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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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road midway between Longatte and Noreuil. In this
operation 70 prisoners and several machine guns and trench
mortars were captured.

As a result of the fighting since August 8th, the enemy


had been beaten out of his positions over a great stretch
of front. " During the night of September 2nd— 3rd he
fell back rapidly on the whole front of the Third Army.
By the end of the day he had taken up positions along the
general line of the Canal du Nord from Peronne to Ytres,
and thence east of Hermies, Inchy en Artois and Ecourt
St. Quentin to the Sensee east of Lecluse."* The retire-
ment was promptly followed up. At 5.20 a.m. on Sep-
tember 3rd the 17th Royal Fusiliers began to advance.
Only two hours before, they had reached the position,
relieving another battalion, on a line about 1,000 yards
east of Vaux-Vraucourt. With A Company (Captain
Ash well) on the right and B (Captain Sword) on the left,
the battalion rapidly advanced to the first objective, about
5,000 yards from their starting point, and they were
ordered to resume their progress at 1 p.m. Major Smith,
the adjutant, who rode forward to give final instructions,
could not locate the battalion at first ; and they did not
resume the advance until 2.30 p.m. Doignies was soon
passed, but about 1,000 yards to the east they were held
up by machine-gun fire from the neighbourhood of Boursies.
At this point two platoons of C Company were sent up to
make good the casualties in B Company. At 6.20 p.m.
the advance was resumed with the help of artillery, and
Demicourt was taken. At 6.55 p.m. positions were taken
up covering Demicourt and Boursies, which B Company
occupied. At the latter village they were in touch with
the Guards, and on the left they were in contact with the
South Staffords. The battalion had been advancing
almost continuously for over thirteen hours, prepared for
anything, in verification of an inference of the high com-
mand. In this period they had covered some 9,500 yards,|
at a total cost of 52 casualties.

The next day the 13th Royal Fusiliers carried on the

* Despatch.

f The difficulty of representing most movements on a map, except of
large scale, and the striking ease with which this movement can be
shown on a map of almost any reasonable scale, shows sufficiently how
times were changing.


advance a little to the south, but their progress was more
chequered, and at the end of the day they encountered a
firm resistance. They set out at 7 a.m. from near Hermies,
with the purpose of taking up a line east of Havrincourt.
But they had only advanced 200 yards before they were
held up by machine-gun and trench-mortar fire from the
right flank. But the trench mortars were put out of
action and the machine guns compelled to retire, and the
advance was continued. The Canal du Nord runs roughly
parallel to the railway about 1,100 yards south of Hermies,
and then turns northward about 2,000 yards east of the
village. Near the bend, on the southern side, is the
north-western extension of Havrincourt Wood. At the
west corner of the wood a platoon crossed the canal to
the south. The 1/1 Herts, who were on the right of the
13th Battalion, were at this point 500 yards in the rear ;
and the Royal Fusiliers were suffering from enfilade fire
from this quarter. After a halt to enable the Herts to
come up the advance was resumed due eastward, and
Lewis guns were established on Yorkshire Bank. The
right were now once more out of touch, and Germans
could be seen moving up in the wood at the bend of the
canal. The right company were then withdrawn to the
tunnel under the canal a little to the west. On the left
the line was established in front of Square Copse, and in
the evening touch was achieved with the 2nd Division.
The battalion had covered about 2,500 yards in their
advance, but under greater difficulties than had faced the
17th Battalion. The next two days patrols were pushed
out eastward, and the position consolidated in depth at
the same time that it was being advanced.

But the enemy resistance had now definitely hardened
on this part of the front, and the 23rd Royal Fusiliers,
attacking east of Doignies (September 7th) , suffered very
heavily. The Canal du Nord, with the approaches swept
by enemy fire, formed a formidable line of resistance.
Below, from the neighbourhood of Havrincourt, the main
line was the Hindenburg system ; and at this time the


Germans held very strong positions, in advance of the
main trench system, at Havrincourt and Epehy. Before
the attack on the Hindenburg line these outliers had to
be taken. It fell to the Royal Fusiliers to put the strength
of one of these outposts to the test.

Epehy. — Epehy-Pezieres forms topographically not
two, but one feature, and against this position the Fusilier
Brigade of the 58th Division advanced on September ioth.
The battalions were all weak, the 2/2 Londons mustering
only 17 officers and 481 other ranks before the battle.
The 2/2nd and 3rd Londons advanced to the attack at
5.15 a.m. The objective of both battalions was the east
of the two villages. Pezieres was to be taken by the
2/2nd, and Epehy by the 3rd Londons. The German
line in this sector had been heavily reinforced ; and the
Alpine Corps, a body of formidable troops, held the
objectives of the Fusiliers' attack. The advance began
in a heavy storm of driving rain ; and, despite the stubborn
resistance, the objective was gained by both battalions.
But such positions could not be reduced in face of the
resistance of organised garrisons without a much heavier
treatment by artillery and the assistance of tanks. Neither
Epehy nor Pezieres was thoroughly mopped up, and as a
consequence when the counter-attack came the attacking
companies of the 2/2 Londons found themselves sur-
rounded. The men had to fight their way back. They
retired on Tottenham Post, in the north-western outskirts
of Pezieres, with a loss of 8 officers and 164 other ranks.
The 3rd Londons were also compelled to abandon their
objective. They had suffered heavily in the advance
from fire directed from the trenches south of Epehy.
in the afternoon the commanding officer led a bombing
attack on these trenches and succeeded in turning the
Germans out. The remnants of A and C Companies who,
under Captain S. W. Johnson, had held positions on the
railway embankment for some time, were forced back by
the counter-attack from the railway embankment to a
position slightly behind the assembly position. The 3rd

F. X


Londons lost only 7 officers and 8y other ranks, a suffici-
ently heavy casualty list for an unsuccessful action, but
not half the loss of the sister battalion. The 2/4 Londons,
who had been in support and were occupied in mopping
up, took 80 prisoners, twenty machine guns, and three
anti-tank guns. Owing to the difficulty of replacing the
casualties, the 2/4th were amalgamated with the 2/2nd
on September 12th.

On September 12th Trescault and Havrincourt were
taken, and the 24th Royal Fusiliers became involved in
the 2nd Division's attack near Mceuvres. An attempt
by the 10th Royal Fusiliers to capture the Bilhen Chapel
wood switch on the 14th led to one of the most protracted
bitter and evenly contested actions of this phase. For
the next few days the troops were rested and exercised
in preparation for the larger action against the approaches
to the Hindenburg system.

Battle of Epehy. — At 5.20 on the morning of Sep-
tember 1 8th the Fourth and Third Armies struck on a
front of about seventeen miles from Holnon to Gouzeau-
court. North of the main attack the 13th Royal Fusiliers
were engaged on this day in one of those actions that
recurred almost to the very end of the war. The assault
was launched in a rain storm, and the battalion found
themselves held up by a strong belt of wire. The artillery
had failed to destroy it, and there were several bombing
blocks which had escaped untouched. No headway
could be made, although the battalion three times attacked.
After this the attempts ceased, and the battalion retired
to their original positions.

A few miles farther north the 4th Battalion were heavily
attacked by the enemy. At 3.30 p.m. a bombardment
of the battery area began, and three-quarters of an hour
later the front line and headquarters came unc'er an
intense barrage. At 5 p.m. the Germans attacked and
succeeded in penetrating the battalion front in three
places, pushing vigorously along the sunken road and
railway leading into Havrincourt. Captain A. J. Lord,


D.S.O., M.C., and Captain Mabbot, M.C., on the right and
left fronts respectively, counter-attacked, drove the
enemy out and completely re-established the original
front line. Captains Smith and Howard, support and
reserve, threw the Germans back from the exposed left
flank which they had penetrated. Seventy prisoners and
five machine guns were captured. Second Lieutenant E.
Twigg and 19 other ranks were killed, and there were 52
other casualties ; but the honours of this small engage-
ment remained in the hands of the Royal Fusiliers.

In the main attack the two London battalions again
moved against Epehy-Pezieres. The 2/2 Londons were on
the left and the 3rd Londons on the right. Despite the
bad weather and the most obstinate resistance, the two
battalions made excellent progress, and by 10.20 a.m.
had cleared Pezieres all but one post. The 2/2 Londons
found the second stage of the attack more difficult. They
had to cross the tangle of trenches north-west of Pezieres,
and very little impression could be made upon Poplar
Trench. This trench threw a roughly semicircular loop
over the ridge above Catelet Valley, on the road leading
north-west from Epehy. At 9 p.m. Captain White-
head, M.C., attacked it with all the force available, but
was only able to establish three posts on the road below the
trench. It was attacked again at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on
September 19th, and a block was established about half-
way up the trench. Another attack at 11 a.m. made but
slow progress. At 3 p.m. a platoon under Second
Lieutenant A. K. Chesterton reinforced Captain White-
head's party and did good work, but it was not until
7 p.m. that the whole of the trench had been cleared and
touch obtained with the brigade on the right. Every
yard had been fiercely contested, and it says much for
the 2/2 Londons that their persistence at length wore out
a famous German unit. Meanwhile the 3rd Londons had
the task of reducing the strong points in Pezieres. Their
task was made more difficult by the successful resistance
of the Alpine Corps in Epehy. Fisher's Keep, one of the

x 2


objectives of the 3rd Londons, held out until 7.45 p.m.,
when only 17 unwounded men remained of the original
garrison of 3 officers and 45 men. On September 19th
No. 1 Company held four of the enemy posts, and No. 2
had a grip on the railway cutting east of the village.

The 9th Royal Fusiliers moved due east from the rail-
way south of Epehy and north of Ronssoy to their final
objective, about 1,500 yards ahead. The battalion on
the left lost direction, and when the 9th Royal Fusiliers
had reached their final objective, their flanks were in the
air. On the right they had been in touch at the first two
objectives, but not at the final one ; and the resistance in
Epehy disturbed the day's plan. At the end of the day
the battalion dug in on their objectives with Lewis guns
protecting their flanks. They had captured 1 officer
and 65 other ranks from the Alpine Corps and 1st Guard
Grenadier Regiment with seven machine guns. Captain
W. E. Bott and Second Lieutenant G. S. Lowe, killed,
were among the 113 casualties. On September 21st the
9th Royal Fusiliers were again called upon to attack in an
endeavour to secure the final objectives of the 18th ; but,
despite several gallant attempts, little headway could be
made, and the battalion lost very heavily. Eleven
officers were lost, three, Second Lieutenants F. C. L.
Harrup, M.C., V. H. Isaacs and B. Spence, being killed.
These were very important losses, and, with the 270 other
ranks casualties, badly weakened the battalion.

Hard fighting was the lot of all these units in this battle,
but, for the complexus of difficulties involved, the nth
Royal Fusiliers' role must have been almost unique. The
R. W. Rents, attacking with the 54th Brigade, were to
capture and hold a line through the eastern outskirts of
Ronssoy. The Bedfords were to pass through them and
establish a line at the junction of the Bellicourt and Guil-
lemont (farm) roads. The Northants on the left and the
nth Royal Fusiliers on the right had then to form up
and attack northwards, at right angles to the main line of
advance, with May and Lempire among their objectives.


By 7.30 a.m. (September 18th) the nth Battalion were
formed up. This alone was no slight matter under the
circumstances. In the fog the attacking lines of the three
battalions became considerably mixed. Despite the
heavy machine-gun fire about Ronssoy, Captain G. E.
Cornaby exposed himself freely in order to organise his
company ; and this done, he led them forward under the
barrage to almost the whole of their objectives. Captain
Hornfeck with Captain Cornaby " led his men forward,
and, in spite of his exposed right flank and heavy machine-
gun and point-blank artillery fire from that direction,
succeeded in gaining his objective, capturing two field
guns and several trench mortars. On Captain Cornaby
becoming a casualty he took command in this area,
reorganised round the principal strong points and drove
off two counter-attacks."* Some of the men moved
throughout the morning to the whistle of the sergeant-
major as though in extended order drill. To complete
the anomaly, a German prisoner, eating black bread and
sausage, insisted on following the sergeant-major, and,
all threats notwithstanding, cheerfully continued to do so.
But, despite all gallantry and skill, the troops did not reach
their final objectives, and when the 55th Brigade attacked
through them they, too, could make very little headway.
The enemy's resistance on the east of Basse Boulogne and
in Lempire could not be overcome.

In order to complete the capture of the objectives of
September 18th, the attack was resumed at 5.20 a.m.
on the 21st, the nth Royal Fusiliers being in reserve.
But about midday two companies, organised as one, were
attached to the Bedfords, and they were sent forward
against Duncan Post at 12.15 am - on the 22nd. There
was a little moonlight, but not much, and the company,
losing direction, captured Cat Post (500 yards farther
south) and some trench elements, sending back 20
prisoners. There was thus a gap on their left flank.
About 1 p.m. the Bedfords carried Duncan Post with a

* Both of these officers gained the M.C.


number of prisoners. About ioo Germans attempted
to escape eastwards, and the attached Fusiliers gave
chase. In the midst of this incident our barrage came
down to break up a counter-attack farther north, and some
of the Fusiliers were caught in it. Somehow out of the
confusion a solid achievement emerged, and the ground
was cleared for the general offensive.

'C. £ £t*£/j


Major-General Sir Charles Townshend, K.C.B., D.S.O., M.P.



The battles which began with the Franco-American
attack north of Verdun on September 26th logically
opened a new and the last phase of the war. The general
offensive consisted of a series of converging attacks which
' depended in a peculiarly large degree upon the British
attack in the centre. It was here that the enemy's defences
were most highly organised. If these were broken, the
threat directed at his vital systems of lateral communica-
tion would of necessity react upon his defence elsewhere."*
Yet it must be evident that the British armies entered
upon this critical phase weary and weakened from the
almost continual fighting from August 8th. The engage-
ments fought, now here, now there, by the various bat-
talions of the Royal Fusiliers, under great stress and with
heavy casualties, are in their way a fairly just indication
of the state of the Army generally. But when Sir
Douglas Haig decided to embark upon the new offen-
sive against a defensive system of extraordinary strength,
he recognised that never had the morale of the British
troops been higher. This confidence had been fed by a
long series of victories, and as the last phase developed
it was inflamed by the successive defection of Germany's
allies and the German efforts to obtain an armistice.

But it must not be thought that the Germans did not
fight very valiantly through the greater part of this period,
though the resistance was " patchy." Almost to the end
some of the Royal Fusilier battalions had to make their
way against very heavy righting ; and it is part of the
difficulty of describing these last days that in some places

* Despatch.


the battalions covered great distances without meeting
any real resistance over ground that seemed to offer every
evidence of enforced and hasty retreat, through scenes and
experiences entirely novel, while others fought numerous
heavy battles, and could make little headway against the

September 27th. — The British offensive on the St.
Quentin-Cambrai front was not launched as one great
attack. The defence was more formidable on the southern
half of the front, and the British artillery on this sector
laboured under a handicap until the Hindenburg line and
the approaches to Cambrai had been won. In order to
assist the Fourth Army attack, Sir Douglas Haig, therefore,
struck first between Gouzeaucourt and Sauchy-Lestree
on September 27th. On the extreme north of the front of
attack the 2nd Londons, who on the preceding night had
assembled midway between Villers-lez-Cagincourt and
Baralle, advanced to the canal and waited there while the
Canadians cleared up Marquion. They then crossed the
canal, headed by D Company under Captain D. Sloan,
moved through the village and advanced to the first
objective. D Company encountered some resistance on
the canal line, and B, under Captain W. T. Telford, M.C.,
took their section of the line at the double. At 3.28 p.m.
the advance was resumed behind a creeping barrage. A
Company, on the right, went forward as steadily as if on
parade, and their first prisoners were a German doctor and
his Aid Post staff. Sauchy-Lestree was captured with
little difficulty, a company of the London Rifle Brigade
clearing it up while the Londons advanced. Part of
Sauchy-Cauchy was within the battalion's boundaries, and
the troops wheeled left to deal with it. A cleared Cemetery
Wood, and their patrols found numbers of Germans in dug-
outs between it and Oisy le Verger. Some machine-gun
nests north of the wood resisted four attacks, but suc-
cumbed to the fifth, and by 3 a.m. on the 28th the Londons
were on the final objective after a very brilliant advance.
A company (C) continued the advance towards Palluel at


10.30 the following day and established posts between
the village and the Bois de Quesnoy as directed. Besides
much materiel they had captured 6 officers and 454 other
ranks, and their total casualties were only 71. Mean-
while the 4th Londons assisted in clearing up the western
side of the canal up to the railway south-east of

Some miles to the south the 7th Battalion had to attack
over familiar ground. Assembling on the railway west of
Moeuvres, the battalion moved forward at zero (5.20 a.m.)
and crossed the canal without much opposition ; but on
the spur south-west of Bourbon Wood, the final objective,
the Fusiliers had to crush by rifle and machine-gun fire an
attempt to hold them up. The battalion quickly took the
trench on the spur, and reorganised before the 188th
Brigade passed through. Second Lieutenant R. H.
Righton was killed by a shell in the trench ; but the
casualties were few, and the battalion had captured a field
gun, 10 light and 10 heavy machine guns, and 4 officers
and 400 other ranks. They remained in the trench during
the night.

The Royal Fusilier battalions of the 2nd Division were
not engaged this day, but the 17th Battalion, resting at a
place where they had stood after the German counter-
attack in 1917, Lock 7, suffered 32 casualties from a
German aeroplane which secured three direct hits. The
4th Royal Fusiliers carried out a businesslike advance to
Ribecourt. Moving off in artillery formation behind the
1st Northumberland Fusiliers and 13th King's Liverpools
at 8.20 a.m., the battalion's progress was uneventful until
the leading companies found themselves held up by a
machine-gun nest about 800 yards west of the southern
end of Ribecourt. The two support companies then closed
up, and the four companies, advancing in line, surrounded
and captured the post. The battalion were again checked
at the western edge of Ribecourt ; but at 10.30 they had
penetrated into the village, and in another hour they had
crushed all resistance and had begun to consolidate on


the eastern edge of the village. Among their captures on
this day was a 6-inch howitzer.

The Canal Crossing. — On September 28th the 17th
Royal Fusiliers found themselves faced with a task calling
for every spark of their daring and resource. Two
companies, C and D, had been directed after dark on the
preceding day to form a defensive flank on the left of the
brigade, and were ordered to attack on the 28th with the
high ground across the canal, north-east of Noyelles, as
their final objective. By 8.30 a.m. Noyelles had been
captured and the River Scheldt crossed. But the resist-
ance stiffened very considerably at the canal crossings,
and the whole of the division were held up. At this
juncture it was decided to make an attempt to put a
company of the 17th Royal Fusiliers across the canal by
sending them down the river on a raft to the point where
it is crossed by the canal. The plan was to raft the
company under the canal arches, and then land and form
up on the east of the canal. D Company with a platoon
of B were ordered to undertake the task. Second
Lieutenant F. G. Waters was ordered to reconnoitre the
river with a view to the practicability of the operation.
This young officer " swam the Scheldt in broad daylight
with a rope in order to get a raft across for an attack to
be made on the enemy ; and reconnoitred the ground on
the east side with the enemy only fifty yards away. He
was in charge of the leading wave of the attack, and led his
men with great courage and determination against two
machine guns, killing both crews. Later, when the enemy
counter-attacked, he rallied his men and led them forward,
remaining at duty after being wounded." * D Company
started to cross at 5.15 p.m., but the low clearance under-
neath the arches proved too great a handicap ; and the
bulk of the men crossed by the lock bridges in single file
under heavy fire. It is one of the odd chances of war that
these men, silhouetted against the skyline, got across with
extremely few casualties. But their adventures on the

* Official account. He was granted the M.C.


other side speedily reduced their numbers. At 3 a.m. on
September 29th the Germans counter-attacked the King's
Own, on the right, driving them back upon the 17th
Royal Fusiliers. There was much confusion, and many
fell back to the west side of the canal. Captain Spencer,
M.M., assisted by Captains Sword and Panting (CO. of
D Company) rallied the men and restored the situation.
But the machine-gun fire was intense and the casualties
heavy. On the morning of the 29th they were ordered
to take up a position between Paris Copse and Range
Wood, towards the outskirts of Cambrai. They advanced
beyond this line. The CO. and Captain Spencer (Adju-
tant) went forward to bring them back and organise them
in depth. This was done, and C Company formed a
defensive flank on the right until the battalion were
relieved a little before midnight. The establishment of
this bridge-head, so necessary to the division, and depend-
ing upon multiplied acts of gallantry, cost the battalion
the loss of 249 officers and men.

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 26 of 38)