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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 34 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 34 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

by good catches.

However, we were soon to leave our home of natural splen-
dour and go further afield to school ourselves into the gentle
art of defeating the enemy.

We had orders to move, so we packed all our belongings and
marched to the station, where we entrained for the villages of
Ailly-sur-Somme and Picquigny, just a little south of Amiens.
D Company were very comfortable and happy at the former
place, and the rest of the battalion at the latter.

After a few days D Company joined the remainder of the
battalion at Picquigny and then, in conjunction with the rest
of the brigade, went through five days of hard training. The
section of the German line we were to attack at the beginning
of the great offensive was almost exactly reproduced on the
ground near Ailly-sur-Somme, and on this we rehearsed for the
day itself.

They were hard days, but that we did not mind so much,
for at the end of it all the real thing was to come for which we
had waited so long, and then we were to have the honour of
being one of the assaulting battalions.

On the day itself every available man would be wanted in
the attack, so accordingly every man was sent out to the
training ground.

On June — we had orders to move, and in the early hours
of morning we marched in full marching order, and carrying
a supply of bombs, to Ailly, where we entrained for Heilly, in
the forward area.

The march to Ailly was not entirely a pleasant one, and I
suppose the early hour of the day and the heavy load we
carried accounted for anything but a pleasing or easy march.

Our train journey was very slow, as seems usual in France,
and we reached our destination and detrained by about 11 a.m.

Then we proceeded on a march to Bray, where we were to be
billeted for a night or two, and then up to the firing line.

On our way we halted for an hour for a meal just off
the Bray-Corbie road, where the Morlancourt-Chipilly road
meets it.

Our meal finished, we cleared up and continued our journey
to billets, which were reached by 6 p.m.

c c 2


Our stay in Bray was a brief one, for on the 23rd we left in
the early morning for Carnoy.

Whilst we were here an army order was issued that all
officers were to be equipped as much like the men as possible,
and accordingly we went and interviewed the Q.M., who
served us out with Tommies' tunics. We put them on. They
felt strange, and we looked very funny in them, for they were
really too short. We laughed ourselves, and everybody laughed
when they saw us. However, we complied with the army order
and had a good deal of fun out of it. Several times in the
trenches the men would mistake their officers for other Tom-
mies and would say such things as " After you with the mug,
mate ! " " Give us a light, Bill," which highly amused the
parties concerned.

June 2yd. — We arrived at Carnoy and found it a hive of
industry. Everybody was working ; shells of all sorts and
sizes were being brought up ; plum puddings and flying pigs
(trench mortar shells) were being carried to the forward dumps
practically day and night. Barbed wire, corrugated iron, wood
and iron stakes, trench ladders and a multitude of other things
made up the R.E.'s dump, and in many other nooks and
corners one would see cylinders of gas and liquid fire, smoke
bombs, small arms ammunition and Red Cross appliances.
Everything that was necessary to defeat the enemy was
brought up from the rear and dumped in or near the trenches.

On our way up from Bray we were delighted to see guns of
every calibre dug in, it seemed everywhere ; in fact, the
whole ground seemed alive with them, and every valley behind
the line was indeed a very hotbed of destruction to spit at the
enemy. So close were some of the batteries that if the Germans
could only have discovered they were in those valleys a few
shells from them would have put a good many out of action.
In vain did they search for them, because they were so cleverly
concealed. — From the diary of Captain H. Aley, nth Battalion.

II. — After the Battle

October igth, 1916. — It was fine seeing the places where all
the heaviest fighting had been, e.g., Guillemont Station, the
sugar refinery, etc., both now a pile of ruins of course. . . .
The appearance of the country was lamentable. All trees are
stripped of leaves, and Bois des Trones presents the most awful


ruins I have ever seen — dead horses, battered trees and
trenches, ammunition, huge shell holes, all in one huge
jumble. Efforts are being made to reconstruct the railway line
which once ran through the wood. Once through the wood, the
ground is not so bad, but the strength and command of the
enemy's position at once become obvious on looking back.
Having crossed that, we were soon in the neighbourhood of
Guillemont. Here our howitzers are very much in evidence,
guns of all calibres, and a bombardment is in progress. Shells
can be seen coursing through the air every second. The posi-
tion of the railway station is known only by a few almost
demolished railway trucks. Our walk took us back vid the
sugar refinery, where the enemy white flag of surrender is still
flying. A previous walk took us down the valley from our
camp in the direction of Mametz Wood. The railway is recon-
structed nearly to the head of the valley now, and when this is
done communications will be improved a hundredfold. — From
the diary of Major Coxhead, gth Battalion.


The story of the battle of Miraumont on February 17th,
1917, is a sad one, and but for the fact that there are some
bright spots in the gloomy narrative recollections of what was
perhaps the most disastrous of the battalion's engagements
might well remain a fading memory. But there was glory too
in that unsatisfactory battle, during which Fred Palmer
earned his just reward of a V.C.

It had been freezing for months, and the ice and frozen snow
in the broken trenches and " over the top " made the trek
to the jumping-off position a trying and arduous task. A party
of the battalion had a night or so previously spent time and
patience in setting a tape to mark the line that was to be taken
up at the start ; but most of this was lost when the men
arrived, tired and fed up, at about 11.30 p.m. on the night of
the 16th. Most of the tape had been blown up by the enemy
shells, and some trodden out of recognition.

It was not until the file of men bundled into a line of another
regiment of the same brigade that the approximate position
of our starting line was ascertained.

The Boche was ready for us, for his barrage opened even
before our own, and before our battalion had passed over our
own front line — a weak line of scattered shell holes — there
were great gaps torn in our waves.

Just over the second enemy line our " waves " became
groups, and the steady advance appeared to be in artillery
formation. The officers, many of whom were in an attack for
the first time, did all they could to put matters right, and some
of them managed to continue their advance on approximately
the right bearing and in correct formation.

Presently the notorious " Boom Ravine " was encountered,
but we met with no further danger than a lurking German
here and there who whiled his time away until he should be
taken prisoner by sniping. After this point the battalion
appeared to me to vanish, and instead one saw small parties

* Reprinted from Mufti, the magazine published by the Old
Comrades' Association of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, No. 4, Vol. I.


here and there moving in varying directions. A Company and
C appeared to have separated completely.

Petit Miraumont was sighted at about the same time as a
party of about a dozen, with an officer of another battalion of
the same regiment, went wandering across the front. It was
learnt that he had no idea as to where the remainder of his
battalion was, or the position they were attacking, so joined
his small band to that of C Company, and took charge of a
second wave which was now established.

Fifty yards further, and the men ran into such a hail of
bullets that it was impossible to press forward, and the men
lay down in the shell holes to return the fire of the enemy, who
were found to be lying about 20 yards away. A few minutes
later A and C Companies' flank was rolled up by the battalion
of Germans coming up to the counter-attack.

Exactly what happened now is a question, but we have
heard it stated that the Boche only took wounded prisoners on
this occasion, and probably many a man earned the V.C. out
there in the one-sided scrap. It would appear that these
companies were more or less lost.

Meanwhile a flank action by B and D was favoured with
some success after some hard fighting.

The battalion lost practically all its officers, and the casual-
ties in the ranks were great, while many of the good fellows
who left Wolf Huts with the battalion on February 16th are
unfortunately still numbered amongst the missing, and over
eighty names were recorded on the imposing cross the battalion
pioneers made as a memorial to the heroic dead.

Later in the morning some of A Company's men were found
among the survivors of D, on the opposite flank, and Mr.
Seaward, Fred Palmer and Jimmy Carr and their gallant
men were making the best of things in waterlogged shell
holes, hardly daring to raise their heads because of the

Freddy Palmer's exploit has become historic. How he held
the flank — a vital position — against repeated attacks by
superior numbers and only gave way when his supply of
ammunition ran out, only to make his way back to B.H.Q. for
more bombs and men and regaining the strategic line, has
become famous, and, as the War Office said, " it was a deed of
heroism which cannot be exaggerated." Jimmy Carr (who
died in the 'flu epidemic after the Armistice) gained the


D.C.M. and a commission, and decorations were bestowed on
others of the little band.

It was the first time the 22nd had lost prisoners to the
enemy, but the battalion had the satisfaction of knowing that
the stand they made at such great odds saved the situation,
and was crowned with the great Boche retreat two or three
days later and the capture of Bapaume.



For days past, nay for weeks past, the rumble of the guns
in the north had foreshadowed that there was to be trouble for
the Hun before long ; the official communiques in the daily
papers spoke continuously of heavy bombardment in that
neighbourhood, so that when on July 29th we heard that we
were to leave Airaines, where we had spent a very pleasant few
weeks in rest billets, conjecture ran wild as to what was to be
our destination. We were not long left in doubt, and learnt
that we were off to Dunkerque. Dunkerque — why ? Perhaps
we were off to England, not likely. What could be afoot ?

We busily packed up on July 30th, and on July 31st we
marched to Pontremy, leaving Airaines at 07.00. At 11.35
hours we entrained for the coast. No sooner had we entrained
than down came the rain, and it rained persistently for the rest
of the day, and for several days following — a striking contrast
to the weather of the past weeks, which had been magnificent.
It was, indeed, unfortunate, as we afterwards learnt, that the
opening of the great fight for the Paschendaele Ridge should
have been so visited with such an upheaval of weather

Our journey to Dunkerque was only marked with one
incident which is worthy of record. I have forgotten the
name of the place, but as the train was proceeding past a small
village in Belgium two tremendous explosions occurred, and
the carriage windows rattled. We jumped up and seized rifles
and revolvers, thinking that the train was being bombed ;
on closer examination we found that it was merely some
Belgian engineers employed in blasting stone. They did not
seem to mind that the stones in some quantity entered the
carriages of the train.

We reached Dunkerque at 21.00, and had the failing day-
light to assist us in detraining ; that is to say, the men were off
quick enough, but the transport had to be offloaded. In spite

* By an Officer of the Battalion.


of the dilatoriness and language of the Belgian officials, how-
ever, this was fairly quickly accomplished, and the transport
set off in the pouring rain for the seaside resort known as
Bray Dunes, a six-hour trek. The battalion did not march ;
they were conveyed by barges up the canal ; the men found
the barges comfortable, and, as these did not leave their
moorings till daylight, all on board had time to get to sleep
before the movement of the ships could affect their slumbers !
The transport got into Bray Dunes eventually at 04.30 on
August 1st, but what a long trek it had seemed ! Men, animals
and everything were wet through. The battalion marched
into the village about noon. Here were comfortable billets for
officers and men, and we hoped to be allowed a day or two to
enjoy them. At this time there was a considerable amount of
hush-hush, and we did not know how or when we were to be
employed. Whether the change in climatic conditions had
impeded the British offensive, or whether the plans of the high
command were for other reasons altered, we knew not, nor were
we disposed to inquire, the fact being that we remained in
Bray Dunes until August 15th and then spent twelve days in
the Nieuport sector of the line, the two periods, namely,
August 1st — 15th and 16th — 27th, firmly impressing them-
selves on the minds of all those who live to remember them as
presenting the veriest contrast of pleasantness and unplea-

Bray Dunes, as most readers will know, is a little seaside
town somewhat resembling Deal or Sandwich, but typically
Belgian. There is the esplanade, which extends for 100 yards
or so, with an hotel or two and some nice houses, but the greater
part of the village stands back inland, and is separated from
the sea by the sand dunes. The inhabitants were still in
occupation, though the hotels and houses on the sea-shore had
not their pre-war usage and were occupied mostly by military

The sand dunes had been placed in a state of defence, with
trenches dug and much barbed wire erected. Batteries were
here and there, and there was an elaborate defence scheme,
which we all had to study and know, so that in case of emergency
each man knew his appointed task. There is a gorgeous
stretch of sand, which reaches eastward as far as La Panne
and westward a considerable distance towards Dunkerque.
This stretch of sand provided a most excellent training ground,


and when the weather during the second week of our stay
there improved, the men used to parade there each morning,
carry out manoeuvres, drill, rifle and bombing practice, and
then take a bath before marching back to dinners. The after-
noons were spent in recreation, and here again the sand proved
a very useful playground. The officers indulged in a good
deal of riding, and races on the sand amongst the officers in
the brigade on their respective chargers were a great form of
amusement, the only restriction being that riding was not
allowed on that part of the sands which passed the esplanade,
where was situated the corps headquarters. Our transport
officer, Jones Williams, had a very fast mare, a grey, who won
him many races and, I fancy, small wagers, though, if he wanted
to be more certain of his money, he would get some one of less
bulky build and correspondingly lighter weight to pilot her.
We had an officers' riding class, and representations were made
that the chargers were being overworked, so the class took place
on mules. I should be sorry to relate the number of times that
certain officers were unseated in this escapade, and riderless
mules were seen very frequently making their way home.
Later the officers became more expert in their methods of
sitting on, but a mule's mouth is sometimes hard, and the class
dispersed itself one day not at the command of the officer in
charge, not at the wish of the students, but because the mules
thought they'd like to go off on their own.

Leave was granted to a percentage of officers and men to
visit La Panne and Dunkerque. The former was the more
attractive place, and incidentally more healthy. There were a
number of aerodromes about, and we saw a lot of one particular
squadron, playing them twice at cricket and interchanging
dinners. They had a most excellent concert troupe, and gave us
a splendid show. Unfortunately neither my memory nor my
notes supply the number of the squadron the officers of which
so kindly entertained us.

This passed the time at Bray Dunes, and we left it with very
pleasant memories, the only fly in the ointment being the
extraordinary number of persistent and irritating flies which
swarmed around us in billets in their varying degree of size.

In the small hours of the morning on August 15th, and
whilst it was still dark, we got ourselves up and paraded ready
to march, and just as dawn was breaking we proceeded on our
way. It was a gorgeous morning, and we saw our flying fellows


set forth on their daybreak reconnaissances, and caught occa-
sional glimpses of the Hun trying to have a look-see, but driven
off by the numberless little puffs of our Archie shells.

We proceeded to a camp — at Oost Dunkerque it must have
been — until the minor offensive in this region by the Boche in
July, the last thing in comfort in the way of camps, every hut
being lavishly fitted with electric light, and wire beds and
bunks for almost every man ; tables and comfortable arm-
chairs adorned the officers' quarters. History relates that
before the offensive the camp had been occupied by a battery
of our allies' artillery for some months, and that during these
months only one gun of that battery had been known to fire,
and that only occasionally. In the afternoon of the 15th we
learnt that we were to go into the Nieuport sector of the line
the next night, and that therefore reconnaissance must be
made by officers that afternoon ; it was also stated that the
commanding officer would not on this occasion take the bat-
talion in, but would be given a rest. This was only in accord-
ance with custom, the second in command at times taking the
battalion, the idea being that it was not desirable that both
the commanding officer and the second in command should
be up the line at the same time. Away, then, we went to recon-
noitre, and to see our opposite numbers, so to speak, from whom
we should take over. We rode to the outskirts of Nieuport,
and then proceeded on foot.

Nieuport is a largish town, which had recently suffered
considerably from bombardment. Though the streets were
quite intact, they contained a good deal of dibris, and covered-
in " ways " had been made along the sides of the streets ; in
almost every case these " ways " had been dug for a few feet,
so that one was, so to speak, half above and half below ground
level. Everywhere there were gas gongs and rattles, for only
recently had the town received a goodly libation of the Huns'
new mustard gas, and in various parts of the town the smell
of this gas was still fairly potent. The brigade headquarters
was situated in a cellar in a street in the town, and having
reported there, we proceeded to the headquarters of the
battalion which we were to relieve. To achieve this it was
necessary to cross the main canal ; in fact, the headquarters
of three battalions, that is to say two front line battalions and
the support battalion, were all on the other side of the canal.
It was the right front line battalion we were seeking. Now


the canal could be crossed in one of three places, by one of
three bridges, and these bridges were merely wooden structures
which the Hun had got taped. He used to amuse himself by
knocking them down by day, and our engineers were busily
employed repairing them by night. Two of the bridges were
intact on the afternoon in question, and we made our recon-
naissance, saw the people whom we were to relieve, and who
incidentally expressed themselves as devoutly thankful that
we were coming to relieve them, and made our way back to the
battalion without incident, excepting for the fact that we had
to return by a roundabout route, as the Hun had selected
part of our proper road for his afternoon target shoot. Before
proceeding further I think I should explain, for the benefit of
those who do not know this part of the British front, that the
left front line battalion headquarters and the whole of the
support battalion (including, of course, its headquarters)
were across the main canal, and on what is known as the
" Redan." The Redan is a triangular island almost entirely
surrounded by water, the main canal on the one side, the
base of the triangle, and offshoots thereof on the other
two sides, so that first one had to cross water to get to the
Redan and then cross water again to get off to the country
beyond, where lay the trenches. In the middle of the Redan
lies a building known as the India-rubber House, so called
because of its imperviousness to shells. This house had two
storeys with a gabled roof, the roof was concrete, about 2 to
3 feet thick, the walls were of a similar thickness, and the
flooring dividing the two storeys was also of solid concrete,
about 2 feet thick. The building was about 80 to 100 feet long ,
with a door either end. Incidentally the Hun seemed to know
where these two doors were ! The house was cubicled off into
little partitions downstairs, and there was a large mess-room,
and upstairs were quarters for the staff of the two battalion
headquarters which occupied the building. The whole was
beautifully lit up with electric light ; in fact, it was some head-
quarters !

I have attached to these few notes an aeroplane photograph
taken whilst we were in the line, which, if it can be reproduced,
will give the reader a good idea of this section of the line. I
should add that there was one other means of getting to the
trenches from Nieuport without going on to the Redan, and
that was by way of a lock to the north-east side of the town, but


this way was a very unhealthy way, and not really advisable
by day, and the use of it was discouraged.

It was a grand evening on the 16th, when we set out for the
line, and the relief was accomplished with only a single casualty,
which was fortunate, seeing that the Hun elected to shell the
bridges just as we were coming in, and one bridge was put out
of action. No sooner were we in than he indulged in an hour's
gas-shelling, which performance was not much appreciated
by the unfortunate fellows who were going out. In the early
morning, too, he exercised a little hate, and heavily bom-
barded our front line for about half an hour at dawn ; he was
certainly uneasy in his mind as to our intentions. The ground
in this part of the country is, as everyone knows, extraordinarily
wet, and the trench line was really a series of broken-down
breastworks ; they had in the past apparently been extremely
comfortable, for there was evidence that all the dug-outs had
been lit up with electric light ; in the past they may have been
the acme of comfort : they certainly were not so now. The
approach to the trenches was over the open, and consequently
visiting was not encouraged by day for obvious reasons, and
more especially in order that the position of our posts should
not be given away. That first morning's bombardment cost
us a dozen casualties, for unhappily a direct hit was made on
one of the shelters.

The 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers were on our left, with their
headquarters in the India-rubber House, and the 5th Scottish
Rifles were in support, also with their headquarters in that
mansion. The Hun continued to be peculiarly active with his
artillery in the morning and evening, but he certainly got plenty
back from our gunners.

Our patrols were busy at night, but were generally held up
by water. This was especially so upon one occasion when we
endeavoured to snaffle a Boche post to obtain identifications.
The Hun tried the game on one night with us, but before he
could reach our posts he was spotted and cleared off.

On the night of the 21st we changed places with the 5th
Scottish Rifles, and went into support, our headquarters being

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 34 of 38)