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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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gas. The 17th Royal Fusiliers, who were in support,
had 92 casualties from this cause, and the 23rd Battalion
lost 14 officers and 369 men. Gas does not seem to have
proved so terrible a weapon to other units ; and this, with
the strange differences of movement and achievement
among the troops, goes to round off an attack which,
though successful in the main, reads like failure in the
detailed experience of many of the battalions who carried
it out.

But on this day, August 22nd, the attack was extended
according to plan. The Third Army advance had brought
their front forward to positions before Achiet le Grand and
along the north bank of the Ancre. The action of August
22nd on the Fourth Army front was designed to bring
forward their left in preparation for a joint attack of both
armies on August 23rd. The enemy had to be driven out
of his positions in and around Albert, and the nth Royal
Fusiliers were involved in the capture of the ground
between Meaulte and Albert. They had first to cross the
Ancre, and the trestle bridges made by the R.E. were
placed in position on the night of August 21st. It was
bright moonlight, and many of the men seemed to regard
the undertaking as a joke. As a consequence the atten-
tion of the enemy was aroused, and the men came under a
heavy machine-gun fire. Private F. G. Hughes, finding
one of the bridges could not be placed for this reason,
jumped into the river and pulled the bridge into position,
despite the concentrated fire from three machine guns.

u a



292 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

The patrols anticipated the barrage, and seizing * a foot-
hold on the Albert-Meaulte road above Vivier Mill,
enabled the nth Battalion to cross the Ancre and form
up on this road. In front of them lay a belt of marshy
ground which, outside a few paths, was quite impassable-
Frequently the men had to wade with the water up to
their hips, and Sergeant Ryan, seeing two platoons held
up in the marsh, went back under an intense fire and
guided them by a path to the German position. C.S.M.
Balchin reorganised his company under similar conditions,
and headed the assault on the first position. Wounded
men were in danger of drowning ; but the gallantry of
Private C. Smith, in charge of the stretcher-bearers, saved
many by repeatedly crossing the treacherous ground,
despite the enemy's fire. The battalion, through these
and other acts of cool courage, carried their front to about
500 yards east of Bellevue Farm, with their left bent back
to Black Wood. Until the brigade on their left got
through Albert no further progress could be made, and
the battalion were relieved in these positions.

A little to the south the 9th Royal Fusiliers went for-
ward on a front of 1,000 yards to a depth of 2,500 yards,
keeping pace on their left with the 5th Royal Berks, who
captured and cleared up Meaulte. The 9th Royal Fusiliers,
with an easier task, overcame the resistance in their front
readily, and for a total casualty list of 83 captured 100
prisoners, twelve machine guns and four trench mortars.
Unfortunately among the casualties were Lieutenant H. A.
Kilmister, Second Lieutenant L. F. Wade, and Second
Lieutenant A. H. King killed ; and the experience of the
day proved the need of officers.

Bullecourt. — On the following day the main attack
was launched as far north as Mercatel, and by the end of
the month the British positions on this front had changed
remarkably. The 1st, 2nd and 4th Londons — 56th
Division — had in front of them a region of country that

* " This very well-executed enterprise " (" The Story of the Fourth
Army," p. 76).



FIGHTING AT BULLECOURT, AUGUST, 1918 293

had never yielded much to the repeated assaults of both
British and German troops. At the beginning of the
German offensive the front had only been some four and a
half miles to the east. Over a week's hard fighting was
now necessitated to carry the positions over the five miles,
including Bullecourt. On the 23rd the 4th Londons were
in the centre of the brigade who carried Boyelles and the
ground up to Summit Trench, 1,000 yards west of Croi-
silles. Less than 3,000 yards to the east lay the Hinden-
burg line, and the 1st Londons pitted B and D Companies
against this obstacle on August 24th. But five belts of
wire lay in front of them, and the attack was unsuccessful.
Fooley Trench (south-west of Fontaine les Croisilles) and
Fooley Post provided the objectives for several further
abortive attacks. The 1st Londons made an attempt on
the 25th, but without success. They were relieved on the
following day by the 2nd Londons, who, attacking due
east towards the Hindenburg line, captured and cleared
Fooley Trench, capturing twelve machine guns and four
prisoners. The wounded still remaining in No Man's Land
from an earlier counter-attack were collected under fire
by a party under Second Lieutenant G. H. Merrikin, who
lost his life while so doing. Croisilles, which formed the
objective of another unit this day, was as yet unreduced,
and the battalion came under heavy enfilade fire from the
right, the northern corner of the village. But they fought
on against a heavy resistance up Sensee Avenue, when,
reduced to 2 officers and 63 other ranks, they were ordered
to stand and abandon the attempt to advance further^
They consolidated with a line of strong posts. In this
battle they lost 9 officers and 199 other ranks.

On March 28th the 4th Londons relieved the 2nd, and
they had the distinction of twice fighting through Bulle-
court in the next few days. On the 31st, in about half an
hour after the beginning of the attack, the left company
(D) were half-way through the northern end of the village.
The right company (C) were at this time held up, but the
support company entered the village and began to " mop



294 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

up." Slow progress was made, but by 8.40 a.m. the left
company were through the northern end of the village and
in touch with the Middlesex. The reserve company rilled
the gap between the two leading companies, and C
Company were able to push through to the east, where
they were held up some time by machine guns in a derelict
tank. At 3 p.m. the village was clear of the enemy, and
Lewis-gun posts were established across the eastern out-
skirts. After this very useful attack the battalion were
relieved on September 1st. The three battalions of the
London Regiment lost in the August operations 38 officers
and 805 other ranks, and after the recapture of Bulle-
court they were withdrawn to refit.

The Lys. — Meanwhile the rest of the front had changed
more rapidly. Even in the Lys area the German gains
were being surrendered. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers returned
to the sector of the line, which in April had seen their
brave but unsuccessful attempts to check the German
advance, on August 17th, and two days later co-operated
with the attack on Outtersteene Ridge by sending out
patrols to Lynde Farm. It was thought that in this
sector with a little persuasion the line could be advanced,
but a very hot machine-gun fire soon brought disillusion.
Second Lieutenant Quinn was killed, with 5 other ranks,
while 15 men were wounded. A planned attack was
delivered at 5 p.m. on the 19th. The fortified farms
Lynde and Lesage were captured ; and W Company, on
the right, also assisted the 12th Norfolks in the capture of
Labis Farm. The battalion that night held a line in front
of the sector of the Vieux Berquin-Outtersteene road,
running from the cross roads to the railway. Their total
casualty list was 73 killed and wounded, including Second
Lieutenants Whyte and Brown killed ; but they took
prisoner 1 officer and no men and captured ten machine
guns and two trench mortars. On the next two days
patrols were pushed forward to Haute Maison, over
1,000 yards due east. No opposition was met, and the
forward positions were consolidated.



RECOVERY OF KEMMEL HILL 295

Kemmel Hill. — A more important readjustment of
the line took place before the end of the month on the
northern face of the Lys sector. The 26th Royal Fusiliers
had moved to this part of the front at the end of June,
their division relieving the French troops who were then
holding it. When they went into the front line on July
10th the defences still showed signs of bitter fighting.
The front line companies held shallow rifle pits without
any communications. They were consequently confined
to their positions during the long summer days, and could
only leave them in the brief hours of darkness. Even then
the commanding position of Kemmel Hill made movement
risky. Despite all handicaps, Second Lieutenants Hector
and Freemantle took out a raiding party of B Company
towards the end of the month and secured the necessary
identifications.* They were relieved by American troops
on July 31st, but returned to the line on August 29th.
They were due to be relieved on August 31st, but on the
preceding evening they were very heavily shelled. About
9 p.m. the barrage appeared to be directed on the German
front line positions ; and, appreciating the significance of
this procedure at once, the commanding officer sent out
patrols under Second Lieutenant K. B. Legg and Second
Lieutenant F. J. Quinton. The German front line was
reported evacuated, and it was inferred that the Germans
were abandoning Kemmel Hill. The relief was cancelled ;
and C Company, under Lieutenant W. Willson, were
ordered to follow up the retirement. They began to move
forward before dawn, and were half-way up the western
slope before they met with any opposition. A very heavy
machine-gun fire was then experienced from the left, and
the company were halted while scouts went forward. At
10.30 a.m. C and D Companies crossed the hill and
advanced down the eastern slopes. In the lower ground
the enemy could be seen retiring covered by small rear-
guards. The 26th Battalion now formed part of an
organised advance ; and they rapidly pushed eastwards

* Both these officers received the M.C.



296 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

about a mile and a half, in which position they were relieved
in the morning of September ist. The only casualties
were two men wounded in one of the most bitterly con-
tested areas on the whole of the front, a striking indication
of the different tempo of the fighting. The Lys front was
yielding, and the 2nd Battalion advanced on August 31st
and September ist to a line from La Becque to a point
about 1,000 yards due west of La Creche. The German
guns had been moved back, and only a few shells and

occasional snipers met the troops as they advanced.
» * * *

Meanwhile the main attack had been delivered to the
south. On August 23rd the 4th Royal Fusiliers were to
advance with the general movement of the 3rd Division.
As the 76th Brigade moved on Gomiecourt at 4 a.m., the
9th were to complete the capture of the railway. The
2nd Division were to pass through the 3rd Division at
11 a.m. with the 37th Division on their right ; but at
10.20 a.m. the 9th Brigade were ordered to fill the gap
between the 2nd and 37th Divisions, the Northumberland
Fusiliers being followed by the 4th Royal Fusiliers. The
Northumberland Fusiliers accordingly advanced about a
mile beyond the railway and the 4th Royal Fusiliers closed
up to the west side of the line.

The 24th Royal Fusiliers, who went through with the
2nd Division at 11 a.m., met with a heavy artillery fire at
once. In crossing the railway they also suffered from
rifle fire directed from a small post on their right. Gomie-
court was left on the south, and the battalion swung to
the right in the face of a heavy fire from all arms. Their
way was pitted by 8-inch shells, and machine-gun fire met
them on both flanks. The conditions, in fine, were almost
intolerable ; but the battalion went through the barrage,
cool, unhurried, unfaltering, and, with the Highland Light
Infantry, they reached and consolidated the ridge west of
Behagnies. Here a field gun, limbers, and eight horses
were captured, with much booty, including a number of
valuable documents.



THE 13TH BATTALION'S FINE SUCCESS 297

C Company of the 17th Battalion, advancing in support
of the 1st King's attack a little to the north, captured five
77-mm. guns. The 23rd Battalion provided a composite
company, who also attacked in this sector of the front, and
succeeded in securing positions just west of Sapignies.

Achiet le Grand. — The 13th Royal Fusiliers, attack-
ing on the south-west, had a more stirring time. No. 2
Company, under Captain Whitehead, M.C.,* on the left
front, skilfully turned the brickworks west of Achiet le
Grand, capturing 60 prisoners and n light machine guns ;
but No. 3 Company, on the right, met with intense machine-
gun fire on the top of the railway embankment. The
Germans were in good cover, and could not be easily located.
The attack was held up temporarily, and then, under
cover of a heavy and sustained fire, the men were enabled
to crawl up the embankment and enfilade the enemy. A
Lewis-gun team rushed across and took the Germans in
the rear. Indeed, this was a fight of fights. The team
were picked off one by one, but not before they had so
demoralised the Germans that a sudden rush finished the
struggle. The cutting was like a rabbit warren. It was
simply alive with Germans, and their surrender was almost
embarrassing. Dug-out after dug-out was cleared. One of
them disgorged a German staff, including an officer who
spoke English. He was promptly pressed into service,
and went round with the mopping-up party. His authori-
tative orders to come out and surrender were obeyed with
alacrity. Out of this cutting at least 400 Germans were
taken, with many light and heavy machine guns. The
position had been thought so secure that in one of the
dug-outs a meal had just been taken. Hot coffee lay on
the table. It was one of the greatest days experienced
by the battalion, and their right flank was apparently in
the air. Patrols were sent down for 1,000 yards without
locating any other troops. The cutting was crossed, and
the advance was resumed. Through the battalion's col-
lecting station that day over 1,000 prisoners passed, and

* He received the D.S.O. for his services on this day.



298 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

the battalion's casualties from the 21st to the 27th in-
clusive were little more than a fifth of this number.
Captain J. Marguard and Second Lieutenant A. McCarthy
were killed in this engagement, and 5 officers were
wounded.

The 10th Royal Fusiliers passed through to attack
Achiet le Grand at 1.30 p.m., after the village had been
bombarded for an hour. D Company were on the left,
A on the right, with B in the centre. The village held a
large German garrison ; but apparently the crushing of the
resistance in the cutting to the west, combined with the
bombardment, had broken their morale, for Second Lieu-
tenant W. F. Smith With his platoon, only 19 strong, alone
captured 118 of the enemy. The village was soon cleared
and the battalion advanced to the east ; but their right
flank was in the air and so continued throughout the day
and night. About 200 yards south of the village the
enemy were still in possession of a strong post, and a
heavy machine-gun fire was kept up from this quarter.
The village was also heavily bombarded ; but there were
few casualties, as the battalion had withdrawn to the east.
On the following day the battalion were relieved and went
back to the dug-outs in the cutting which had been so
skilfully cleared by the 13th Royal Fusiliers.

Behagnies. — The attack of the 24th Royal Fusiliers
on August 23rd carried the battalion to the ridge west of
Behagnies, while the 23rd Battalion were moving to the
threshold of Sapignies. On the 25th Behagnies, Sapig-
nies, and Favreuil were attacked, the first and last by the
Royal Fusiliers to whom they fell. In effect, the troops
were aiming at the northern flank of Bapaume. On the
24th the 17th Royal Fusiliers had co-operated in the
attack upon Mory. The contribution of the regiment to
the successes of the 25th was more significant. The 24th
Battalion had spent a day in reorganisation and prepara-
tion for the resumption of the attack. The assault began
at 3.30 a.m., and was a complete surprise. Behagnies was
strongly held, and there were no machine guns. But



CAPTURE OF FAVREUIL, AUGUST 25TH 299

the troops followed the barrage so closely that they were
upon the positions before the elaborate defences could be
manned. Many of the men were sleeping in their dug-
outs. These for the most part recognised the inevitable
and surrendered. Some who attempted to escape were
promptly shot down. The support company did their
work of mopping up thoroughly and expeditiously, while
the leading companies pushed through the village towards
their objective, the ridge about 300 yards east of Behag-
nies. This was occupied and put into a state of defence ;
and the support company, having completed their work
in the village, took up positions to guard the southern
approaches. Many young and untried troops took part
in this action. It was their first battle, but they behaved
with all the sang froid of veterans. At 6 p.m. the village
was completely in the hands of the battalion with 200
prisoners, a number which exceeded the total casualties
of the battalion for the two days' operations.

Favreuil. — In the afternoon of the same day the 10th
Royal Fusiliers moved up in support to their brigade,
passing through a heavy barrage straight to Favreuil.
Five hundred yards west of the village they found the
13th King's Royal Rifle Corps held up by a heavy machine-
gun fire. The battalion were intended to attack from the
west and north-west, but under the circumstances such
action would have been costly folly. The battalion
accordingly moved southward, and achieving a position
from which they enfiladed the enemy lying on the west of
the village, caused them to surrender. The orchard and
north-west corner of the village were still strongly held
with numerous machine guns. When darkness fell a
concerted attempt was made to reduce these positions.
Second Lieutenant C. W. N. Woodcock with a platoon
moved along the northern edge of the village. Machine
guns opened fire upon them from the orchard, and several
were rushed. Another platoon moved through the centre
of the village, and established contact with the 13th Rifle
Brigade on the east side. This platoon also came under



300 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

fire from the orchard, but towards midnight the two
platoons began to approach each other, and the enemy
withdrew under the threat of envelopment. A gap
between the 13th Rifle Brigade, 400 yards east of the
village, and the New Zealand Division, was filled by two
platoons of A Company, under Second Lieutenant A. W.
Usher. The village was completely held by 3 a.m. on
August 26th, but the battalion had not achieved contact
with the 2nd Division on the north. A few hours later
they were relieved.

Thilloy. — The 63rd Division on August 26th attempted
to capture Thilloy, Ligny Thilloy and Riencourt. But the
two brigades devoted to this attack were held up before
the first two villages, and in the renewed attack on the
following day the 7th Royal Fusiliers advanced with the
4th Bedfords. The day appeared to be out of joint. At
11 a.m. the barrage began, and was short, many casualties
being inflicted on the troops assembled for attack. The
first assault, launched with such handicaps, produced
nothing but further casualties. In the afternoon another
attack was delivered, and the troops penetrated into the
village of Thilloy. But the battalion were now seriously
weakened, and the losses of officers were particularly
heavy. The surviving men, being leaderless, at length
withdrew ; and the battalion were relieved after a
disastrous day.

Towards Peronne. — Meanwhile the Royal Fusiliers in
the III. Corps had been heavily engaged against a growing
resistance north of the Somme. On August 25th the
second line London battalions and the 9th and nth Royal
Fusiliers were all involved in the attack. Moving from
positions west of Bronfay Farm, the 2/2 and 2/4 Londons
pushed well forward to the east of the Carnoy-Suzanne
road. The 2/2nd at the end of the day lay astride the
Fricourt-Maricourt road east of Carnoy, after capturing
Carre Wood and an elaborate trench system ; while the
2/4th held positions to the north-east of Billon Wood, which
they had captured after a very fierce struggle. To the



TERRITORIALS CAPTURE MARICOURT 301

north the 9th Royal Fusiliers advanced on a front of 1,200
yards to a depth of about 2,000 yards, carrying the line
forward to the south-western edge of Fricourt. Patrols
were sent eastward along the north-west edge of Mametz,
and reported the village evacuated. Fricourt was also
found to be clear of the enemy at the same time, and
the division advanced. But this weakening resistance did
not confront the nth Royal Fusiliers, who, attempting
to capture the high ground in front of Montauban, en-
countered a most stubborn resistance, and were unable to
capture their objectives. The struggle was renewed on
the following day, and fighting vigorously across ground
where they had first gained their spurs, the battalion
pressed into Montauban.

The 3rd Londons on this day (August 26th) represented
the Fusilier Brigade. Attacking at very short notice
astride the Peronne road, the battalion had gained all
objectives by 9.30 a.m. Their final line lay across the
western outskirts of Maricourt. B Company, indeed, had
entered the village, but had been forced to retire. The
village was attacked and carried on the 27th, and on the
following day the 2/2 Battalion captured the German
positions between Bois d'en Haut and Support Copse,
while the 9th Royal Fusiliers, on their left, advanced about
2,000 yards to their objectives. Hardecourt fell to them,
and 50 prisoners of various battalions of the 2nd Guards
Division with sixteen machine guns. They had suffered
heavily from machine-gun fire, but the capture of prisoners
from a famous division was an inspiriting performance.
The second line Londons on August 26th received a note of
well-earned praise from their Brigadier : " The Major-
General commanding the division, in congratulating you
all, wishes me to tell you that Sir Douglas Haig, the Army
Commander, and the Corps Commander, have all expressed
the highest praise for the way in which the brigade is
fighting. For myself, I cannot say how proud I am to be
in command of such a brigade as the Fusilier Brigade."

At 5.15 a.m. on August 30th the nth Royal Fusiliers



302 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

advanced through the Northants. The preceding day the
brigade had gone forward in column of route, the leading
companies alone being in open formation, and with little
resistance had reached the edge of Combles. But the nth
Battalion came under heavy fire and were held up at Priez
Farm. By this time this battalion had secured during
August 3 officers and 450 other ranks prisoners. They
had received a letter of warm congratulation from Sir
Henry Rawlinson for their feat in crossing the Ancre, and,
indeed, their action had been deserving of all praise.

On August 31st the 4th Battalion, who had moved up to
positions south-east of Ecoust, attacked eastwards. Ten
minutes before zero the assembly positions were subjected
to a heavy shell and machine-gun fire, and there were
many casualties ; and when our barrage began, five minutes
later, it missed the chief obstacles in the way of the Royal
Fusiliers' advance. As a consequence, while the battalions
on both flanks advanced with little trouble, the 4th Royal
Fusiliers were decisively checked by machine-gun fire from
the sunken road, about 250 yards to the east. Z Company
made several most gallant attempts to reach these guns,
but the men were mown down, and all the officers but one
became casualties. The tank which should have assisted
in coping with this obstacle caught fire a few minutes
before zero. Another tank broke down actually in the
road, and a German officer, climbing on top of it, shot or
took prisoner the whole of the crew. A machine-gun nest
in the south of Ecoust also devoted too much attention to
the battalion, who were completely held up. About 8 p.m.
the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers cleared the sunken road
under a creeping barrage, and before dawn on September
1st the 4th Royal Fusiliers had advanced 1,500 yards. At
6 p.m. on the same day, with only eight casualties, the
battalion carried the line still further, clearing the sunken



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 25 of 38)