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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 21 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 21 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


fore looking forward to a stand. But in the morning
Gough's position was such that he judged it too great a
hazard to risk decisive action with tired troops against an
apparently limitless stream of advancing Germans, and
orders were accordingly given for a gradual withdrawal
to the line of the Somme. The 1st Battalion therefore
retired from Monchy Lagache, fighting rearguard actions.
Part of the retreat was covered by the 72nd Brigade, and
the battalion reached the Licourt position at night after
a very trying day, in which, however, but few casualties
had been sustained.

On the night of the 22nd the nth Battalion, as we have
seen, were still holding the left sector of the canal to Jussy.
But at dawn on the next morning, under cover of a thick
fog, the Germans forced the canal crossing and began to
issue in force from the town. Second Lieutenant Smedley
scouted right out to the left flank, now in the air, " and
up to the village under heavy machine-gun fire. This
highly valuable work was carried out with the greatest
pluck and determination. During the subsequent with-
drawal Second Lieutenant Smedley, although wounded,
carried his task to completion by covering the left flank."
Such is the official description of an action which gained
for this officer the M.C. But in reality this piece of work
was one of extraordinary daring. The fog was almost
impenetrable beyond a few feet. The battalion had only
moved back to Jussy the day before, and it was under

F. R



242 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

such conditions that Smedley felt his way to the German
position. No one, indeed, could tell, under such conditions,
where the enemy were. And when a little after noon they
became located, they were some distance in the rear of
the canal on the Jussy-Faillouel road. The thin line on
the canal became like a sieve, and knots of Germans
trickled through. The battle line became a scene of small
isolated encounters. Major Deakin and Captain Pearcy
were captured. The Germans had got round both flanks,
and penetrated through the patches of the line they
had obliterated. Captain Brooking for fourteen hours
defended the position held by his company on the canal
line against repeated attempts by the enemy to cross in
large numbers. The thick fog made this extremely
difficult, " and it was by his personal example and skilful
handling that the enemy were frustrated with considerable
losses. Eventually he was badly wounded, but continued
to encourage his men with the utmost disregard of danger "
until he was cut off.

The defence of the canal was most gallant. The officers
everywhere suffered terribly, fighting till they fell or were
cut off and captured. Lieutenant Knott killed four of
the enemy, and then, his ammunition exhausted, clubbed
another before he was killed. Part of the battalion did
not receive the order to retire, and when the fog lifted at
midday the Germans were in front and on both flanks ;
only a small party got back to the railway line. There
another stand was made with the headquarters troops,
until the Germans were within ioo yards and were again
working round the flanks. The colonel fought with this
body and escaped with the remnants. Sergeant W.
Brisby, M.M., gained his D.C.M. by his coolness and
extraordinary courage. He organised the party who
fought through the enveloping line and took part in the
last stand. Private Jordan secured the same decoration
for organising a bayonet attack when called upon to
surrender. By this means the remainder of his company
secured the freedom to get back to the battalion.



CASUALTIES OF THE ELEVENTH BATTALION 243

With various intermediate halts, the nth Royal Fusiliers
at length reached Caillouel ; but they returned to the
village in a very different condition from that in which
they had left it. They had held an exposed position on the
canal, and no gallantry could compensate for the handicaps
of their position and the day. They were now only 2
officers and 25 other ranks strong; and even when the
battle surplus had been embodied, including tailors, police,
pioneers, shoemakers and drums, they only mustered
8 officers and 180 other ranks. Yet the battalion were
full of spirit, though they were placed in brigade reserve.

The 3rd Londons on the same day were engaged at
Noreuil, and fell back to Chauny, where, with the 2/2nd
Battalion, positions were taken up for the morrow.

March 24th. — On the night of March 23rd — 24th the
battle front south of Ypres was the critical quarter of the
line, and the 24th saw the development of the disorganisa-
tion which had begun on the previous day. The 4th
Battalion again gave more than they got, and the con-
stantly repulsed attacks cost the enemy dearly. Luden-
dorff noted how exhausted the Seventeenth Army were
on March 25th, and the steadfast stand of the 4th
Battalion played its part in the general scheme which
achieved this successful result, for this flank became the
fixed point upon which the remainder of the Third and
the Fifth Armies pivoted.

The 26th Battalion (41st Division) had been brought up
to the front hurriedly on the first day of the offensive. On
the 22nd the division had entered the front line near Vaulx-
Vraucourt to fill the breach which was opening between
the 40th and 6th Divisions. The battalion were in support,
though one after another the companies became involved
on the flanks of the brigade, and fought very valiantly
against repeated attacks. On the 24th the position on
the Fifth Army front had changed so fundamentally
that the Third Army front was drawn back a much
greater distance, and Lieut.-Colonel H. M. Tuite was
killed while commanding the rearguard, who covered

R 2



244 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

the retirement of the mass of the battalion. When
he fell an attempt was made to carry him back ; but,
seeing how near the enemy were and how inevitable it
was that the men should be captured if they stopped to
remove him, he ordered them to leave him. He was
heard of no more, and died in this way on the field of
battle very gallantly.

At the same time, a little to the south the 2nd Division
were also retiring. The 17th Royal Fusiliers were the
last to retire, after fighting a stubborn rearguard. They
passed through Villers and Beaulencourt to Ligny, where
the 24th Battalion joined them in position south of the
village. Further south lay the 23rd Battalion, who had
held the position on the flank of the Third Army, and
after fighting an engagement with both flanks in the air
had fallen back on Le Transloy at dusk.

The 7th Battalion at 5 a.m. were covering the main
Bus-Rocquigny road, and in this position held up for a
time the enemy's advance. Rocquigny was heavily
bombarded and subjected to machine-gun fire ; and at
8 a.m. the battalion fell back on Le Transloy, where they
were congratulated by the G.O.C. division on their fine
work during the first stage of the retreat. In a few hours
the enemy pressure on their position was such that the
battalion were ordered to fall back once more. They
retired as left flank guard across country through Flers and
High Wood to Bazentin le Petit. The village was reached
at 6 p.m. after several encounters with the enemy. The
battalion were now ordered to divisional reserve at Cource-
lette, and spent the night in a chalk quarry in the open.

While these movements were taking place in the Third
Army the 1st Royal Fusiliers were being withdrawn from
the line on the Somme front. At 7 a.m. they began their
march to Chaulnes, where they took up outposts for the
night. The nth Battalion were still not far from the
Oise. During the day they were in brigade reserve
behind the Crepigny ridge. To the north, the village
of Beaugies was thought to be held by the French, and a



WITHDRAWAL CONTINUED, MARCH 24TH-25TH 245

patrol of the nth Battalion were sent out to clear up the
position. The road rises sharply from Crepigny through
a thick wood, and it was difficult to see clearly. Captain
Wattenbach with five men and a Frenchman went out
after dark, and near Beaugies ran into a body of Germans.
At first it was thought that they must be British troops,
since no one at the time knew that the enemy had pene-
trated so far west ; but when the true state of the case was
discovered the patrol made their way back to report.
The brigade fell back, but the position was not cleared up
till the following day.

Still further south the 2/2nd and 3rd Londons, who had
taken positions east of Chauny on the previous day, were
attacked with great force after three hours' bombard-
ment. Despite their weakness, the attack was beaten off,
and the battalions were enabled to continue their retire-
ment, the 2/2nd to Abbecourt and the 3rd Londons to
Quierzy and Manicamp.

March 25th. — The 4th Royal Fusiliers were not engaged
on March 25th. The position on this part of the front
had hardened. The Germans had been fought to a stand-
still, and for two days there was no attack. But further
south the enemy had crossed the Somme and were now
fighting on the old Somme battlefield. North of Bapaume
the 26th Battalion were heavily engaged during the day,
as the Germans delivered repeated attacks east of Achiet
le Grand. But, under the command of Major Etchells, all
attacks were beaten off.

On the night of the 24th, the 17th and 24th Battalions
had assembled just east of Ligny Thilloy, and contact
had not been made with the enemy when they withdrew
and marched south-west along the Bapaume-Albert road.
Between Pys and Le Sars the brigade to which both
battalions belonged took up positions and met the German
attack with rifle and machine-gun fire. But at noon
fresh attacks were delivered. Grevillers and Bihucourt
fell. These villages were on the north of the position
held by the two Fusilier battalions, and their division



246 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

was out of touch with the divisions farther south. At
2.10 p.m. the Germans were pushing through Le Sars, and
could be seen advancing under cover of a smoke screen
on Courcelette. At 4 p.m. the 17th Battalion were
ordered to stand at all costs. But two battalions moved
off on the right, and Colonel Weston led a counter-attack
with about 40 men and drove the enemy back over the
railway. The 51st Division, on the left, were now forced
to retire. The right flank gave way, Major Pretty being
killed. The battalion, now at Miraumont, began to retire
along the main road to Beaucourt, which appeared to be
full of officers and men of different units. Another move
was made to a spot just south of the Ancre near Hamel.
The 24th Battalion had also fallen back to the spur east
of Hamel, and in these positions the night was passed.

The 23rd Royal Fusiliers had spent the night 24 — 25th
at Le Transloy. Their position had been necessarily
exposed, as their brigade (90th) had been detached from
the 2nd Division in an attempt to fill the gap between the
Third and Fifth Armies. But at dawn on the 25th the
troops moved westwards and took up positions around
Gueudecourt. They reverted to the 2nd Division at this
place, but their position was still exposed. The neigh-
bouring troops were well to the west of them, and, not
far away, units could be seen to the north and the south
retiring, though in perfect order. Brig. -General Barnett-
Barker (99th Brigade) was urged by generals and staff
officers of other units to retire with them. A 5-9 shell
burst beyond the village, and a little later Barnett-Barker
was persuaded of the uselessness of defending the village.
A tent had been put up for him by the roadside on the
west of the village, and he wrote the order to retire at
discretion at 5.30 p.m., stating that brigade headquarters
were moving back a mile. Another shell fell near by, and
he was killed at once, as he was leaving his tent for his
new headquarters.*

* The first commanding officer of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers in France,
Barnett-Barker was closely associated with the battalion until its



BACK TO THE SOMME BATTLEFIELD 247

At dusk the 23rd Battalion fell back to Eaucourt
l'Abbaye after an unsatisfactory day. They had stood
like an island in the wash of retiring troops, and at length
had themselves been forced to fall back. Lieut. -Colonel
Winter, as senior colonel, assumed command of the brigade,
and Major Lewis took over command of the battalion.

It is a remarkable fact that, though the 23rd were never
seriously challenged at Gueudecourt on this day, the
17th Battalion had been heavily attacked at Miraumont,
five miles to the west, the 24th Battalion were compelled
to retire from the neighbourhood of Le Sars, three miles
further west, and the 7th were outflanked at Courcelette,
four miles to the west. Neither Le Sars nor Courcelette
lay as much as a mile distant from Gueudecourt in a north
and south direction. At noon the 7th Royal Fusiliers
took up a high position covering Courcelette. The enemy
were still advancing in force, and the troops in front of the
battalion were forced behind their position, and touch was
not maintained on the flanks. As a consequence the
battalion began to withdraw slowly towards Thiepval at
2 p.m., covered by a rearguard, with the Germans pressing
round both flanks. They became involved in a heavy
engagement, and many men were cut off. At 8 p.m.
they took up a position on the right of Thiepval road and
held on until 4 a.m. on the next day. The anomalies in
the Third Army position, as reflected in the fortunes of
the Royal Fusilier battalions, appear greater than those
of the Fifth Army.

The 1st Battalion moved forward this day from Chaulnes
to Dreslincourt ; but, encountering very heavy forces,
they were compelled to fight their way back to Chaulnes.
The remnants of the nth Battalion further south were sent
to hold the Montagne de Grandru * and prevent the

disbandment. The conventional phrase that he was beloved by the
battalion was in this case literally true, for he earned and won an
extraordinary regard and respect from all who came in contact with him.
* It is a point of interest that on this position they lay only two or
three miles from Crisolles, where the 4th Battalion had halted in the
retreat after Le Cateau in 19 14.



248 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

Germans getting round to the rear of the 18th Division.
The enemy had been seen earlier in the morning marching
behind a band to the west, on the left flank of the division.
About ii a.m. a heavy machine-gun fire was opened from
Behericourt, on the right rear of the Fusiliers' line. They
were almost cut off, and the Bedfordshires had to move
up on their right to cover their retreat. The nth Batta-
lion slipped away by platoons under a very heavy fire,
and, some French troops coming up, the Fusiliers and
Bedfordshires were withdrawn to the reserve. All en-
deavours were being shaped to enable these troops to
cross the Oise, and the Germans, in attempting to get
round to the rear, hoped to cut them off. When the
Fusiliers returned from the Montagne de Grandru it was
hoped that they could cross by the bridge at Babceuf.
But the Germans were found to be already in possession ;
and the troops were moving westwards when it was dis-
covered that there was a gap between the French and the
53rd Brigade with only a thin line of 75 's in position. It
was at once determined to prevent the Germans forcing
this gap and capturing the guns by a counter-attack ; and
the Fusiliers were put into the fighting once more with
the Bedfords. With a spirited advance * at 5.30 p.m.
Babceuf was retaken, after some street fighting ; and the
Fusiliers were then withdrawn westward to Varesnes,
where they crossed to safety over the half-demolished
bridge, and left the line for a few days. The battalion had
lost practically all but its spirit. The London battalions
of the 58th Division had already found sanctuary across
the Oise, and on this day held Quierzy and Manicamp on
the south of the river. On the following day the remnants
of the three battalions were formed into one battalion
under command of Lieut. -Colonel R. H. Dann, D.S.O.

Aveluy. — The positions on the north of the Somme now
began to take final shape. The 23rd Royal Fusiliers had
slipped back from Eaucourt l'Abbaye during the night,
and on the 26th were occupying positions near the 17th

* " A brilliant counter-attack, capturing 150 prisoners " (Despatch).



NINTH BATTALION ENGAGED 249

and 24th Battalions, close to Beaumont Hamel. At
Hamel the 17th and 24th Battalions held positions near
the final resting place of the 3rd Army front. On the
north, however, the Germans crossed the Ancre and took
Colincamps in the morning, but the village was retaken
by New Zealand troops in the afternoon. On the left
flank the 23rd Battalion were heavily engaged until
relieved by the New Zealand Division, but the 17th and
24th were not attacked.

Further south the 9th Battalion had now entered the
battle. On the 24th they had been at Auchy le Bois, and
on the 25th had been compelled to travel all night to
Albert. The position changed so rapidly in this area
that they were first ordered to Montauban, then to Carnoy.
The second order was cancelled, and they remained by the
roadside. On the 26th they had new orders to take up
position on the western bank of the river Ancre, in front
of Aveluy, and they were in line by 6 a.m.

To the north lay the 7th Royal Fusiliers, who had crossed
the river by the Authuile bridge and were holding the
eastern edge of Aveluy Wood. From the high ground
they could see the Germans moving towards Aveluy at
8 a.m., and the bridges were at once destroyed. An hour
later, troops of the 12th Division relieved the battalion,
who thereupon withdrew through the wood to Martinsart
and Engelbelmer.

From the hollow, where the 9th Battalion lay, the enemy
were not seen until midday, when they were observed
advancing over the high ground east of the river. During
the night the Germans made a determined attempt to
cross the Ancre but were driven off by Lewis guns,
machine guns and rifles. Farther north the enemy
succeeded in forcing his way into Mesnil and the eastern
edge of Aveluy Wood. To the south Albert was lost. At
3 a.m. on March 27th the 7th Battalion were in support
to an attack of their brigade on the railway west of Albert.
The Germans were prevented debouching from the town,
and the battalion were moved to the Bouzincourt- Aveluy



250 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

road, where they checked the enemy advance till late in
the evening, when they were relieved and left the line.

In this sector, March 27th again saw heavy righting.
At 8 a.m. the Germans renewed their attempts to force a
crossing, but were again driven back by the 9th Royal
Fusiliers. The battalion on the right were overwhelmed
half an hour later and were closely pursued by the enemy.
The 9th Battalion, with their right in the air, were forced
back. A platoon under Captain Beaurains held on until
completely surrounded, and then fought their way back
to the high ground on the west of the village. D Company
attempted to deliver a counter-attack, but the enemy
machine-gun fire prevented them reaching the river. At
5 p.m. the Germans resumed their attack from the direc-
tion of Albert ; and, the right flank being again turned,
the battalion fell back to the high ground in front of
Martinsart Wood, where a line was organised during the
night with the 5th Royal Berks on the right. To the
north of the 9th Battalion, the enemy had attacked in
strength with such success that the 5th Brigade were
recalled, and the 24th Royal Fusiliers took over positions
in close support along the northern edge of Aveluy Woodd
On the 28th the enemy attacked the railway embankment
west of the wood, but the 24th Royal Fusiliers counter-
attacked with two other battalions and drove them back.
The right of the 9th Battalion was once more attacked at
9 a.m., but the attack was beaten off with loss. On the
following day posts were established in the southern edge
of Aveluy Wood without opposition ; but an attempt to
establish a Lewis gun post down the forward slope was
checked by machine-gun fire. The 9th and 24th Royal
Fusilier Battalions on this front were relieved on the
evening of this day, and the battle began to die down.
The 17th Battalion, who relieved the 99th Brigade, were
not disturbed in Aveluy Wood, and on March 30th
suffered comparatively little in the German bombardment.

To Amiens. — During these same days, while the oppos-
ing forces about Aveluy had been fighting for a mile or two of



FIRST BATTALION'S RETIREMENT 251

ground, the 1st Battalion had covered a distance of nearly
seventeen miles as the crow flies, and considerably more
as an army marches. They were the last troops to leave
Chaulnes on March 26th, and they did not retire until
the Germans were pressing round their left flank. They
marched back to Lihons, crossed the Amiens railway and
reached Vrely, where they lay in support on the following
day. On March 28th they fell back once more for the
same reason that had compelled them to abandon Chaulnes.
Their left flank was in the air, and a local counter-attack
with the 3rd Rifle Brigade could not do more than inter-
pose a temporary check. They continued their retire-
ment through Caix, and formed a covering flank towards
the north-east for a French counter-attack. But the
Germans, ever pressing onward, were once more round the
battalion's flanks, and they marched back to Villers aux
Erables and thence across the Avre to Castel for the night.
The 29th found them on outpost positions on the high
ground between Castel and Hailles. On March 30th a
persistent rain fell and imposed a check upon the enemy
advance, though it did not impede the gathering of the
French, who were now arriving in great numbers. The
position even on this part of the front was approaching
equilibrium. Montdidier had fallen. The Germans were
established across the Avre and before Hangard ; but
successes gained by the enemy were now smaller, more
bitterly contested, and more dearly bought. At 3 p.m.
on the following day the 1st Battalion were ordered out to
protect the Hailles bridgehead. A few days later they
saw service in the Gentelles-Hangard line, but the tour
was without incident.

This last phrase hardly describes the projected attack
by the nth Royal Fusiliers on the Aubercourt ridge, north-
east of Hangard, on the evening of April 2nd. They were
fired on from the front and the rear ; and the enemy
barrage was so heavy that the attack was abandoned.
The following night they were ordered to counter-attack,
and after crossing ploughed fields in pouring rain by



252 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

compass, found themselves moving towards a vast gap.

A line was determined upon, and word was sent back that

at least another battalion would be required to fill the gap.

The Essex were sent forward and the position cleared up.

Arras. — Meanwhile an attack had been delivered on the

northern or pivotal flank of the battle front. Decisively

checked in this quarter at the beginning of his offensive,

the enemy on March 28th made a determined effort to

obtain greater freedom for the development of his offensive

by a blow in great force along the valley of the Scarpe,

though the attack extended as far south as Bucquoy.

Three first line battalions of the Londons and the

4th Royal Fusiliers were involved in this heavy battle.

In a message to the 3rd Division on March 30th, Lieut. -

General Haldane, commanding the VI. Corps, wrote :

' The repeated efforts, made in great force by a determined

enemy, to break through the left of the Corps where the

soldiers of the 3rd Division stood were repulsed time after

time, and where ground had to be yielded to maintain an

unbroken line, every foot was contested with a resolution

which can hardly have been surpassed in the annals of

the British Army. Had the 3rd Division, much weakened

by several days of hard fighting and nights devoid of rest,

not maintained an unbroken front on March 28th, it is

difficult to believe that the enemy could have failed to

attain his objective — the capture of Arras."

The 4th Royal Fusiliers, forming part of this division,
had left the front line on March 27th, but at 9.40 a.m. on
the following day X Company was ordered up to the Green
Line to occupy the position vacated by Z Company. The
9th Brigade lay below Neuville-Vitasse, and early in the
battle the brigades on both sides had been driven back.
Z Company had reached the support line of the first system,



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 21 of 38)