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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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Vendhuile. — But by this time the Fourth Army attack
had been launched, and the northern front was being
revolutionised. The nth Royal Fusiliers were on the
left of the Fourth Army line, and, forming up at Sart
Farm, about 500 yards south-east of the Lempire, advanced
to their objective, the trench line on the outskirts of
Vendhuile. To this position they held throughout the day
(29th), despite the unwelcome attentions of German
artillery and some short firing of our own guns. As the
enemy were observed to be withdrawing on the following
day, the nth went forward to clear the village. Very
brisk fighting took place before this was accomplished,
but it had been completed when the Bedfords arrived to
help. The battalion were relieved that night, and with
the brigade left the line for a well-earned rest.

Flanders. — Two battalions of the regiment were also
involved in the fourth of the converging attacks men-
tioned by Sir Douglas Haig, the advance in Flanders.
The 2nd Battalion had left the Lys area on September 27th,


and at 5.30 the next morning moved forward from the
position of assembly east of Ypres in support of the Dub-
lins. W and X Companies formed the first wave, and,
passing through the Lancashires at 7.8 a.m., moved after
the Dublins. On the Stirling Castle ridge considerable
opposition was encountered from pill-boxes and from the
short firing of our own artillery ; and the Royal Fusiliers
became involved in the firing line. Several pill-boxes were
smartly cleared, forty prisoners being taken from one and
the garrison of another, who refused to come out, being
put out of action. After passing through the Dublins, the
first opposition was encountered from a trench about
200 yards north of Veldhoek. W Company put an end
to the resistance, capturing 15 prisoners.

A number of pill-boxes were rushed at this point, and
the total of prisoners began to swell. At 9.45 a.m. the
battalion rushed the line Polderhoek Ridge-Cameron
House, and three-quarters of an hour later they crossed
the Menin road and captured Gheluvelt. The positions
which had resisted so obstinately all the earlier assaults
now began to fall into the hands of the troops like ripe
fruit. On this day the 2nd Royal Fusiliers made a
striking advance, suffered very few casualties, and cap-
tured about 300 prisoners, many machine guns, and a
complete battery of 5.9's. That night they formed a
defensive flank to the 88th Brigade, a little to the east of
Hooge. The advance was resumed the following morning,
the Royal Fusiliers being echeloned on the left rear of the
88th Brigade. In spite of heavy machine-gun fire the
ridge across the Menin road, which the Becelaere road
follows, was captured and held. A line was established
on this ridge for about 1,000 yards north of the road, and
on this the battalion remained until night under per-
sistent sniping, machine-gun and shell fire. Up to this
time they had only had 47 casualties in the two days'

On October 1st they relieved the Lancashires at about
the centre of the road between Gheluwe and Dadizeele ;


and on the following morning they attempted to advance
with the 88th Brigade to the capture of Gheluwe. This
was the hardest day's fighting yet experienced in the new
offensive, and despite the utmost gallantry neither the
Royal Fusiliers nor the troops on their right could make
much headway. If the advance had been continued at
the pace of the first two days, Lille would have been out-
flanked. The defence was accordingly strengthened on
this sector, and the battalion were relieved at night after
a heavy day.

The 26th Royal Fusiliers had also been brought up to
the Ypres area for the offensive /and advancing without
artillery support at 2 p.m. (28th) from a position about
100 yards west of Canada Tunnels, met with no resistance
worth speaking of, except from snipers, for 3,000 yards.
At this point the battalion faced Green Jacket ridge, where
a stubborn resistance was experienced. On reaching the
crest they encountered a heavy fire, and a counter-attack
was attempted from Dumbarton Wood. But D Company
on the left charged down the slope under Lieutenant H.
Van Der Weyden and broke up the German counter-
attack with very heavy loss. The battalion then resumed
their advance to a line a few hundred yards east of Basse -
ville beek, and on this position the battalion rested that
night, D Company forming a defensive flank on the left.
The advance was resumed on the following day, an hour
after dawn, B and C Companies passing through A and D.
At the outset many casualties were suffered from rifle and
machine-gun fire ; but this did not prevent the battalion
reaching their objective, the road running north-east from
Houthem to the Tenebrielen-Zandvoorde road. At this
stage the 123rd Brigade passed through and advanced
towards Comines, but they were beaten back and retired
through the 124th Brigade's line. The 26th Royal
Fusiliers held their positions that night, and at 2 a.m.
rations came up, and they had their first food for twenty-
four hours. A and D were in the van once more when the
advance began on September 30th. There were numerous


small and fierce encounters as the battalion moved south-
east, but they reached their objective, the railway about
Godshuis, and posts were pushed out to the Lys. In this
very striking advance of three days the battalion's casual-
ties only totalled 61, killed, wounded and missing. They
spent eight more days in this area, constantly under shell
fire, prepared for anything, before they were relieved.

Towards Cambrai. — The 7th Royal Fusiliers attacked
at 6.30 on the morning of September 30th from positions
east of the Proville-Mt. St. (Euvre road, while two com-
panies of the 23rd Battalion advanced against Mt. St.
(Euvre. It was a very difficult area for attack, and the
7th Battalion, after advancing about 200 yards with the
barrage, were held up by machine-gun fire from the north
and the east. The same reason accounted for the non-
success of A and B Companies of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers.
On the following day the 24th Royal Fusiliers were engaged
in much the same area. To co-operate with the attack of
another division on Rumilly, two companies of the 24th
Battalion were ordered to clear the ground north-east of
the village and establish a line east of the railway. The
attack on Rumilly began at 5.45 p.m., and at 6.30 B Com-
pany, with four platoons in line, advanced close up to the
barrage and rushed the enemy positions. There were two
quarries, honeycombed with dug-outs. B were only 3
officers and 67 other ranks strong at this time, but they
captured over 200 prisoners and 50 machine guns, and the
supporting company were able to pass through and
establish the fine east of the railway with ease. The
position was consolidated after a very striking success.

Le Catelet. — On October 4th the 3rd Royal Fusiliers
again made an appearance on the Western front. They
had arrived at Dieppe on July 14th, and, after resting and
training, had marched up towards the battle zone two
months later as one of the battalions of the 149th Brigade,
50th Division. They marched throughout the night of
October 3rd, and at 6.10 in the morning of the following
day they advanced between Le Catelet and Vendhuile


upon the redoubt at Richmond Copse. It was not an
advance that one would choose. The battalion had to
move down the slope to the Scheldt Canal and then up a
valley on the opposite side. They were enfiladed on both
flanks, from the neighbourhood of Vendhuile and from Le
Catelet. But they reached their objective at 7.30 a.m.,
and then, finding themselves practically isolated, had to go
back step by step to near their starting point. They had
swept a path clean, taking some 300 prisoners from
machine-gun teams, so that the 4th King's Royal Rifles
could advance over the same ground in the evening with
few casualties ; but they had lost very heavily. Lieut. -
Colonel E. H. Nicholson, D.S.O., Captains R. T. T. C. Chad-
wick and J. M. McLaggan, M.C., R.A.M.C, Captain and
Adjutant W. T. Humphries, Lieutenants E. C. Nepean,
R. A. L. Davies, C. E. P. Cross, B. J. O'Connor and Second
Lieutenant H. Marsh were killed * ; 2 officers were
wounded, and there were 139 other ranks casualties. Few
actions of the Royal Fusiliers had been more tragic.
Many had been more costly, but very few had carried the
troops to their objective only to see them compelled to
fall back almost to the starting point with the bulk of
their leaders killed.

This point forms a natural division in the British offen-
sive. By October 5th the first phase had been completed.
" The enemy's defence in the last and strongest of his
prepared positions had been shattered. The whole of the
main Hindenburg defences had passed into our possession,
and a wide gap had been driven through such near branch
systems as had existed behind them. The effect of the
victory upon the subsequent course of the campaign was
decisive. The threat to the enemy's communications was
now direct and instant, for nothing but the natural
obstacles of a wooded and well-watered countryside lay
between our armies and Maubeuge." f

* This appears to have been the greatest number of officers killed in
any one action of the Royal Fusiliers.
t Despatch.


Second Battle of Le Cateau. — " The second and
concluding phase of the British offensive now opened, in
which the Fourth and Third Armies and the right of the
First Army moved forward with their left flank on the
canal line which runs from Cambrai to Mons, and their
right covered by the First French Army." * The first
stage of the subsequent fighting began with the second
battle of Le Cateau, which was launched on October 8th.

The 7th Royal Fusiliers were in position near Niergnies
on the morning of the battle, and held their position while
the division secured their objectives. During the day
the enemy counter-attacked with tanks ; but the assault
was easily beaten off, and when the battalion left the line
at night they had only suffered three casualties. The
23rd Battalion at the same time attacked and captured
Forenville, and, despite a number of counter-attacks, held
it all day. The 4th Royal Fusiliers, attacking a little to
the south at 4.30 a.m., had gained their objective in less
than two hours, but were ordered to assist the 13th
King's in a further attack on the second objective at
12.40 p.m. The battalion pushed ahead on to the slope
north of Serainvillers, but were there held up by a con-
verging machine-gun and artillery fire. Heavy casualties
were sustained in this position, and the battalion became
too weak to hold on to the forward line. They retired to
the line west of Serainvillers, and at two o'clock the next
morning withdrew to Masnieres to enable the Guard to
take up the attack. Their total casualties were 121
officers and other ranks ; but against this they could set
128 prisoners, thirteen machine guns, and three guns, and
they had so heavily treated the enemy that the Guards
found very little opposition when they advanced.

Both the 10th and 13th Royal Fusiliers attacked on
this day against the Masnieres-Beaurevoir line. The
final objective of the 10th Battalion was the sunken roads
north-west of Hurtebise Farm. The companies moved
off at 4.34 a.m. close to the barrage, and reached the

* Despatch.


Beaurevoir line to find the wire not sufficiently cut.
There was some difficulty in passing through, and the
machine-gun posts inside the wire took advantage of the
situation. Two platoons of C Company were left to hold
the Beaurevoir line, and the other companies pressed on
and captured Bel Aise Farm, with a considerable number
of prisoners. A platoon of C were left to complete the
mopping up, and the battalion advanced to their final
objectives, which they reached and held, despite an inter-
mittent bombardment throughout the day. The objec-
tive of the 13th Battalion was Hurtebise Farm, about
two miles north-west of Walincourt. They started under
the handicap of having to fight their way to their jumping-
off line, as Bel Aise Farm and part of the Beaurevoir
system were still incompletely cleared. But they went
forward so rapidly that they were within half a mile of
their objective before the barrage had gone sufficiently
far to check the enemy machine guns on the high ground
south of the farm. But Nos. 2 and 3 Companies pushed
straight on, and at 7.15 a.m. had begun to consolidate
their final position. The enemy's fire compelled them to
withdraw from the south and east sides of the farm
until the 1/1 Herts passed through to Briseux Wood.

On the following day they were ordered to continue the
advance in support of the 1/1 Herts, who reached Ligny
en Cambresis without opposition by 8 a.m. Within less
than two hours the 13th Royal Fusiliers had established a
line on the road right and left of the town. They advanced
once more on October 10th to establish strong points on
the south and east of Caudry, thereby cutting off the town
from the east while the 1st Essex carried out a similar
operation on the west. The battalion met with little
resistance, except from our own tanks, which apparently
did not expect British troops so far east, and from the
barrage, which was late. No. 3 Company, finding no
resistance in their path, pushed forward, captured Bethen-
court and threw out a line of outposts to the east. Lieut. -
Colonel Smith and Major Whitehead had in the mean-


time entered Caudry, where they were enthusiastically
received by a large number of French people. In these
three days the battalion had covered a considerable
amount of ground, had captured 200 prisoners and some
twenty machine guns. Their total casualties were 116,
including Second Lieutenant E. M. Rees killed, Second
Lieutenant J. Kinahan died of wounds, and 10 officers
wounded. A few days later General H. Bruce Williams,
G.O.C. 37th Division, inspected the battalion, and com-
mended them in words which deserve record : " I am
extremely pleased with the smartness of the battalion
under extremely trying conditions, and also with your
steadiness on parade. The work you have done under all
circumstances since August 21st, when the offensive
opened, has been of the highest order. At present you are
the making of the 112th Brigade. You have served under
me for two years now, and have never failed me or let me
down. I congratulate you."

The 1st Battalion attacked on October nth from Rieux,
but were caught heavily by the enemy barrage while
assembling for attack. This mischance was but the begin-
ning of a series which dogged the steps of the battalion
during the day. The enemy machine-gun fire was so
sustained that the battalion were definitely held up with
heavy loss before reaching the first objective. Rieux lies
in a shallow valley through which the river Ereclin flows.
To advance meant to ascend, and from the high ground
the enemy were prepared for all such ventures. There
were no tanks available ; but a German tank came up as
the battalion were relieving the 73rd Brigade, fired a few
shots and sheered off. During the night the patrols found
that the enemy had retired, and posts were then estab-
lished on the high ground west of Villers en Cauchies and
St. Aubert. Captain J. H. Jacobs, M.C., Second Lieu-
tenant G. B. Wright, and Second Lieutenant R. W. Reed
were killed on this occasion ; 6 officers were wounded,
and there were 125 other ranks casualties.

Flanders. — While the Third and Fourth Armies were


approaching the Selle River the forces in Flanders were
preparing for another attack, and this was launched on
October 14th. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers, who took part
in this battle, assembled near Ledeghem, and began to
advance at 5.35 a.m. They went straight through the
village, brushing aside the weak resistance in their stride.
The small posts of three or four men here and there were
quickly rushed through the smoke screen. A battery of
field guns was surprised by No. 9 platoon of Y Company
from the flank, and was captured with ease. The enemy
had been so completely taken by surprise that, though
some of the troops carrying the light bridges for the
crossing of the Wulfdambeek lost direction in the smoke
and caused the left flank to cross later than the right, the
objective, the ridge lying north-east of Moorseele, at the
limit of the field artillery barrage, was reached and con-
solidated by 8 a.m. But when the advanced posts were
pushed forward towards the village of Drie Masten, the
troops were caught by machine-gun fire and were com-
pelled to retire to the ridge, where they were shelled by
field guns firing over open sights. In spite of this, the
battalion stood firm until support reached them, and at
length the Dublins and Lancashires advanced from the
ridge. The battalion took 150 prisoners, and captured
twenty machine guns and ten field guns.

The 26th Battalion, attacking in the same action,
fought a confused action north-east of Menin. With the
124th Brigade they were to pass through the 122nd
Brigade, but when the advance began the fog and smoke
made it almost impossible to maintain formation. In
such circumstances the German Army of 1916 would have
taken a terrible toll of the assailants. Fortunately, the
Germans were too weak and too badly shaken at this stage
of the offensive to take full advantage. But in the ob-
scurity small isolated encounters occurred, and the men,
being full of confidence, profited by the chances as they
offered. Second Lieutenant J. Layfield with two men
rushed a field gun, killing the gunner with his revolver. A

y 2


battery of guns suddenly emerged from the fog at full
gallop. But they were brought up by Lewis-gun and rifle
fire and captured. At length, after several hours of this
over-stimulating experience, the battalion reached Wijn-
berg and were able to reorganise. A smart counter-
attack pushed the men out of the village, but they were
rallied by Captain Spottiswoode, of B Company, and the
village was retaken. The position was consolidated, and
on the following day patrols were sent forward from A and
D Companies to the river Lys. Second Lieutenant J.
Layfield penetrated to Wevelghem, but his patrol suffered
heavy casualties. Posts were, however, established some
500 yards ahead, and that evening the battalion were
relieved. In the day's fighting they had captured about
200 prisoners, fifteen field guns, a number of machine guns
and several horses, while their total casualties were only 78.
To the Scheldt. — The advances in Flanders and on
the front of the Third and Fourth Armies threatened to
turn the Lille-Douai area into a dangerous salient ; and
while the troops operating on these fronts frequently had
to make their way forward against the most bitter resist-
ance, those engaged about Lens found the obstacles
to their advance suddenly smoothed away. The 3rd
Londons and 2/2 Londons and the 9th Royal Fusiliers had
been brought up to this sector of the front before the
beginning of the general offensive, and though the first
two were lightly engaged at Loison, east of Lens, on
October 9th, for the most part their advance eastwards to
the Scheldt was a triumphal progress. The 9th Royal Fusi-
liers had taken up positions east of Vimy on October 7th,
and finding during the night that the German front
line had been evacuated, pushed forward B and C Com-
panies to occupy the enemy positions. Acheville was
cleared on the 9th, and the trenches on the north up to
the railway were occupied. A rearguard counter-attacked
at this point, but it was crushed and a machine gun taken.
The next few days saw an almost uninterrupted advance.
There was a certain amount of resistance in Noyelle-


Godault, but by October 13th the battalion had penetrated
to the west bank of the Canal de la Haute Deule. The
battalion rested for a few days at this stage, and on
October 18th began to move eastwards again. It was not
until they reached Rumegies that the battalion came
within sight of the heels of the enemy. At the St. Amand-
Maulde road, which they reached on the same day, October
21st, they came under heavy machine-gun fire. Two
platoons of D Company who attempted to move up the
railway to the Scarpe were held up by machine-gun fire
from Flagnies. The battalion were now in touch with
the 58th Division on the left and the 37th Brigade on the
right ; and they were near the Scheldt, where the enemy
had the advantage of position and where also they must
perforce make some attempt to stand.

But what an extraordinary change had come over the
situation on the Western front ! The Belgian coast was
now in the hands of the Allies, Lille had been evacuated,
and the Allies were now thinking not so much of the
redemption of their territory as of the chances of a decision.

The Selle. — In the centre of the British front the
enemy lay upon the Selle on October 17th, and on this
day the 3rd Royal Fusiliers co-operated in the battle
which opened upon a front of ten miles by an attack
aross the river between Benin and St. Souplet, and after
hard fighting established themselves near the Le Cateau-
Arbre Guernon road, but were beaten back in a counter-
attack in the afternoon. The battalion, now commanded
by Major Trasenster, were only 11 officers and 308 other
ranks strong, and during the day they lost 98 officers and

Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal. — The 2nd Royal Fusiliers
once more attacked on October 20th, north of Courtrai.
About midday they moved off in column of route behind
the Dublins until they were within a few hundred yards
of Esscher, when they deployed in diamond formation of
platoons. They now began to advance almost due south,
Z and X being directed towards the west to fill the open


flank to the Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal. By 5 p.m. these
two companies had taken up a line covering Kappaart and
Krote after suffering some casualties from farms on the
western and steeper slopes of Banhout Bosch. W Com-
pany lay at St. Louis, in support to the Dublins on their left
rear. On the following day the advance was resumed
through Banhout Bosch ; but, about half-way through, the
companies were held up by the fire from a machine gun
installed in a farm. About 500 yards south of the edge
of the wood Second Lieutenant H. H. Shields managed
to get forward with three Lewis guns into some houses a
few hundred yards to the north-west of the farm, and under
cover of their fire the farm was rushed. In their advance
the men had fired from the hip with good results. A
position was taken up for the night in liaison with the
neighbouring units. There had been very few casualties
in this advance, the resistance being due to a few energetic
men acting as rearguards to the Army. This was the last
appearance of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers in action. They
heard the news of the Armistice at St. Genois.

While the 2nd Royal Fusiliers were advancing on the
eastern side of the Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal on October
21st, the 26th Battalion were operating west of the canal.
The brigade moved forward about 11 a.m. towards the
Laatse Oortie-Hoogstraatje Ridge. On reaching this
point the left battalion, the 10th Queen's, were to turn
half left and seize the canal crossing and the tunnel
beneath. The 26th Royal Fusiliers were to move forward
from support to the position vacated by the Queen's and
then move forward to the Scheldt. Under the most
favourable conditions this involved a considerable advance,
and unfortunately the troops had only reached the ridge
when heavy artillery and machine-gun fire caught them
from the east of the canal. The 26th Battalion could not
advance, despite repeated efforts ; and an attempt by D
Company at night was also checked by unbroken wire and
machine guns. A line was consolidated, and patrols were
sent out ; but the latter found the enemy very vigilant,


and, indeed, the defence on this sector was well maintained
for the next few days. The battalion were relieved on the
night of the 23rd, and when they next attacked towards
the Scheldt, on the 25th, it was in the area east of the canal.
But the battalion had no better luck on this occasion.

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 27 of 38)