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

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only to find it already gravely prejudiced and under a
heavy attack. Captain Lord, M.C., accordingly formed a
defensive flank for the brigade with the company, and,
with the remainder of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers
and the 13th King's, held the position against all attacks



GERMAN ATTACK AT ARRAS, MARCH 28th 253

until 5 p.m. The line being no longer tenable, they suc-
cessfully withdrew through the Green Line which, with
Neuville-Vitasse, now became the front line. Before the
withdrawal a platoon of W Company had been sent up to
strengthen both flanks of the battalion.

The remaining platoons of W Company were sent up to
the left flank to try to fill the gap between the battalion
and the 76th Brigade. But this brigade had been driven
out of Neuville-Vitasse, and the two platoons could not
gain contact with them. Z Company were then sent up
to form a defensive flank west of the village. They had
been heavily engaged all day and had steadily covered the
withdrawal through the Green Line. But they were still
able to perform a new and perilous task. Taking up
position in a number of shell holes, they successfully closed
the gap and enabled the division to present an organised
front once more. During the March fighting the battalion
suffered 13 officers and 193 other ranks casualties. On
March 29th the four companies were in the line and head-
quarters details in support. But the attack had been
definitely checked, and on this sector of the front no
further appreciable change took place.

North of the Scarpe, where the three London battalions
were engaged, the plane of fighting was not very different.
The 1/4 Londons, who bore the brunt of the attack, lay
a few hundred yards west of Oppy. The main defences
of the forward area were three posts, Oppy Post (north-
west), Wood Post (facing Oppy), and Beatty Post (south-
east of the village) . The first and last were overwhelmed
early in the battle ; and the enemy gained a footing in the
positions on the right and left of the battalion. Wood
Post, however, held out for about an hour. The prelimi-
nary bombardment had caused little damage and no
casualties ; and the small garrison of 2 officers and 45
other ranks inflicted heavy casualties with rifle and Lewis-
gun fire. A small body of Germans who had gained a
footing in the trench connecting the old and the new posts
were promptly bombed out. When Beatty Post fell the



254 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

enemy attempted to get round Wood Post from the right.
Attempts to get round the left were repeatedly checked,
But the right flank was more vulnerable ; and at length,
when bombs and ammunition were almost exhausted, the
survivors of the garrison, i officer and 15 other ranks, with-
drew, covered by the Lewis guns. Beatty Post had been
badly damaged by the German trench mortars, and
although it was overwhelmed by the attack in fifteen
minutes, the garrison had first inflicted heavy casualties
on the enemy as they advanced in great density through
the wire. Only 1 officer and 6 other ranks escaped of the
3 officers and 84 other ranks who had garrisoned the post.
Oppy Post garrison had lost heavily in the preliminary
bombardment and only 6 returned of the original 50.

The resistance of Wood Post saved the Marquis line
astride the Ouse valley from being overwhelmed. About
9.30 a.m., after it had fallen, a strong body of the enemy
were seen working up Ouse Trench towards the forward
battalion headquarters. Major F. A. Phillips, who was
in charge of the forward area, at once counter-attacked over
the open with 20 headquarters details. The Germans were
pressed back and a block established, which was held with
grenades by a party under Sergeant Udall. Second
lieutenant Hudson, with a platoon in Marquis Trench,
formed a defensive flank and held his positions with fine
spirit. Time after time during the day the enemy gained
a footing in the line but was immediately thrown out ;
and the defence of the forward line undoubtedly did much
to stem the enemy advance. The battalion lost 236
officers and men, 160 being cut off in the disconnected
fighting, chiefly at the three posts. But this action,
probably the most important and useful fought by the
battalion, deserves to rank high among the fine defensive
battles of this day.

Bucquoy. — In the last days of March the 10th and 13th
Royal Fusiliers had been brought down from the Ypres
area and had reached the neighbourhood of Gommecourt.
On March 31st the 13th Battalion went into the front



GERMAN ATTACK, APRIL 5th 255

line at Bucquoy. The following morning the Germans
attempted to rush the bombing posts of No. 2 Company.
The attacks were beaten off, and Second Lieutenant J.
Davis, though wounded, stood on the top of the parapet
and continued to direct the bombers. It was noticed that
during these days the enemy exposed themselves very
freely and provided good practice for the snipers. But on
April 5th the battalion were involved in a very determined
attack which the enemy delivered from the Somme to
some distance beyond Bucquoy. The preliminary bom-
bardment at 5.30 a.m. practically obliterated the trench
positions of Nos. 1 and 3 Companies. At 8.45 strong
bombing attacks were made on Nos. 2 and 3 Companies,
and the men were pressed back to company headquarters
before a counter-attack restored the position. About two
hours later it was seen that other battalions had not been
so successful, and the left of the battalion being uncovered,
the order was given to retire. Nos. 2 and 3 Companies
fell back covered by No. 1 Company's support platoon
under Second Lieutenant G. E. Vickers. The flank of
No. 1 Company being uncovered in the withdrawal, they
were at once rushed, and a desperate fight followed at
company headquarters, which were partially blown in,
several men being buried. Before the company could
extricate themselves a number of men were cut off. By
2 p.m. the line was reorganised with parties of several
other battalions and of the trench mortar battery, and no
attempt was made to press the attack home. A great
many decorations were given for this spirited defence, in-
cluding the D.S.O. to Lieut. -Colonel H. A. Smith, M.C.,
through whose skilful handling of a crumbling position the
neighbouring battalions were organised into an effective
fighting force, and the M.C. to Second Lieutenant J. Davis.
A little to the south the 7th Royal Fusiliers were in-
volved in the same attack. They had taken over the front
line positions near Mesnil from the 24th Royal Fusiliers
on April 3rd, when Captain (acting Major) P. L. E. Walker,
of the 7th Hussars, had taken over the command of the



256 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

battalion. The preliminary bombardment had cut all
communications, and at 10.30 a.m. the position was
already critical. The great loss of officers led to some
disorganisation, and, with the battalion out of touch on
both flanks, the men were overwhelmed. The Germans
had got through the line and were firing upon the men
from the rear. Captain Tealby withdrew his men, and in
the new positions inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
Hand-to-hand fighting persisted throughout the afternoon.
At dusk the right of the position was taken over by another
battalion, but it was impossible to effect contact with
the troops on the left, and in the gap there were three
enemy patrols. At 4.30 on the morning of April 6th
further attempts were made to get into touch with the
Bedfords on the left. The adjutant and three men at
length achieved contact, and posted a Lewis-gun team
with a small party of the battalion on that flank. Major
Walker had been severely wounded, all the officers were
now casualties and a N.C.O. took charge. A counter-
attack by the Royal Marine Light Infantry, in which the
remainder of the battalion took part, recovered much of
the lost ground, and by 2 p.m. the position was partly
consolidated. It was held till dusk, despite the heavy
barrage, and the 7th Battalion were then relieved. They
had lost 12 officers and 205 other ranks in two days of
most bitter fighting, but in the end the Germans had not
appreciably changed the position.

The area of the Somme offensive bubbled up into action
at various points for some little time yet. But the worst
was over, though no one as yet knew it, and the centre of
interest had already moved northward to the area about
the Lys, where similar startling changes swiftly appeared
to wash away all the landmarks which three and a half
years' occupation had established.

The Lys. — With the same suddenness that the offen-
sive on the Somme had begun, the storm broke on the Lys.
Almost at once defences which had the prescriptive right
of three and a half years' tenure were swept away, and



THE BATTLE OF THE LYS 257

new crises appeared. In the original attack no Royal
Fusilier units were involved. But the battle had not been
joined long before the 2nd and 4th Battalions were both
summoned to the area. During the Somme offensive the
2nd Battalion had been engaged on the Gravenstafel
defence line, and they remained in the Ypres area until
the Battle of the Lys began. On April 10th they arrived
by bus at Vieux Berquin at 6.30 a.m. They were sent in
the evening to occupy positions in support of the troops
holding Estaires, but at 4 a.m. they withdrew, handing
over to the 5th Durham Light Infantry, who had evacu-
ated Estaires. At noon they took over the defences of
Doulieu with three companies. In a few hours the village
was the centre of brisk fighting, and the support company
(Z) had to be sent to the right flank position, where the
Germans were making headway too rapidly.

As the day wore on Doulieu tended to become the
apex of a small salient, but the men held on until 2 a.m.
of the 12th, when they were ordered to retire. They fell
back about two miles, and at 9 a.m. they were heavily
attacked in an isolated position. The 31st Division,
on the right, had retired ; and the battalion fell back
gradually to the village of Bleu, which was held by
the remnants of the 86th and 87th Brigades until
4 p.m. The British line had now begun to show gaps
under the continued pressure of superior forces, and the
enemy pushed through and seized Outtersterne and
Merris. The 2nd Battalion fell back once more to the
Vieux Berquin-Outtersterne road up to the Farm Labis,
where the left was drawn back along the edge of a wood.
The day had been one of very heavy righting on positions
which could not be maintained in face of the forces pitted
against them.

The Germans attacked heavily early in the morning of
the 13th, but were held up by the left post, which inflicted
considerable casualties by machine-gun fire. The catching
fire of an ammunition dump on the right front of the
battalion formed a useful diversion by causing confusion



258 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

among the Germans as they formed up in its vicinity. But
the attack developed very heavily against Vieux Berquin
on the right of the battalion, and the troops holding it
were driven back. The support troops on the right of the
2nd Battalion also retired, and the right flank was then
left open. At nightfall both flanks were open, Vieux
Berquin had fallen, and the Germans had passed the small
island of troops on the north and the south. The batta-
lion were withdrawn during the night, and on the 14th
arrived at Borre. In the fifty-two hours they had spent
in the Lys battle area the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had 15
officers and 324 other ranks casualties. They were true to
their fate in finding the hottest part in the battlefield ;
but their steadfast stand had played no small part in gain-
ing time for the deployment of reinforcements. Included
in the casualties were Captain H. V. Wells, Lieutenant L. B.
Solomon, Second Lieutenants H. Norwell, N. H. Willett,
H. L. Mepham, G. T. S. Rumball and F. J. A. Wilson. On
April 15th a composite brigade was formed, the 2nd Royal
Fusiliers forming No. 1 Battalion, two other battalions
making up No. 2 Battalion, of the 87th Brigade.

Meanwhile the 4th Battalion had also made their
appearance in this area. They had been brought up
hurriedly on April 9th. About 5 a.m. on the 10th the
battalion took up position from the La Bass£e Canal to
the north-east corner of Gorre Wood, coming under the
orders of the 55th Division until April 15th. On this
sector of the Lys battleground the troops had offered a
most stubborn resistance. The front of the 166th Brigade,
to which the 4th Battalion were attached, was dented
several times at Loisne, not a mile from where the Royal
Fusiliers lay ; and the men shared every bombardment
which was aimed at the troops holding the line. All day
on the 10th they were subjected to a rain of 5-9 shell. On
the following day the two left companies experienced a
particularly intense bombardment and suffered twenty-
three casualties. Battle-tried units in support were
relieved on the 13th, and on the night of the 14th the



FINE DEFENCE OF THIRD LONDONS 259

4th Battalion took over the left sector of the front line.
" All ranks of this battalion did all that was demanded of
them in a soldierly manner," wrote Brig.-General R. J.
Kentish, of the 166th Infantry Brigade, on handing over
the sector to the 9th Brigade, to which the 4th Battalion
belonged.

Villers Bretonneux. — Local attacks continued to be
made at various parts of the Somme battle-front during the
struggle in the Lys area, but the engagement that took
place at Villers Bretonneux on April 24th was a more
serious operation. The Fusilier battalion formed from the
remnants of the three London battalions of the 58th
Division had been disbanded on April 4th, and it was
three battalions who made their appearance in the Han-
gard area in the third week of April. This sector of the
front south of the Somme had a particular attraction for the
enemy, for it covered the junction of the British and French
Armies. On April 23rd A Company of the 2/2 Londons
wounded and took prisoner a German, who gave the details
of the attack which began the next morning at three o'clock
near Hangard Wood with a heavy barrage and gas bom-
bardment. At 6 a.m. the infantry attacks began, and
the 3rd Londons * south of the Hangard Wood held
their line all day in spite of the flanks giving way. The
2/4 Londons did not fare so well. The first attacks were
beaten off successfully, but when the attack was resumed
with tanks in the afternoon, the left flank was turned and
the battalion fell back. A little later another readjust-
ment of the line became necessary ; and the 2/4th took
up position in the Cachy Switch Line, east of the village,
continuing in a line of shell holes near the Cachy- Hangard
road. They had given way, though not to such a depth
as the troops further north at Villers Bretonneux ; and
battalion headquarters did not move the whole day from
the quarry east of Cachy. But their losses were extremely
heavy, including 4 officers and 203 other ranks missing.

* Lieut. -Colonel Chart was awarded the D.S.O. for his services on
this occasion.

s 2



2 6o ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

The 3rd Londons were still in line when the counter-attack
at 10 p.m. on the 24th partly restored the positions of
their left flank, and on the following day they saw a
further German attack broken up by British artillery.
Both battalions were relieved on this day. The 2/2
Londons were not engaged, nor were the nth Royal
Fusiliers, who were in support to the 58th Division. But
the 3rd and the 2/4th played no mean part in an action in
which the enemy were first decisively checked in the
Somme area, and then pushed out of their momentary
gains.



XIV



SALONIKA



After their heavy losses at Loos the 3rd Battalion were
withdrawn from the line for a brief rest, had a term of
trench duty near Givenchy, and then entrained for Mar-
seilles. On October 25th, just a month after the battle
of Loos, they embarked for Alexandria, where they
remained about a month. By December, 1915, they had
reached Salonika. The troops found little to occupy them.
For the first six months they were in the standing camp at
Salonika, with the Bulgars some thirty miles away, across
the frontier. They were accommodated for some time in
tents and dug-outs in a small depression of the hills, west
of the Dehrbend Pass. The Lembet Plain and the bay to
the south made a very beautiful vista, and on a good day
Mount Olympus looked scarcely ten miles away. For work
the battalion had to turn their hand to the construction
of observation posts for the artillery and also to road-
making.

One or two air raids were all that gave a touch of excite-
ment to life. The only provision against aircraft at this
time was a few 18-pounder guns set up on improvised
carriages. On one occasion the enemy airmen had a
great success. The German airmen who crossed the lines
on March 27th just after dawn dropped a bomb on the
ammunition dump, which contained practically the whole
reserve stock. There was a tremendous explosion, and a
column of smoke rose high in the air and spread out like
a mushroom.

Another break in the monotony was the four days'
brigade trek which began on April 4th. Its real object
was to give the men some chance of stretching their legs.



262 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

They marched in shirt-sleeves, but without helmets, as
these had not yet been issued. The country is very fine,
but the brambles, which are alive with tortoises, made
marching the reverse of comfortable. Camp fires were
allowed at night ; and with a flute, two drumsticks and
a canteen lid, an improvised band filled the air with
music. Shortly after the return from this trek the
battalion, being among the troops selected to represent
the British infantry at the presentation of the G.C.M.G.
to General Sarrail, paraded for a rehearsal. In the midst
of this a wolf galloped across the front of the troops. Wild
wolves had been heard of, but this was the first one seen.
On May 3rd the battalion started on an eight days'
divisional trek. When they returned numerous kit
inspections were held in anticipation of the movement
north to the Struma. The hitherto accepted excuse for
the loss of any article — •" Lost at Vermelles, sir ! " — had
to be finally abandoned.

In June the battalion with the 85th Brigade moved
north to reinforce the 22nd Division in the Vardar Valley,
and as the aeroplanes then available could only fly between
8 a.m. and 4 p.m., the troops were confined to those hours
for marching. They had got as far as Sarigeul, on the
Salonika-Seres-Constantinople railway, when they were
ordered back to go to the Struma hills. Marching in
the hot weather was an almost unendurable strain, and
the 3rd Battalion have an imperishable memory of Whit
Monday's march. In spite of a long midday rest, the heat
had been so trying that many men fainted on getting into
camp. When the men reached a well near Orljak Bridge
there was almost a free fight for water. They at length
reached Tureka and camped around the village. Road-
making again became the order of the day. The Struma
lay a mile to the east, and in the dry weather it seemed
unbearably inviting. But some French soldiers had been
drowned, and bathing was forbidden. This order was
obeyed until, at a certain spot, cattle were seen standing
in the river to drink. It was also forbidden to cross the



LIFE AT SALONIKA 263

Struma ; but the sight of some wild ducks proved too
much, and some shooting took place in which the sports-
men did not trouble about a kit.

In the summer malaria began to make inroads on the
troops. Drafts reaching the country seemed to be
attacked almost immediately on arrival. Yet, in spite
of this scourge, the men worked well at the arduous occupa-
tion of roadmaking ; but it was decided to move camp,
for the sake of health, to the hills. After a few weeks'
stay there the Fusiliers moved via Paprat to Petkovo,
on the southern crest of the Krusha Balkans ; and the
battalion were given some five miles to prepare for defence
on the right of the French. On arrival the Petkovo
Valley was full of cattle, and permission was asked to
drive them behind the lines. This was refused, and the
cattle were seized later by the Bulgars ! The minor
operations preparatory to the entry of Rumania into the
war took place, but they were eclipsed by the advance
of the enemy armies into Greece. One morning
(August 17th, 1 916) the Bulgarian Army was seen to be
moving southward through the Rupel Pass. They
approached the Struma, and in this way began that long
series of minor exchanges which lasted till the end of the
Salonika campaign. The battalion for the most part were
merely spectators, being almost invariably in support.
At one point it was decided to clear all the villages to our
front, and the inhabitants were evacuated to the west.
As the French had received orders to evacuate them to the
east, they had a bad time until this matter was straigh-
tened out. It was a strange life the troops led in these
months. A sort of pigeon English had been invented in
order to communicate with the local inhabitants. The
exordium was generally " Hi, boy ! " and the peroration
" Finish, Johnny " — brief, clear and pointed.

On October 23rd the battalion advanced into the valley
for winter, and camped at Lositza. The Italians had
replaced the French on the left of the battalion, and the
men made some experiments with wine bought from our



264 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

allies. The Italians appeared to be always singing, but
the amount of work they got through was wonderful.
The Fusiliers were really startled when a soldier arrived in
camp wounded through the arm. They had been in the
Balkans for nearly a year, and this was their first casualty
at the hands of the enemy. They were now stationed near
the issue of the Butkova River from the lake, and the
Bulgars were on the other side. The mountain battery
used to water and wash their mules in the river until the
authorities decided to stir up the Bulgars. A patrol of
No. 4 Company was ordered to cross the river by a pontoon.
The Bulgars resisted, and Major Burnett Hitchcock, who
was second in command, was wounded ; a soldier who was
also wounded died on the way to the ambulance.

The Butkova Crossing.— On November 24th, 1916,
the attempt to cross the river was renewed. Two
platoons of D Company with two canvas pontoons lay
concealed on the bank opposite the creek. It was heavy
mist that morning, and the mountain battery could not
open fire till 8.30. The boats were lowered into the water ;
and two men, already stripped, swam across under heavy
rifle fire, with telephone lines attached to towing ropes,
covered by two platoons with Lewis guns. The boats
were pulled across by means of these ropes, and the troops,
moving up the northern bank of the river, occupied two
Bulgar trenches. Half of a covering platoon crossed with
picks and shovels, and began to organise the position.
Patrols were posted in the adjacent woods, and the men
remained in the captured positions until the afternoon of
the following day. At 6.0 that morning the Bulgars
counter-attacked, and in the mist reached the wire.
They were then dispersed. The battalion lost three
wounded in this small operation, and inflicted 15 casualties
on the Bulgars. One of the latter was taken prisoner,
and the Fusiliers recrossed the river after securing the
information they had set out to obtain. Another similar
raid took place on November 28th.

In January, 1917, the battalion crossed the Struma and



ACTION OF MAY 15TH 265

moved into trenches near Barakli-Djuma, where they
remained until May 17th. Their sector of trenches lay
about a third of a mile west and north-west of Barakli-
Djuma. During their first ten days in the trenches,
which were now close up to the Bulgar positions, they were
shelled at intervals throughout the day. In February
malaria began to make inroads on the unit. Forty-five
cases were treated, and 1 officer and 12 other ranks were
evacuated to hospital. It was not a good preparation for
active operations ; and their role in the readjustments
preparatory to the April offensive was to prevent the
Bulgars moving their troops to the Doiran sector, where
the army was to attack. This was achieved by a demon-
stration on March 2nd, when the battalion suffered five
casualties. During this month 98 men were detained
with malaria, and 58 were evacuated to the field hospital ;
and in April the number sent to hospital had increased to
80, including 1 officer.



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 22 of 38)