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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 20 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 20 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


after a long train journey and a march arrived at Sous
St. Leger, where the division was reorganised.

The brigades lost one of their battalions ; and the 32nd
Battalion Royal Fusiliers was disbanded, the personnel
being amalgamated with that of the 26th Battalion. It
was a fate which befell several other battalions of the Royal
Fusiliers about this time. The 8th, who had fought so
magnificently throughout the campaign, ceased to be in
February. They had been closely and intimately asso-
ciated with the 9th during their service in France, and
their stand at Cambrai had been memorable. The 12th
Battalion, who had been linked with the 1st for over two
years in the 17th Brigade, also disappeared the same month.
Parties of this battalion went to swell other Fusilier
battalions : the 1st, 10th and nth. The 20th, the one
remaining Public School battalion, received orders for
disbandment on February 1st, and the personnel were
divided between the 2nd, 4th and 13th Battalions. The
22nd (Kensington) Battalion were disbanded by the
Brigadier who had been the most popular and inspiring
of their commanding officers, and the 23rd and 24th Batta-
lions were strengthened accordingly.

At the outbreak of the great German offensive in March,
1918, there were only fifteen battalions of Royal Fusiliers
apart from the battalions of the London Regiment.



CHAPTER XIII



THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE



It is strange now, looking back on the past, how little
people in England knew of the turn of events in the early
part of the year 1918. Sir Douglas Haig had pointed out
that the British Army definitely looked to the defensive ;
but his despatches were not published until long after-
wards, and the suggestions of a German offensive were
almost as quickly denied in the English Press as they were
expressed. At the front there was little ambiguity about
the position. Towards the end of the second week in
March the Germans apparently threw aside all attempts at
concealment. Troop movements could be seen from the
British lines, and German officers were observed a few
days before the attack examining the British positions
through their glasses. But, despite the knowledge of the
staff and the open demonstration of the enemy, the
attack burst over the line with remarkable suddenness and
developed with unexpected speed.

The Germans struck between the Oise and the Scarpe.
At the moment when the blow fell the extreme right
of the line was held by the 58th Division with the
second line Londons, with the 18th Division on their
left. This division also included a Royal Fusilier unit
(nth Battalion), and thus the regiment were repre-
sented in one of the critical sectors of the front by a
number of battalions. Further north, almost in the
centre of the Fifth Army front, lay the 24th Division,
including the 1st Battalion. Within the Third Army
area lay the 7th and 4th Battalions, the former being
still in the Cambrai salient and the latter on the Cherisy-
Fontaine sector. The 56th Division, with the first line



POSITION OF ROYAL FUSILIER BATTALIONS 231

Londons, lay north of the Scarpe, just beyond the main
area of the German attack ; and there were other Fusilier
battalions in reserve in the Third Army sector. The 2nd
Division were near Rocquigny, and the 41st west of Albert.
These two divisions included four Royal Fusilier units,
all of whom became involved in the actions of the German
offensive in Picardy.

Of the other battalions of Royal Fusiliers who were in
France at this moment, the 2nd, 10th, and 13th were in
the Ypres sector when the attack began ; but the two last
were involved in the aftermath of the Picardy offensive.
The last remaining Royal Fusilier battalion, the 9th, took
up station on the Ancre at a critical moment in the attack
and did excellent service.

To each of the battalions their own individual experi-
ence was of paramount importance, and these were days
when almost every hour held an episode of thrilling
interest. But much of the experience was characteristic
and typical rather than unique, and it is possible to form
some picture of this phase of the righting in France from

the detailed record of one or two battalions.
* * * *

The 7th Battalion, in the front line on Highland Ridge,
experienced a German gas barrage on March nth. It
began about 7 p.m. and continued until 4 a.m. the next
day. During these hours there was a continuous whistle
of shells which fell upon the support lines and battery posi-
tions, exploding with a very slight noise. The wind being
towards the German lines, the gas was carried back to the
British front line, and the men had to wear their gas
helmets for xour or five hours. At the point of exhaustion,
they removed the helmets only to fall a prey sooner or
later to the fumes rising from the ground. The barrage
was also put down on the following night, when the batta-
lion were to be relieved ; and, despite the risk, the arrange-
ment for relief was confirmed. The men stumbled along
through the gas. The night was dark, and the fumes of
the explosions made it darker. The road was pitted with



232 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

shell holes, and the men fell into them. Some, splashed
by the contents of the shells, were burned on the arms and
neck. Weary, bathed in perspiration, half stifled, they
stumbled on through the gun positions to the train of open
trucks, in which, as a sort of natural climax, they were
kept waiting long enough in the biting air to encourage
chills before being moved to the rest camp, five miles
away. Coughs, sore throats, sore eyes, voices reduced to
a whisper, were the portion of all ; but about 250 men
had to be sent to hospital. The battalion went back to
the Ribecourt right sector ; and, on the night of their
return, 100 boys joined them. They had come from Eng-
land and arrived after three days' travelling in trucks at
1 a.m. on March 21st. They had never seen a trench and
had no experience of actual war.

March 21st. — At 4 a.m. the preliminary bombardment
began. High explosive shells with trench mortars firing
with extraordinary rapidity made a deafening noise.
But the 7th Royal Fusiliers were incorrigibly cheerful.
' Nothing to worry about " was the report from A Com-
pany on the right . D reported a strange cloud approaching,
and this was soon of the density of a London fog. B dis-
covered that the Germans were attacking and had got
into the trenches of the battalion on the left. B beat off
the attack on their front by Lewis gun and rifle fire. The
S.O.S. rocket was invisible in the smoke. A pigeon in-
sisted on choosing the wrong direction. Runners at last
got through, and the barrage came down in front of the
front line. But the bombardment grew heavier and
heavier. B Company had to withdraw on the uncover-
ing of their flank. Captain K. Hawkins, M.C., the com-
mander, was killed at the entrance to his headquarters.
Captain J. Foster, M.C., was called up to battalion head-
quarters to arrange a counter-attack with C Company.
He was twice buried on the way up and knocked about by
the debris of explosions, but eventually he arrived. The
men from the left battalion began to drift in. The right
battalion's line was pierced, and the men flowed into the



THE TERRITORIALS' ORDEAL, MARCH 21ST 233

Royal Fusiliers' trench. A Company was ordered to re-
organise them and take the lost ground, and the situa-
tion was restored. An officer's servant had taken charge
on the left, and the line was organised and vigilant. At
the end of the day the battalion had held their own and
assisted to prop up a shaky position.

But this was one of the bright spots in a disastrous day.
The 4th Royal Fusiliers had been subjected to the same
almost unbearable bombardment. The front line posts
were lost in the attack which followed, but at 9.45 a.m.
the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers had restored the brigade
front. At 3.40 p.m. the Germans came on again. They
were beaten off by machine-gun fire in the battle zone, but
at 6.15 p.m. the battalion were ordered to retire to Brown
Support. They took up the new positions with the 2nd
Suffolks on the right and the 1st Northumberland Fusi-
liers on the left.

On the extreme south of the line the Fusilier Brigade of
the 58th Division had been heavily engaged and had fought
valiantly against overwhelming odds. The 2/2 Londons
were holding a long line, the northern boundary being
Travecy and the southern the Oise Canal, nearly 5,000
yards. Their strength at this time was 22 officers and
585 other ranks, an absurdly small body for so perilous a
length of front ; and, as three German divisions appear to
have been thrown against them, the battle had not opened
long before the battalion were overwhelmed. The marshes
of the Oise were thought to justify so long a line ; but the
water was unusually low, and the thick mist more than
neutralised the advantages of this obstacle. Travecy was
gassed, and no further news was gained of A Company,
stationed there. With the ten men of the trench mortar
battery, they numbered no more than 200 ; and within
an hour they were a besieged garrison, cut off from all
communication with the rest of the army. These men
held their original positions as long as there remained even
the ghost of a chance of success. A platoon, reduced to 10
men and an officer, held the southern end of the village



a34 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

until only the officer and a wounded man remained. Two
or three hundred dead Germans lay about their post
before they fell back to the central keep. The other
platoons fought with similar stubbornness until at noon
the remnants of all were concentrated in the keep.
This small body, perhaps 50 to 60 strong, was seldom left
in peace. Throughout the day and night and up to dusk
on March 22nd attempts were made to rush the position,
for they found time and opportunity to enliven the enemy
transport on the St. Quentin road, and a group of German
staff officers who paused on the road were reminded forcibly
that the little garrison still existed. At length, when
darkness fell on the 22nd, the weary and hungry men
had exhausted all their ammunition. They had used in
their gallant resistance 18,000 rounds S.A.A., 200 trench
mortar shells and 400 hand grenades. They had exacted a
heavy price, and the remaining 44, including the wounded,
were taken prisoners after two days' resistance to the
inevitable.

B Company and battle headquarters at La Fere stood to
their positions, though they, too, were cut off at 9.30 a.m.
They were still firing in the evening, and then, their ammu-
nition almost at an end, tried to fight back to the battalion.
At 10 a.m. Captain Houghton and part of C Company
attempted to defend the right flank. A quarter of an
hour later Captain G. C. Lees, the adjutant, and 40 other
ranks were all that remained of the battalion. With these
men C.S.M. Boag fell back to the Crozat Canal to defend
the battle zone. The 2 /4th had moved to the canal bank
at Fargniers the night before ; and, stationed in the battle
zone on the morning of the attack, they became almost at
once involved in the fighting. The Germans, advancing
with great rapidity, gained a footing in the eastern half of
Fargniers, but at 11 a.m. were completely held in the
battle zone, despite repeated attacks. The 3rd Londons,
who had now joined the brigade, were in the rear zone, and
two companies reinforced Fargniers and the Farme Rouge
in the afternoon. Quessy was garrisoned by a composite



ELEVENTH BATTALION'S ADVANCE 235

force, including the reserve and tunnelling companies. At
8.30 p.m. the enemy were still held, but the Fusiliers
were ordered to withdraw across the canal on the reorgani-
sation of the division's front. The retirement was carried
out successfully, without the enemy's knowledge. At the
end of the day, in which it had seemed almost hopeless to
attempt to cope with the situation, the battle zone had
been lost, and the Fusilier Brigade were weaker by
1,266 officers and men. The 2/2nd had been practically
wiped out. Their task had been quite impossible, and
they had fallen under its dead weight.

Even the nth Battalion in the division lying north of
the 58th agreed that the opening bombardment was the
worst ever experienced. They were at Caillouel when the
battle opened, on the right rear of the Fusilier brigade of
the 58th Division. But at 8 a.m. they were ordered to
the Tombelle Wood, and by midday the lorries had taken
them thither. At 1 p.m. they were ordered to counter-
attack and retake the switch line between Montescourt and
Ly Fontaine. The Germans were already at Gibercourt,
half-way between these two places ; and it was necessary
to check the advance. The Fusiliers crossed the Crozat
Canal to Montescourt, and then, with the Northants on
their right, swept ahead at dusk. The nth Battalion's
advance brushed away all obstacles, and a little after 7 p.m.
the battalion set about the work of consolidation. But
by this time the enemy were close up to the canal from
Fargniers to Quessy, and the work of the nth was inter-
rupted by the arrival of further orders. They had to
form part of a rearguard covering the retirement of the
14th Division on their northern flank and then to with-
draw across the canal to Jussy. The men marched back
with the experience, novel on this day, of having carried
out a successful advance.

The 1st Battalion had been in the line in front of Ven-
delles on March 12th, and five days later could easily see
the German officers examining the positions with field
glasses. But they were relieved on the following day, and



236 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

were out of the line when the offensive began. They
promptly moved to battle positions — A and B were in the
front line, C and D in the brown line east of Vendelles —
and for an hour were compelled to wear gas helmets.
Battalion headquarters had to be moved four times owing
to the heavy shelling, and the German aeroplanes were
very active. But there were singularly few casualties,
though Second Lieutenants J. A. Mears-Devenish and
L. G. Peaston were killed, and Second Lieutenant C. H.
Matthews seriously wounded.

March 22nd. — On March 22nd the attack was con-
tinued over the whole front. The left front of the 24th
Division after a gallant stand had been forced back
through the successes of the enemy further north ; and
in the afternoon the 1st Battalion, with the rest of the
division, retired through the 50th Division to the third line
of defence at Bernes. On this day they suffered more
severely, among the casualties being Second Lieutenant
R. W. Uphill killed, Captain W. L. T. Fisher wounded,
and Captain G. A. Jones, Second Lieutenants A. Kerry
and S. W. Wallis, missing.

The 7th Battalion had held the line on the first day of
battle ; they were now to retire. At 1 a.m. they were
ordered to withdraw to the support line and be clear of the
front line within two hours. There was no transport, and
what could not be carried had to be destroyed. Heavy
trench mortars and gas cylinders were made useless, and
the battalion took to the duckboard track. The next
morning the enemy advanced in small disconnected bodies,
while an aeroplane, flying about 150 feet overhead, took
stock of the new positions. The British artillery at first
showed no sign of life ; the German was all too active,
and the infantry moved ahead in perfect security until
they came within range of the Lewis guns. At about
11 a.m. the British artillery opened, and the German
advance was checked. At 8 p.m. the withdrawal was
resumed.

The 4th Battalion also were compelled to retreat on this



LOSS OF TERGNIER, MARCH 22nd 237

day. The Germans had made considerable headway on
the right of the 34th Division, causing that unit to retire
and thus exposing the right flank of the 3rd Division. In
the afternoon a determined attack was made on the 4th
Battalion's block in Shaft Trench, but it was beaten off.
The battalions on both sides of the 4th were driven from
their positions ; and the Royal Fusiliers, after holding the
enemy off for some time with both flanks in the air, were
withdrawn. The new front line was established about
7 p.m., and some time after parties of the 2nd K.R.R.
and 2nd Suffolks reported themselves. It had been an
unsatisfactory day, for the battalion had been compelled
to retire while they were still perfectly able to hold up the
weight of the attack on their own sector. Captain J. A.
Coley was killed during the action, but the casualties
were not heavy.

At the other end of the line the remains of the London
battalions fought valiantly to hold the Germans off the
canal. A Company of the 3rd Londons held out in
Tergnier against counter-attacks, and it was not until
evening that the village changed hands. The 2/4th were
in the reserve line, about a mile to the west, at Voeul. At
6.30 p.m. low-flying aeroplanes attacked the position, and
were beaten off with machine-gun fire. At night patrols
were sent out. Though the battalion had suffered so
heavily, they had lost none of their spirit ; and they
succeeded in capturing a number of prisoners, including a
machine gun and its crew.

The nth Battalion had reached their new positions
after the withdrawal across the canal, after midnight.
They were thoroi ghly tired out and very hungry, and
the cookers were the most pleasant sight they had on the
west bank of the canal. Everything else was sufficient
to suggest despair. The canal was an obstacle to the
German advance ; but above Jussy it makes a sharp bend
to the west, leaving the town in a small salient. The
German machine guns were able to enfilade the position
and make it untenable. The nth Royal Fusiliers soon



238 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

had experience of the difficulties of the position.
Shortly after daylight the German attack began. Field
guns and trench mortars were brought up, under cover of
which repeated attempts were made to cross the canal.
In the afternoon, after renewed attacks in strength, the
enemy secured a footing on the west side of the canal. A
fierce struggle took place on the towpath, but, with the
help of A Company of Northants, the situation was
restored, and the Germans were forced back across the
canal. Tergnier had been lost ; the enemy were across
the canal in that sector ; but on the front of the 54th
Brigade, which included the nth Royal Fusiliers, the line
was still intact at nightfall.

March 23rd. — The following was one of the most
critical days of the offensive. Both the Third and Fifth
Armies had readjusted their front, and the day was to
put the new positions to the test. The night had witnessed
another withdrawal of the 7th Battalion. At 8 p.m. on
the 22nd the battalion had begun to move back through
Trescault to the Metz switch at the southern edge of
Havrincourt Wood. The imposing name was applied to
a group of trenches, about two feet deep, with no field of
fire and without dug-outs. There was no cover, and no
communication. There was no water, no transport,
little ammunition ; and when the Germans were seen
advancing in the morning the battalion were ordered to
retire once more. Captain Thomas was placed in com-
mand of the rearguard, while Captain Foster led the first
two companies. They marched through the wood to
Neuville. Shells fell among the rearguard, but for-
tunately the casualties were few. The battalion at
length reached Lechelle. The trenches were poor. The
battalion had no rations. The water was cut off. There
was no reserve of ammunition. The Germans were seen
to be advancing from the south and from the right flank.
At this moment the 1st Artists Rifles and the 4th Bedfords
were holding a line east of Ytres, and the 7th Royal
Fusiliers were in support. The position rapidly grew



SEVENTH BATTALION'S RETIREMENT 239

critical. Heavy shell began to fall on the huts in Lechelle
where the men had been placed for greater safety. But
unless they retired, they would be cut off. So the bat-
talion had to fall back over the open to the Rocquigny-Bus
road. The Germans opened fire from the south. Shrapnel,
high explosive and machine-gun fire made the situation
almost intolerable. At last the battalion got through the
barrage ; and then Captain Forster sounded his hunting
horn, and the stragglers began to collect from various
directions. Major Whigham was evacuated with shell
shock. Lieut. -Colonel Malone had been wounded by a
machine gun. From the point of view of efficiency these
were very severe blows. Captain J. Forster, M.C., assumed
command. At 7 p.m. the battalion were ordered to fill
the gap between the 47th Division and the right of the
190th Brigade. The left of the battalion was moved to
the Bus-Lechelle road, when the enemy were reported
advancing on Bus. An intense machine-gun fire was
opened on the men, and touch could not be obtained with
troops on the left, where the rest of the Brigade were
supposed to be. A patrol sent out to Bus found the
Germans there, and did not return. Dumps were on
fire on every side. The enemy were seen to be advancing
rapidly towards the main road. The position appeared
to be beyond hope.

Many battalions in these days had the same feeling of
complete isolation, as though no one was fighting and
prepared to fight but themselves. The 2nd Division were
operating very close to the area of the 7th Battalion, and
to the Fusilier battalions included in it the retirement
of the 63rd Division appeared inexplicable and tended to
make their own position untenable. The central control
of the operations appeared to have given way. The 17th
Battalion Royal Fusiliers had been in the fine near La
Vacquerie in the third week of March. On the 20th they
could observe a number of German staff officers in the
enemy positions opposite their front. Hundreds of men
were seen entering and leaving the trenches in full pack,



240 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

and machine guns were being taken up to the front and
support lines. But the Royal Fusiliers were not left to
resolve the riddle. They were relieved that night and
went back to Rocquigny. On March 22nd they began
to move up again with the 24th Royal Fusiliers, the 5th
Brigade being attached to the 17th Division as reserve
troops. The 17th Battalion moved up to the Green Line
as the 24th moved back to it on March 23rd. At 2 a.m.
the 17th were standing to in expectation of an immediate
attack. Colonel Weston was appointed outpost com-
mander of the 6th Brigade. At 10 a.m. and again at
1 p.m. the line was heavily shelled. Headquarters had
already been twice moved ; and they were moved once
again in the afternoon, to the north-east corner of Haplin-
court. About 4.50 p.m. the Germans were seen to be
entering Velu Wood in large numbers, and a few minutes
later enemy shells began to burst all round and over the
back areas. The Germans were already in Bus.

Meanwhile at 2 p.m. the 17th Division had retired
through the Green Line, which now became the front line.
The 24th Battalion were astride the Bertincourt-Velu
road, but two companies were now sent to reserve positions
south-west of Bertincourt. The 17th Battalion at this
moment had already moved further west under the threat
of an outflanking movement from the south. At 10 p.m.
the enemy attacked the headquarters troops and the
remains of the 1st K.R.R. just north of Bus. The two
reserve companies of the 24th formed a defensive flank
north-east of Bus, and the attack was beaten off. The
troops fought in complete ignorance of the dispositions
of the 63rd Division, on their right. The Germans were
in Bus, but the 7th Royal Fusiliers could not have been
much more than 1,000 yards away, and between them
were the other battalions of the 190th Brigade.

The readjustment of the Third Army positions south
of the Scarpe required the withdrawal of the 4th Battalion
with the 3rd Division and the divisions on their flanks.
The retirement was carried out between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.



FURTHER WITHDRAWAL, MARCH 23RD 241

The Germans were already in the rear of the support line,
but no casualties were suffered, and the movement was
completed without incident.

On the front of the Fifth Army the day witnessed a more
critical development. In the morning the 1st Battalion
took up positions in front of Monchy Lagache, with C
and D Companies in the front line and A and B in support.
On the previous evening General Gough had intended to
secure the main Peronne bridgehead by a line between
Vraisne and Croix. Monchy Lagache lay at about the
centre of the position, and the 1st Battalion were there-



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 20 of 38)