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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 33 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 33 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

showed remarkable ability in the withdrawal of his company.

Distinguished Conduct Medal.
278 Sgt. P. W. Fisher, 22nd Bn. R. Fus. (killed Oct., 1916).

For conspicuous ability. When his company had attacked and
captured an enemy trench he organised the defence of a flank with
great coolness and skill. When a withdrawal was ordered he again
displayed great ability, directing the various parties by the bearings
of certain stars.
1226 L.-Sgt. C. A. Wheeler, 22nd Bn. R. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry. He volunteered for, and carried out,
two very risky reconnaissances after a successful assault by his
company. Later he guided an officer of the R.A.M.C. and remained
with him under machine-gun and rifle fire till the last wounded man
had been brought in.
671 L.-C. W. H. Metcalfe, 22nd Bn. R. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry when assisting an officer of the
R.A.M.C. and carrying wounded men into safety under heavy rifle
and machine-gun fire.


D.C.M. to Pte. G. Webb, 22nd Bn. R. Fus.
M.M to Pte. P. Cannot, 22nd Bn. R. Fus.


But little Joey took a more serious view, and thought he'd
better get his equipment together.

Spud, too, suggested that perhaps the Bodies had broken
through somewhere.

' Don't talk soft," said Dave ; " and what if they have ?
We're not the reserve brigade. Why, man, we're not due ' in '
for a fortnight, and then only for fatigues. And don't forget,"
he added with great impressiveness, " we're nineteen kilos
from the line. Don't talk soft, boy. It's some one having a
game. I'm ' getting down to it ' again."

In a few minutes slumber once more reigned supreme.

But shortly afterwards agile feet bounded up the stairs.
The gleam of an electric torch found its way through the canvas
at the doorway, followed immediately by the figure of the
captain. For a second or two he stood like one amazed.

" Scarce a soul of 'em stirring ! By , turn out ! Stand to,

every man ! " he shouted in a voice that moved the drowsiest.
. . . " Turn out there ! D'yer hear ? Take that man's name,
corporal. Where's the sergeant ? Turn every man out at
once, battle order."

The sergeant jumped up in bewilderment. Men groped in
the darkness and confusion for candles, cursing lustily. Blan-
kets and feet were indiscriminately trodden upon. Irritability
was a common possession, while discipline seemed cast to
the winds.

Notwithstanding, the company tumbled out on parade
within fifteen minutes, though scattered about the now
deserted billet floor were stray gas helmets, mess tins, etc.,
and pieces of bread and cheese upon which some bold rodents
had already pounced voraciously.

Outside in the cobbled yard, beneath stars half hidden by
driving clouds, the company answered a hurried roll call.

Curious expectancy seemed to fill the minds of everybody,
from the sergeant-major downwards.

Dave, however, was jocular.

" Try-on," he muttered.

" Time test," asserted Soaker.

But when the quartermaster came along the ranks handing
to each man a tin of Maconochie speculation grew wild and

Still Dave was jubilant, and refused to be discomforted.

Then came the order, " Bombers to the front ! "

VIMY RIDGE, MAY 22ND, 1916 377

Dave's mouth opened wide, for Dave was a bomber !

The company " moved to the left in fours " out into the now
crowded Rue Cambon. Men of A Company pushed past on
their way to the alarm post. Ammunition mules and limbers
forced their way in the darkness through columns of men
moving left and right.

The unexpected tramp of feet and rumble of wheels had
brought the inhabitants to their windows and doors, while the

battalion moved to the outskirts of the town, passing the

shires en route. The whole brigade was evidently on the move.

Reaching the main road, the column halted, while slowly
towards them came a number of now grim-looking motor
'buses, black and boarded, no longer the gay crimson things
that had once flitted down Bond Street, London.

" What about it now ? " queried Joey as No. 8 Platoon
clambered aboard one of the vehicles, in which, packed
together in uneasy postures and careless of future develop-
ments, most of the men fell asleep.

Some one muttered something about a " joy-ride."

" J°y- r id e I " sa id Spud. " Yus, an' it means dirty work
somewhere. Don't get joy-rides for nothing ; there's some
'stunt 'on, 111 bet."

The promoter of this outburst sneeringly suggested that
" some one " had got the " wind up." Spud merely spouted
contemptuously at the speaker.

The 'bus rocked and jolted along the worn and ill-kept road,
whither none save the driver knew ; but the guns at length
sounded louder, and as the 'bus toiled to the top of the hill
the pale, sickly glow of Verey lights lit up the horizon.

A few minutes later the vehicles stopped at the cross-roads.
Sleepy and cramped Tommies turned out once more, while
officers and N.C.O.'s moved quickly up and down, getting
order out of chaos and their various platoons into " fours " ;
and even as men leaned heavily on their rifles the column began
to move.

Moody silence possessed the usual bright spirits of No. 8,
while only one or two sought the solace of a cigarette as, half
dozing, they tramped wearily on.

The faintest streak of dawn was just discernible as B Com-
pany of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers filed into a wood on the left
of the road, the interior of which had, for an obvious purpose,
been cleared of undergrowth.


It was now plain to all that there was a big strafe on to
their front, about three miles away, and flares had now given
place to the lurid glow of bursting shells.

Obeying orders, the men lay down fully equipped, to snatch
what sleep they might ; and 6 a.m. saw them eagerly sipping
excellent hot tea which the cooks, who in some remarkable way
had " turned up," had prepared.

The gunfire had died down considerably by 8 a.m., and a
buoyancy of spirits had returned. Dave started his pet song
about the " Tulip and a big red rose," but this outburst was
at least temporarily subdued when, after an order that no man
was to touch his water bottle without permission, each was
handed an extra bandolier of ammunition and a couple of
Mills' bombs.

The platoons then moved out into the sunlight at intervals
towards the line.

No word had filtered through as to what the hurried move
really meant, and it was not until the communication trenches
were reached that wounded stragglers told of " lost trenches."

B Company, being unfamiliar with this sector and its
characteristics, immediately concluded that the chaps at
present in the position must be "a poor lot." So far they
could boast they'd never lost a trench (or, be it noted, won

one) ; and as they passed small parties of the Rifles, the

present garrison, they felt elated and proud to have been called
upon to " take over."

The new-comers filed into the " communicator " towards the
position, in due time reaching low ground beneath a ridge.

From the R.E. dump by which they passed each man
grabbed alternately a spade or pick.

Despite this additional burden, hearts grew lighter. After
all, then, it was not to be the somewhat distrusted " stunt over
the top," but merely a digging fatigue — a new line, perhaps.
Thus hope and conjecture swayed from side to side, but futile
discussion was checked by the sergeant's strongly voiced order
to No. 8 to "lead on."

Along the battered communication trench of French origin,
which ran snake-like up the chalky slopes of Vimy Ridge, the
men struggled panting, whilst on all sides lay ghastly signs of
recent havoc and slaughter.

After all, it was admitted, " the poor blighters must have
had a hellish time " ; and this flash of generous feeling met

VIMY RIDGE, MAY 22ND, 1916 379

with general endorsement as the enemy opened out a barrage
just ahead.

A few yards below the crest of the ridge the captain climbed
out of the trench, the platoons obeying the order to crawl after
him in single file across the grassy, shell-pitted slope. Then
the order was passed along to " halt and dig in," some
unauthorised person adding, " like the devil."

And B Company dug, using pick and spade with a zeal that
none could reproach. Nor needed they any goading, for a
Boche airman had evidently " spotted " the movement, and
his heavy batteries, anticipating trouble, were already
" searching " the ground.

Five p.m. saw their toil nearly completed. B Company was
well down out of sight ; and some, having delved their allotted
6 feet, sat complacently smoking on the new trench bottom.

The shelling which had continued throughout the day had
proved troublesome, and although the " Fritzes " had not so
far correctly gauged the range of the new line, they had
succeeded in putting a number of 5.4's horribly close and
bespattering it with shrapnel ; and the popular Corporal
Valentine, only back from leave the preceding day, was among
those who had " gone west."

With their work completed, the men found time to talk
things over ; and the varied opinions expressed and the
caustic criticism which some aroused would have proved
interesting reading had it been recorded verbatim.

The German artillerymen were accorded a good deal of
hearty abuse, and a sudden retaliation by one of the British
heavy batteries pleased Joey in particular ; and as the
weighty 9.2's flew overhead the chirpy little cockney assured
everybody that " that was the ' stuff ' to give 'em."

Now it so happened that the position of the new trench did
not afford much, if any, opportunity to its occupants for
locating with any accuracy the enemy lines. The immediate
front of No. 8 Platoon was a rising grassy slope of about
25 yards, disfigured by numerous shell holes, some of recent
date, others partly overgrown with tufts of grass and bright-
tinted poppies — a vivid contrast with the chalky soil in which
they flourished.

As to what lay beyond the crest of the ridge none yet knew ;
and as there were strict orders that men were not to leave the
trench, venturesome spirits, keen for reconnaissance, were held


in check. Views left and right, too, were partially obscured,
on the one hand by the high parados of the communicator,
which ran almost at right angles with the trench, and on the
other by the natural contour of the ground. Away to the
rear it gradually dropped some hundreds of feet, and about
three miles off, half hidden by surrounding trees, lay the small,
shell-wrecked village Villers-au-Bois.

Late in the afternoon the captain arrived to inspect the
trench, and, after making a few suggestions for its improve-
ment, moved away again without further instructions.

The corporal thought it " darned funny " ; but further
conversation was discouraged, as the enemy again commenced
to drop some " big stuff " in the vicinity.

As it grew dark, Verey lights once more shot upwards, some
coming to earth just at the top of the ridge, where they burned
themselves out with the fierce familiar hissing.

The " Boche," it was evident, was disturbed about some-
thing, for suddenly his lights of ill omen, blood-red, burst
upwards in the darkness.

Prepared for the inevitable response to this urgent call for
artillery support, No. 8 Platoon crouched low in the trench ;
and as shells of all descriptions crashed to earth around them
oaths and threats were plentiful and varied. It was, at any
rate, of some satisfaction to know the opposing front line of
" square-headed swabs " were to some extent discomforted
by their own artillery, for vivid green rockets hurriedly
followed, the enemy's signal to the guns to lengthen range.

" 'Tain't too' ealthy," piped Spud, " but I reckon we'll be
relieved to-night. I'm about beat. Can't march and dig all
day and ' stand to ' all night too. They're bound to relieve
us to-night. 'Tain't reasonable to expect fellers to ' stick it.' "

' Perhaps not," said the corporal, " but you must recollect
there's a war on somewhere ! "

At this some grinned ; others groused.

It was shortly after 8 p.m. — ten minutes after, to be precise —
when along the top of the trench scudded the company
sergeant-major with the order, " Get your ' stuff ' on." The
" stuff " referred to was merely haversacks, extra bandoliers
and bombs, for in positions such as this complete fighting
equipment was worn continuously day and night.

The men buckled each other's haversacks with alacrity ;
spades and picks were slung across the back and held in position

VIMY RIDGE, MAY 22nd, 1916 381

by the equipment. Cigarettes were proffered freely, and
appetites became already whetted at the thought of omelettes
and fried potatoes, for, of course, they were" being relieved."

But this and other fond imaginings were quickly dispelled.

" What was that ? "

" Going over in ten minutes ! "

The sergeant now confirmed the hurriedly spread news.

" Yes, my lads," he said, with an attempt at gaiety, " and
there's nine minutes to go ; and don't forget your bayonets,
lads; that's the stuff to give them."

Just at that moment a heavy shell exploded near at hand,
making what Duff termed " a nasty mess " of our poor old

Officers now hurried along the top, and dropped into their
respective positions with the platoons. Instructions were
promptly passed along — " that the brigade were attacking,
Berkshires on the left, K.R. Rifles on the right. No. 8
Platoon to get into touch with the Rifles on their right flank,
go over first two lines, take the third and consolidate."

An officer went along the trench ensuring that every man
understood the order.

•P 1* *P *p

" Three minutes to go ! "

The last moments, maybe, of life found each man making
final adjustments to his equipment, tightening belt or puttees
and satisfying himself that his bayonet was securely fixed,
his rifle bolt clean.

Each had already picked a convenient foothold, or made one,
by which to mount the parapet. Here and there chums shook
hands and exchanged a few words of encouragement.

" Half a minute to go ! "

Some one said, " God love you all," then " Over you go,

you fellows I " from the subaltern ; and No. 8 Platoon sailed

away into the night and the shriek and droning of countless

shells and bullets. . . .

* * * *

" What the ? Who's that ? Are you hit, chum ? "

The reserve Lewis gun corporal stooped down to the huddled

figure. " Where's it caught you, old man ? " he asked.
The wounded man, a " runner " from brigade headquarters,

slowly raised a blood-soaked arm, his hand tightly clenching a

crumpled and be-mired scrap of paper.


" Rush it along, chum," he pleaded " O.C. B Company.
Stop 'em ! Attack's off ! "

The " runner " dropped back unconscious.

Clutching the written message, the gunner sprang to the
top of the communicator, and plunged forward through the
enemy barrage towards the crest of the ridge where he had seen
B Company digging earlier in the day.

He reached the newly made trench, but, save for some
poor torn corpses, it was empty !

" Good God ! " he exclaimed ; " they're gone ! '

He stumbled across a moaning figure.

" Where's B Company ? ' he demanded, with seeming
callousness ; and in a weakened voice a dauntless spirit replied,
" Gorn, chum ! Went over like one man, like 'eroes."

The gunner dashed to the top of the ridge and yelled,
"B Company, retire ! " It was the forbidden word, and futile
in effect, for not a soul heard. The shriek and crash of missiles
drowned his voice.

The inky darkness was lit up by the explosion of thousands
of shells ; while high above the fringe of flame red, green and
white, and to the left orange, rockets rose and burst into
myriad stars.

The gunner raced forward. He must fetch the boys back !

But, just then one of the countless Boche bullets found a
precious billet. The gunner dropped.

B Company's only line of communication had snapped 1
• * * •

Ignorant of disaster, Platoons Nos. 5 and 8 had topped the
ridge, joined flanks, and walked over " into it " with scarce a

" Don't bunch ! " yelled a warning voice.

The line straightened out.

It thinned.

The men stumbled across the first trench — the old support
line, pounded almost level.

The British curtain of fire surged forward ahead of the
advancing troops, while the enemy barrage enveloped them.

Vile fumes partially choked them, and the torn ground shook
with the concussion of heavy shells. Broken strands of barbed
wire tore legs and feet. " Spent " nosecaps whizzed and
hummed past overhead. Shrapnel burst and flew in all direc-
tions, while spraying machine-gun bullets swept the line from

VIMY RIDGE, MAY 22ND, 1916 383

end to end, finding here and there a target in quivering

There were now wide gaps in the line of indistinct figures,
and a machine gun spurted and spat spitefully to No. 8's
direct front.

Tripped and torn with low entanglements, the attackers
sighted their objective, pressed forward eagerly and covered
the last few yards with a rush. Rifles were gripped for vicious
thrusts with the bayonet ; but, reaching the parapet, they
discovered that the enemy had rapidly withdrawn.
Was it a ruse ?

One, a bomber, whose position at the commencement of the
attack had been about the centre of the line, now found him-
self apparently the extreme left flank. Surprised, but unper-
turbed, he hastily set to work to barricade the trench, goading
others, more mystified, to improvise a reverse firing step.

Boche machine-gun emplacements were torn down and the
handy tinted sandbags flung into useful positions.

Almost encircled, as it now seemed, by enemy fire, the men
worked feverishly to consolidate, expecting momentarily
heavy counter-attacks.

The man on the extreme left moved along the captured
portion of the trench, to collect bombs for the barricade, and
to ascertain who was now in charge ; he had seen the captain
fall half-way over.

Pushing past several somewhat startled men, he at last
came across the new subaltern, to whom he reported the
situation on the left.

" How many men are there down that end ? " anxiously
inquired the sub.

" I passed seven, sir."

" That's only twenty-six all told ! " Glancing quickly
around, he continued, " I want a volunteer to try and find out
what's happened, to see if supports "

" I'll go, sir," said the man from the left.

Turning, the officer called, " Here you are, sergeant ; here's
a chap who'll go with you."

" I'll go too, sir," said Hamblin.

" Get back to the line if you can," said the subaltern. " Tell
'em how it is, and ask if they're sending supports. We're
sticking here till you return. "

Taking a hurried glance at the stars and the arc of fire for


some guide as to direction, the three clambered over the top
of the trench, out into the area where death still hurtled
through the air in every direction.

Keeping low, crawling, running and stumbling along, they
moved away in the darkness. Then for a while they lay
panting in the temporary shelter of a shell hole, and gazed
around. Suddenly, 30 yards to the right, a Boche gunner
opened fire, sending a hurricane of lead spraying over their

" Who is that ? " all three involuntarily whispered as for
a few seconds a figure was silhouetted against the pale glow of
a dropping flare. " A Boche outpost, possibly."

Cautiously they crawled forward.

Prepared for trouble, they approached in some sort of
extended order, to discover a number of chums badly hit,
lying in and around a large shell hole, while one, less hurt
than his fellows, was binding up their wounds as best he could.
' Is that you, Duff? " asked one, mortally wounded, of the

" Yes. Who is — is that you, Dave ? "

" Ah ! they've got me badly, I'm afraid."

" We're going off for stretchers, old man. Keep quiet a
bit ; we'll soon be back."

The bomber did what he could to ease another poor lad who
lay groaning alongside, then moved away with the others in
search of assistance.

They proceeded unchecked for about another 100 yards,
and were brought to earth by a fiercely muttered challenge —
in English !

" B Company patrol ! What the devil's B Company doing
out there ? . . . Went over, d'yer say ? . . . My God ! The
attack was cancelled ! ! "

The battalion medical officer — for it was he — was clearly
astounded. Fearless, and with a high sense of duty, he always
found work to do in the front line on such occasions as this.

" You must all come back. It's madness to stay there."

" Well, sir," said the sergeant, " Mr. Carter won't withdraw
without a satisfactory order ; and there's Mr. Thane and a
bunch of our boys hit bad out there — walked right into a
Boche gunner."

" Must get them in somehow ! Can you show me the way
back to them ? " said the M.O., thinking hard.

VIMY RIDGE, MAY 22ND, 1916 385

He gave a few curt orders to a group of stretcher-bearers,
who, together with his orderly, quickly climbed out of the
trench after him, and followed the figures moving away. The
darkness of night was gradually giving place to the faintest
grey of dawn — a sign which bade them hurry ere disaster
overtook them.

Leaving the stretcher-bearers to attend and bring in the
group of wounded, the M.O. pressed on with the other three,
still unscathed.

It was folly now to halt for a second ; so, with enforced
contempt of lead and iron, they once more providentially
reached the captured sector of the trench.

The M.O.'s order was brief.

' The attack was cancelled," he told the subaltern. " You
must withdraw at once ! "

Grasping the situation, the subaltern said to the nearest
man : " Pass it down from Mr. Carter, every man to lead out
this way at once. Sergeant, you'll bring up the rear."

So the haggard file of men crossed yet again the contested
" strip," picking up en route among their own wounded one
of the Londons (the late garrison), who had lain for three
nights with a ghastly gash under a hurricane of missiles.

Some, too, there were who are now numbered among the
" missing " ; and at roll call No. 8 Platoon, of 40 odd,
numbered 17.

There were individual honours gained that day ; but on
the morrow, when the brigadier addressed the remnants of the
company in a little ruined orchard behind the line, he bestowed
an honour on all with the revelation that they had " saved the
face of the brigade " and gained for the battalion an envied

T. C C


I. — Before the Battle

The valley of the Somme was indeed superb and a picture
that hundreds would have liked to have viewed.

In the early morning you would awaken to the song of birds
in the trees above you, and that alone seemed to drive all care
and worry away and made the heart young. Dragon-flies, at
least six different colours, would drift noiselessly through the
air ; beautiful coloured butterflies and fancy kinds of flies
made every moment of the day really enjoyable.

In Chipilly village there were some baths alongside of the
canal, where our men had a hot bath and a change of under-
clothes, and ioo yards away was an open swimming bath,
where, when time permitted, our men splashed about in the
water, and those who could enjoyed a good swim.

Our tents in the wood were undermined by moles, and
occasionally they would appear above ground, much to the
amusement of the men.

One morning my batman found one of them who had made
himself quite snug in my slipper. He suffered the penalty for
trespassing, was duly executed, his skin cured and sent to

The magnificent view of the Somme and the lagoons we had
from the wood seemed to elevate all our minds, and it stirred
some of us on still further, for a few of the officers managed to
get a boat and row from one lagoon to another until they
reached Sailly Lorette. On their way some of them indulged
in a swim, whilst the others prepared tea, which was afterwards
enjoyed in true picnic style.

Another day two of us paddled up again to the same place
and then back by moonlight. It was truly a delightful trip.

With regard to amusement for the men, they were not at all
neglected, for we arranged cinema shows, concerts and football
matches during our stay in the wood. The last open-air
concert was a very successful one, nearly all officers and men


In the afternoons when the men happened to be free they
would indulge in a little fishing down on the Somme lagoons
in the valley below, and sometimes I believe they were rewarded

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 33 of 38)