prompt retirement.

A more important and useful raid took place almost on
the eve of the German offensive. Second Lieutenant Fish
and 17 other ranks entered the German lines on the night
of March 18th, 1918. The previous day much movement
had been observed in the opposite lines, and it was desirable
to know the state of the trench garrisons and to secure
identifications. Entering the German trenches opposite
Anchor Sap, the small patrol killed 8 or 10 Germans,
brought back three shoulder straps, secured useful
information as to the defence system and returned with
only one casualty. For this excellent little action the
battalion received the congratulations of all the brigades
and of the 2nd Division.

Both the 13th and the 10th Battalions figured in a more
serious operation which took place on March 8th, 1918.
On this day the 13th Battalion were in the front line
astride the Menin road, with the 13th King's Royal Rifle
Corps on their left, when they were warned by the brigade
that the enemy intended to attack during the night to
capture the high ground north-west of Gheluvelt, which
had been won by a great outpouring of blood in the summer
and autumn offensive of 1917. The companies were
warned, and a preparatory bombardment was fired at


dawn, but without provoking a reply. At 6.30 a.m. the
Germans opened a bombardment, which grew fiercer after
9.30 a.m. and continued with a short break at 1 o'clock
until about 5 p.m. North of the Menin road the shelling
was very severe, and the S.O.S. was sent up by the bat-
talion on the left. The counter-barrage came down on
the whole sector within two minutes. On the front of
the 13th Battalion no attack developed ; but the bom-
bardment had caused heavy casualties in No. 3 Company,
north of the road, and at 6.30 p.m. Sergeant A. Clark sent
back a message, " Please send as many stretcher-bearers
as possible. Only few men left to carry on. Two officers
killed, two wounded. Please send reinforcements as soon as
possible. ' ' Clark, in the meantime, took over the command
of the company, re-disposed the men under heavy shell
and trench-mortar fire, until such time as reinforcements
could be sent, thereby denying to the enemy an attempted
lodgment in our front line posts. Clark received the
Military Medal for his behaviour on this occasion. A
platoon of No. 2 Company was at once sent forward, and
platoons of No. 4 followed afterwards under Second
Lieutenant H. J. Rowland, and the line was held intact.
Captain F. W. Bower and Second Lieutenant W. Hender-
son were killed on this occasion ; five officers were wounded,
and there were 140 other ranks casualties.

Meanwhile, on the left, the 10th Battalion had become
involved. They were in support at the beginning of the
battle, but at 2 p.m., after a heavy bombardment, the
Germans attacked the 13th King's Royal Rifle Corps, and
D Company were sent up as reinforcements. The
Germans attacked in great force, and, after a severe
struggle, penetrated the British positions. The desperate
situation which resulted provided Lance-Corporal Charles
Graham Robertson, M.M., of D Company, with an oppor-
tunity for an action calling as much on his skill as his
heroism. He was in charge of a machine gun, and, rinding
the Germans had almost cut him off, he sent back two men
for reinforcements. Meanwhile, with one man, he remained

ACTION OF MARCH 8th, 1918 223

at his post, and inflicted heavy loss with his gun until he
was completely cut off. No help arrived, and he with-
drew about 10 yards, and there stood again, pouring a
sustained fire into the enemy. The two men were at
length compelled to evacuate the position, and they fell
back upon a defended post. The Germans continued to
press forward in great numbers, and Robertson mounted
the parapet with his comrade, and, fixing his gun in a
shell-hole, resumed his task of shooting down the Germans
who were pouring down and across the top of an adjoining
trench. The value of Robertson's resolute and skilful
defence can hardly be exaggerated. His comrade was
killed ; he himself was severely wounded. But he worked
his gun until his ammunition was exhausted, and then he
managed to crawl back, bringing the gun with him. He
was awarded the V.C.

At 7.15 the Germans had broken into the line, and B Com-
pany were sent up. Lieut. -Colonel Waters now took over
the command of the brigade sector. Communications with
brigade headquarters had been cut. The 13th Rifles had
lost heavily, and the Germans had established themselves,
with machine guns, in our lines. Second Lieutenants
Dexter and Scott, of the Fusiliers, made several journeys
to the front under a most severe fire with 20 men from
13th K.R.R.C. headquarters and carried up 2,360 bombs.
When darkness fell the Germans had secured a small part
of the British positions, but were firmly established there.
During the night three counter-attacks were launched.
B Company attacked first and failed through lack of
bombs. A and B Companies then advanced and suc-
ceeded in establishing a strong point, but were unable to
press the attack further. On the third attack a complete
success was achieved, the enemy were driven back and
the position was re-established. The 10th had lost
heavily in the operations, but not so heavily as the 13th
Battalion. Second Lieutenants H. C. B. Sandall and
W. G. Crook were killed, five officers were wounded, and
there were 61 other ranks casualties. Later in the day


(March 9th) a divisional wire was received : " The Corps
Commander wishes to congratulate the division, and
especially the two battalions concerned, for their success-
ful defence in last night's attack." Lieut .-Colonel Waters
and Captain Bainbridge received the D.S.O., Captain
Tanner and Second Lieutenant Edington the M.C., and
Captain Penfold a bar to the M.C., for these operations,
with the congratulations of the Corps, Divisional and

Brigade Commanders.

* * * *

The 7th Battalion on December 21st performed an
exploit which seems almost incredible. They were rest-
ing and refitting in the north when Lieut. -Colonel C. Play-
fair succumbed to the stress and strain of the Ypres opera-
tions and had to go to hospital. Major A. E. Gallagher,
D.S.O., took over command on the 2nd until two days
later, when Major E. G. L'Estrange Malone rejoined from
divisional headquarters. On December 9th they left the
area and a week later relieved the 9th Royal Irish Fusi-
liers on Welsh Ridge, in the salient south of Marcoing. On
the 21st a message was received from brigade head-
quarters asking that every endeavour should be made to
secure a prisoner for identification purposes. It was a
bright moonlight night ; there was a white frost on the
ground, and for 300 yards one could see clearly. It was
therefore the very last kind of night for patrol activity.
But Lance-Corporal T. Norris took out a patrol, and, dis-
covering that the enemy were also desirous of securing a
prisoner, decoyed them into the hands of a standing patrol
under Corporal G. Collins. A prisoner was thus captured
within three and a half hours of the request being re-
ceived from the brigade. The Divisional and Brigade
Commanders congratulated the battalion on their promp-
titude, which was surely unique, and Lance-Corporal
Norris secured the Military Medal.

The battalion spent Christmas out of the trenches, but
on December 27th they went back to the front line in time
to receive a heavy Germanfattack. The position was


almost untenable. The trench was the former Hinden-
burg support trench, and the wire was still standing west-
ward. There were no communication trenches leading
back to the support line, and the right of the line formed a
sharp salient with a sap at one point to the German trench
blocked by a pile of sandbags. At 8 a.m. on the morning
of December 30th the Germans opened a furious barrage,
chiefly enfilade, and then attacked over the snow in white
suits. B, C and D Companies suffered heavily. D in the
salient lost all their officers and most of the men either
killed or captured. The men could not retire, even if they
had wished to do so, because of the lack of communication
trenches. The wire precluded a retirement over the open.
Captain Davidson, the medical officer, and the whole of
the aid post in D Company headquarters were captured.
A counter-attack was delivered, and, though it failed, the
Germans were held and the position was consolidated. On
the following day the enemy put down a heavy barrage, and
between twenty and thirty Germans were seen approaching
the line. A sharp burst of Lewis-gun fire dispersed them,
and the battalion were relieved later in the day. They had
lost 9 officers (6 missing) and 244 other ranks. The bulk
of the latter were missing. The 7th were now reduced
to a trench strength of 11 officers and 167 other ranks,
and when Lieut .-Colonel Malone returned from leave on
January 13th he found his battalion amalgamated, tem-
porarily, with the Artists Rifles.

The 1st and 12th Royal Fusiliers had left the Ypres
area in the third week of September ; and on the 25th
found themselves at Vadencourt, near the Omignon River.
On October 28th — 29th both battalions were in the front
line when a patrol of the 1st were caught by a much
heavier German patrol who attempted to surround them.
But the Fusiliers retired behind their wire and inflicted
heavy casualties. It was apparently the same German
patrol which, a few hours later, ran into the " Day Posts '
of the 1 2th Battalion in Somerville Wood. They were
driven off, leaving behind a German officer who provided


a useful identification. Second Lieutenant Burch and
Lance-Corporal J. Thompson were officially commended
for their services on this occasion. The 12th Battalion
were very active in patrolling at this time, and a letter
from Major-General A. C. Daly, G.O.C. 24th Division,
congratulated the battalion in striking terms : " Second
Lieutenant Hills, of the 12th Royal Fusiliers, spends most
of his time in No Man's Land, and has been doing excep-
tionally good reconnaissance and patrol work ever since
the division came into this bit of the line. He has gained
valuable information several times. Another officer who
always accompanies Second Lieutenant Hills is Second
Lieutenant Mears-Devenish, also of the 12th Royal Fusi-
liers." It was but natural that after this the patrols
should be more active and venturesome than ever ; and
on November 27th Lieutenant A. H. Lee, M.C., pro-
ceeded along the Omignon River in daylight reconnoitring.
Congratulations were received for this piece of work from
the Brigade and Divisional Commanders.

The 1st Battalion, while in divisional reserve at Ven-
delles on December 16th, had the honour of being in-
spected by Major-General W. B. Hickie, C.B. They had
returned to the line on the Hervilly left subsector, with
Major Hebden in command, when they were called upon
to assist a raid of the Rifle Brigade. Their role consisted
of making a demonstration to deceive the Germans as to
where the raid was taking place. On the night of January
19th, 1918, dummy figures were erected in front of the
barbed wire, and at 6.45 the following morning the Rifle
Brigade, on the right of the Fusiliers, raided the enemy
trenches. The 1st Battalion assisted at the same time
with intense Lewis-gun fire, and no doubt the three groups
of dummy figures looked sufficiently impressive. The
German artillery retaliated, but there were no casualties,
and the episode seemed only an amusing interlude.

On December nth the 4th Battalion relieved the 8th
East Yorks in the Noreuil right subsector, very near the
place where they had been engaged at the time of the battle


of Cambrai. The Pudsey support trench was lost the
following day, and it was arranged that the 4th Royal
Fusiliers should retake it and London support trench.
But the Germans heavily bombarded the line immediately
before the attack, and the venture proved a failure. W
and Y Companies relieved the 12th West Yorks and 1st
Northumberland Fusiliers in the front line and London
support. Y and Z were placed under the orders of the
13th King's Liverpools, and the latter company, holding
a block in Pudsey support, succeeded in advancing it 150
yards up the trench. But this useful little success proved
to be a dubious advantage, for Second Lieutenant Goddard
was killed on December 15th owing to our own artillery
falling short into this support. In addition to this, there
were 65 casualties among other ranks.

Italy. — For two of the Fusilier Battalions the winter
held a very pleasant experience. The 26th and 32nd
Royal Fusiliers entrained in the second week of November
for Italy. At Ventimiglia, where they crossed the Franco-
Italian frontier, C and D Companies of the 26th Battalion
marched through the town amid scenes which recall the
reception of the British troops in France in August, 1914.
The march became a sort of triumphal progress, and
showers of carnations fell upon the men. Italy had
recently suffered a very heavy defeat, and the troops had
not yet shown that they could check the apparently
irresistible advance of the enemy. It was this that made
the appearance of the British troops so welcome to the
Italians ; and the two Fusilier battalions, to the end of
their stay in Italy, received the most cordial reception
from the people. At Genoa the officers of C and D Com-
panies of the 26th Battalion were welcomed in the wait-
ing-room of the main station, though it was near midnight
and they were in easy stages of undress. Barrels of wine
were broached on the platform, and the companies departed
flushed and happy.

On November 19th the 26th Battalion began a series of
forced marches from Cerlongo to the front. They marched


in battle order with advance guards, and at night outposts
were placed. During the seven days November 19th —
25th inclusive, the battalion covered 141 kilometres with
only one day's rest. On the 24th they made 32 kilo-
metres over rough mountain roads. The billets were
almost invariably poor on this march ; and it says much
for the battalion that few men dropped out, though many
were of short service. On December 1st the battalion
reached Bavaria, south of the Montello, on the right rear
of the brigade.

Service in Italy was not very strenuous for either batta-
lion. The Montello is a hog's-back hill which lies in the
angle of the Piave where it turns south towards the coast.
It falls sharply to the river with a shallow foreshore.

The river in winter was rough and icy cold, with a swift
current that constantly changed the landmarks in the
shallows, and made cross river patrols precarious and well
nigh impossible. Cover was plentiful on the Montello.
Caves and dug-outs in the sides of the numerous hollows
of the hill gave ample protection, with the river as a guard
against surprise. But movement during the day was
forbidden, and the night was turned into the normal day
with its routine of meals, beginning at 6 p.m. A series of
parallel roads cut the hill ; and the 26th held the left series
between roads 3 and 5, with the 32nd on the right, guard-
ing the Nervesa bridgehead.

There were many patrols during the second tour of the
front line trenches after the Christmas interlude, but the
success was not proportioned to the amount of energy
and willingness expended. The river proved too great a
handicap. On January 18th the battalion were relieved,
and a few days later moved by march route to the G.H.Q.
training area at Padua, where life was easy and pleasant.
Athletics formed part of the training, and a routine fea-
ture was a run, in the afternoon, uphill to the Monastery
and back. The battalion had only left Galzignano a few
days when the news came that they were to return to
France. At the beginning of March they left Italy, and


Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 19 of 38)