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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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in the India-rubber Mansion.

The next night was full of interest for us, though we were not
directly concerned. As will have been gathered, we were
sharing the india-rubber place with the headquarters staff of
the left front line battalion, the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers,



TWENTIETH BATTALION AT THE COAST 399

who were being relieved by the Cameronians. During this
relief the Hun successfully raided one of the left battalion posts
in the Geleide Flood. The relief was consequently much
delayed, but was eventually completed in the small hours.
Plans were at once set afoot for revenge, and raids were
prepared by the Cameronians and ourselves. The Camero-
nians were to do their show on the night of the 24th, and we
were to go back on the 25th and do ours. On the night of the
24th we were all up all night. The Cameronians did their show,
captured the Boche posts and with them a machine gun and
nine prisoners, all of whom we had the pleasure of seeing at
headquarters, one of them being closely interrogated for
information. On the 25th it was decided that our show had
better be postponed twenty-four hours. We were rather dis-
appointed, as all was in readiness, and we were satisfied that
every detail had been arranged. As it turned out that show
never came off, because on the night of the 25th the Hun put
in a very heavy counter-attack on the left battalion, which
was to a certain degree successful, and we had to send one
company — as a matter of fact, the very company which was
to do our raid— to reinforce the left company of the left
battalion, the company commander of which had been killed.
As may be imagined, the night of August 25th was pretty
much disturbed and full of interest, but the line in front was
straightened out before dawn, and on the night of the 26th
our company, which had proceeded in support, were relieved.
All chance of our show coming off finally vanished when on
the 26th we heard that on the 27th the brigade were to be
relieved, and on the 27th the 1st Battalion Dorset Regiment
came and took over from us.

One cannot finish the history of the episode without referring
to the day of the 26th, when the headquarters of the brigade
and those of all the battalions were at different times during
the day closed, the occupants being compelled to move else-
where. This was brought about by the Hun, who amused
himself throughout that day by shelling with 15-inch shells.
He seemed to attack all the headquarters in turn and give them
a few rounds. He actually hit the brigade headquarters in
Nieuport, and landed two sufficiently close to the India-rubber
House to rock that building, crack one of the concrete walls,
and extinguish the electric light.

By 3 a.m. on the 28th the relief was complete and we were on



400 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

our way out. We had been in a good many parts of the line,
but it was generally agreed that this particular tour was to be
remembered as one of the most unpleasant ; we had sustained
a good number of casualties, and the Hun artillery had been
very active with shell of every calibre and with plenty of
gas shell. Our consolation, however, was that our guns were
very active, too, and the best feature was the weather, which
was on the whole good.

We marched back to Oost Dunkerque for a few hours and
then proceeded to La Panne, where we had good billets, baths
and a change of clothes. The officers indulged in a good dinner
that night at the Terlinck.

On the 30th and 31st we travelled by 'buses to Petit Synthe
and Houlle Moolle respectively. At the latter place we were
to be for a short time whilst the division were in rest.



BOURLON WOOD AND AFTER*
By W. J. Phythian Adams

A connected account of our movements at Moeuvres and
Bourlon Wood would require a war diary and the whole O.R.
staff, and these are not accessible in Jerusalem, but I give, for
what it is worth, a sketch of that very trying ordeal, through
which the battalion passed so triumphantly, and I give it, as I
must, from the point of view of battalion headquarters.

We had barely got over the cramping day in the train from
Herzeele and the still more tiring march afterwards when we
got orders from the brigade to move into the line opposite
Mceuvres and relieve the Irish. The blizzard which escorted
us that night will not be forgotten by those who had to face it.
It was a fit begining for a week of battle.

We were not to rest, however, for things in the wood had
been going badly. An urgent message to H.Q. brought us
stumbling through the dark to a brief interview with General
Kellett, a hand-shake and another half-hour of stumbling to the
quarters of a new brigade. There in a few words General
Bradford outlined the situation. His men were exhausted and
were being withdrawn, and only two dismounted cavalry
*' battalions " remained to garrison the position.

My orders were to proceed at once to the wood, leaving the
battalions to follow at full speed, and to represent to the
battalion commanders on the spot the need of attacking and
capturing Bourlon village by dawn. Back again to H.Q.
company commanders' conference, a bite, and a much-needed
drink, and off to Bourlon Wood. How the battalion got
through that night I only know from what 1 saw and heard
afterwards. All honour to those who triumphed over every
difficulty !

Hardly were we out of the shrapnel which fell impartially on
the unjust and just (and perhaps more on H.Q. than anywhere
else !) than the real battle began, and with it the most bewil-
dering sequence of operations that we ever had in France.

* Reprinted from Mufti, published by the Old Comrades' Associa-
tion of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers.

F. D D



402 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

We had never rejoined the 99th Brigade, and now for two or
three days passed from the 5th to the 6th. just as we moved
from one battle station to another. To add to the general
confusion, " detached " parties from other corps picketed
themselves happily in our lines, and at one time two companies
of another battalion of our division were lent to us in the event
of an enemy attack.

From the point of view of the 22nd the situation was not an
amiable one. Our " front line," as we finally took it up,
was really an enormous sap, sucking out to the German
redoubts, without an inch of wire on either side, a bad enough
position even without the danger which threatened both our
flanks. We knew only too well that things were decidedly
groggy, and we had to face the prospect of a strenuous rear-
guard action.

The decision to blunt the salient's nose came as a welcome
surprise. The orders were to keep the move a secret even from
company commanders, who were to be informed that a relief,
and not a retirement, was to take place that night. Only the
rearguard commander was to know the real facts, and he had
to, as it was his business to blow up the dug-outs behind him.

The 22nd may congratulate themselves on the way they
carried out the movement, and I do not think the enemy found
much material at their disposal. My only regret — and it was
a deep one — was that so much of the gallant labour of our
tump line brigade had been unavoidably wasted. The whole
division throughout the battle owed very much to their efforts,
and during the more critical moments it was a blessed relief
to feel that we. had more stuff in our hands than the Huns
could afford to swallow.

This was a fight in which the 22nd, to their lasting regret.,
were forced to play the " ever ready " role without the chance
of first-class " scrapping " which fell to the lot of the 17th
Royal Fusiliers, who took our place in the line and in our own
brigade.

At Mceuvres our part was not a minor one : we had the
hardest task of any, to manoeuvre under another command
after days of shelling and fatigue from which our comrades
were exempt, to move here or there wherever we were most
wanted, and finally, when endurance seemed no longer possible,
to enter the front line and at the eleventh hour to come to
grips with the enemy.



LIFE IN THE LINES (FEBRUARY TO
MARCH, 1918) *

The Big Gas Shelling

We were now settled down in the front line (Highland Ridge).
Imagine the battalion therefore quite untrained, with officers
and men strange to one another, awaiting the much-talked-of
great German offensive.

The back areas were full of rumours and false alarms. In
the trenches matters were viewed with stolid indifference.

The men had to work day and night. Double sentries were
posted in every conceivable spot, even though our position was
on a hill, and one or two sentries could see the whole expanse
of country for miles around.

The Germans were not nearer than 800 yards, except at
certain points.

One day was much like another till the night of the great
gas barrage. In the first week in March about 7 p.m. it com-
menced.

Shells poured overhead, landing in the support lines and
battery position. Every enemy gun must have been at work.

From 7 p.m. till 4 a.m. there was a continuous whistle of
shells passing overhead. They burst with a very slight
explosion.

The wind was from behind us, and the gas drifted back our
way. The men put on their gas helmets and wore them for four
or five hours. Almost suffocated and quite exhausted, they
took them off, and sooner or later as the fumes rose from the
ground in the valleys they collapsed.

The gas barrage commenced again on the next night — the
night on which we were to come out of the line. Again it was
very intense.

I telephoned to the brigade headquarters, which were behind
the gas barrage, and asked if it was advisable to bring the
battalion through it.

* By a Commanding Officer.

D D 2



404 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

The reply was in the affirmative.

This relief night will never be forgotten by any one who took
part in it.

One barrage was falling on the support line, but the greater
one was on the roads behind brigade headquarters. We passed
through the first one and dodged the splinters by dropping
down in the trenches, which gave us protection.

Then out on to the open road, platoons ioo yards apart.

A dark night, in front of us a heavy barrage of gas shells
falling thickly over the open country. The air was impregnated
with fumes, and the fog caused by the explosives made the
night even darker.

We wore our gas masks. After half a mile walk we were
bathed in perspiration. Carrying one's equipment with one's
head encased in a stifling gas helmet is a fatiguing proceeding.

The military police had prevented our horses coming to
meet us owing to the heavy shelling.

The road was rough and full of shell holes. Men fell into
them.

Literally thousands of shells were falling on each side of the
track.

Still actual casualties were slight.

Some got burned on the arms and neck by being splashed by
the contents of the shells.

There was nothing for it but to plod on, too exhausted and
overladen to hurry. It was the weirdest experience walking
through that shower of missiles, but not nearly so terrifying
as going through a high explosive barrage.

At intervals our own guns opened fire en masse on the
enemy.

As we were just passing through the gun positions we got
the full benefit of their terrific noise.

At last we get clear of the barrage, and at the foot of the
hill below the ruined village we climb on board our train.

The train (so called) consists of a few open trucks. We wait
impatiently for it to start. A few minutes ago we were bathed
in sweat with our exertions. Now the frosty air of early
morning bids fair to give us chills and rheumatism.

The train takes us to rest camp five miles distant. The
men are all much the worse for gas. Coughs and sore eyes are
the chief results, developing later to loss of voice.

On arrival about 3 a.m. we find a message to say that the



BEFORE THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE, 1918 405

battalion must furnish a digging party at 8 a.m. up in the
reserve line in the area where the gas barrage had been thickest
and the ground reeked of the fumes.

One hundred and fifty men are required. They are not fit
for it, but the brigade are obdurate, and they have to march
five weary miles back again, do eight hours' hard work and
return home on foot in the evening.

They dug a trench which was never used in any operations.

Before 10 a.m. the divisional general visits us. He shows
a certain amount of sympathy with the men for their suffer-
ings. By this time hardly an officer or man could speak
above a whisper.

At midnight on the day (March 20th) of our return to the
front line 100 boys from England join us. They have been
travelling for three days in trucks, and arrive dirty and sleep-
less. They know nothing of war and have never previously
seen a trench.

The First Day

When the big offensive opened we occupied the front seats
of the stalls. It had the advantage that one was able to see
the. performance clearly, and the usual disadvantage that one
was deafened by the noise of the orchestra and was further
from the exit.

It began about 4 a.m., and it was composed of high explosive
mingled with trench mortars. The latter fired with incredible
rapidity. Imagine a drummer beating a roll on his side drum
just over your head, multiply the noise ten thousandfold, and
that was what seemed to be going on, on the roof of our
pill-box.

The overture to the great offensive has started. The question
is, on which flank are the enemy going to attack ?

I settle down by the 'phone and anxiously ring up A Com-
pany, on my right. Luckily the wire is not yet cut. A Company
say things are pretty quiet in their sector. " Just flinging over
a bit of heavy stuff now and then," says their captain, " nothing
to worry about."

D Company, in the centre, ring up and report a curious cloud
of smoke drifting towards them. No, it is not the smoke of
the guns ; it is some device of the Germans. Soon we are
enveloped in the density of a London fog, which brings tears to



406 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

the eyes. B, on the left, report that the enemy are coming
and have got into the next battalion's trenches.

Now we are entitled to send up the S.O.S. Up goes the
rocket ; no one sees it owing to the smoke. Off goes a pigeon,
apparently in the direction of the German lines. The sig-
nallers send the message on the power buzzer, as the wires are
broken. Runners take the message through the barrage. One
hates ordering them to do it. Mercifully they get through.
Anxiously we await the result. At last our guns open ; shells
drop all along in front of our front line — they ought to take
heavy toll of any advancing Germans — the fog prevents us
from seeing ; the wire to brigade is cut ; we are isolated. Thank
Heaven, the company wires still hold. Reports come in con-
tinually from right, left and centre.

The noise of the two bombardments becomes louder and
louder. The whole earth seems to shake with concussion.
I can stand it no longer ; I leave the pill-box and dive down to
the depth of the dug-out.

My left-hand post has withdrawn ; it was no longer tenable
when the battalion on my left gave way. The captain of my
left company (Captain K. Hawkins, M.C.) is missing ; he is
killed. His body is found at the entrance of his headquarters.
A gallant, fearless fellow, he thought nothing of going out in
the midst of the barrage. His only other officer is away on
the extreme left. The captain's servant takes charge, makes
the men put on their respirators, and sends in intelligent
reports on the 'phone to me. Truly the private soldier is a
marvel. The left is badly threatened. I must prepare a
counter-attack. I ask my support company commander
(Captain J. Forster, M.C.) to come round and see me when
there is a lull.

It is essential to have him at headquarters in case the wires
break. He is another of those wonderful fellows who don't
seem to know what fear is. He does not wait. He comes up
straight through the barrage. He is buried twice. An HE.
shell lifts a pile of duck-boards and throws them at him, but
he gets through. Though badly shaken, he soon recovers, and
we arrange our plans for a counter-attack.

Officers and men from the battalion on our left come running
into our trench. They have had a terrible doing ; they don't
know how they got here ; their speech is inarticulate from
fright. The less terrified tell me of abandoned trenches and



MARCH 21ST, 1918 407

hordes of advancing Germans. Our left is in the air. We put
piles of sandbags in each of our trenches to form blocks. We
mount Lewis guns to cover our left, and open rapid fire on the
enemy.

A messenger goes back to ask if the support battalion will
come up and counter-attack. It seems madness to leave the
Germans in possession of these trenches, and our flank exposed.
Through it all that marvellous man, the mess cook, is at work.
With a Primus stove in the passage, he produces the most
perfect eggs and bacon and the most refreshing tea. And the
sergeant-major, quite unperturbed, makes out his complicated
returns.

Now the brigade on our right have let the Germans into their
front line, and the garrison come rushing along our trench.
I order my company commander to re-organise them and
retake the lost ground. He is a stout fellow, and soon has
despatched his bombing party, and his little enterprise is
crowned with success.

At last there is a lull. One can go out and see the damage —
blown-in trenches, duck-boards smashed to atoms, and, alas !
many a good man who will never fire a rifle again. The
doctor is hard at work — the wounded are being dressed and
sent down to the field ambulance.

The smoke cloud drifts away, the sun shines brilliantly, and
the gas respirators are removed and the gas curtains pulled up.
The strain has been great ; for the past four hours every one
has been working at high pressure, one officer at the tele-
phone, one writing down all the messages, and another keeping
a time-table of all that takes place. While the sentries remain
on the fire step, the remainder of each section waits near the
dug-out entrance ready to rush out with fixed bayonet as
soon as required.

We feel pleased with ourselves. We have held our ground.

The Second Day

The second day was a peaceful one comparatively. It was
essentially an unsatisfactory day.

About 1.30 a.m. an order came that we were to evacuate our
trenches and fall back to the support line. We were to be
clear of our front line by 3 a.m. There was no transport of
any description ; we could only take away what we could carry



4 o8 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

ourselves. Heavy trench mortars must be blown up ; a pile
of gas cylinders must be destroyed. These had been specially
brought up to the front line on the previous night.

Now one must devise the best method of evacuation. One
remembered what one had read of the Dardanelles. One
wondered whether the enemy would suspect and open heavy
fire on us, whether the division on our flank would retire
before us, and, above all, why this retirement had been
ordered for no apparent reason.

We regretted leaving our excellent dug-out and comfortable
mess. It was but little satisfaction to see the subalterns
smash up the chairs and tables and do their best to render it
uninhabitable for the Germans.

3 a.m., and we filed slowly for the last time down the long
duck-boards track to the support line. Luckily we were
unmolested by the enemy.

After daylight it was most interesting to watch the advance
of the enemy over our late front line. It was unmethodical in
appearance, but at the same time undoubtedly sound. Small
disconnected groups of men appeared here and there moving
steadily forward. An aeroplane flying at a height of about
150 feet patrolled over our lines. It noted our dispositions,
and, I should think, must have counted every man. In vain did
our Lewis gunners empty their magazines at it. In vain did
we telephone to brigade and ask the general if he could induce
some of our planes to come up and tackle it. Not a sign of a
British plane in the sky, not a shot from an Archie.

Behind the infantry patrols, who were now swarming all
over the country, came the German artillery. With marvellous
rapidity the enemy pushed forward his guns, and with unerring
accuracy his shells dropped on our new line. Where were our
guns ? We telephoned to our brigade ; we told them where the
enemy guns were, and where the infantry patrols were
advancing, all to no purpose. Scarcely a sound could be
detected from our own guns.

It was most depressing to watch the leisurely advance of the
enemy and to see him practically unmolested. The only time
he was harassed at all was when he came within range of our
Lewis guns, whereupon he wisely advanced no further.

At night the evacuation was once more repeated. We
retired to a more or less imaginary line of trenches in a wood.
The trenches were about 2 feet deep, the field of fire was nil,



MARCH 23RD, 1918 409

and there were no dug-outs. The men tried to sleep in spite of
the shells constantly dropping around. The noise of the
explosions and the firing of our own guns rendered the night
anything but peaceful.

We still had no idea as to why and wherefore we had retired.

The Third Day

March 23rd, 1918, will always remind me of a bad nightmare.
Daybreak found us in our inadequate trench in the wood,
without any cover, with but little water and no means of
communication with any one. Ammunition was scarce, as we
had had no transport, and hundreds of boxes in consequence
had been abandoned in the trenches.

It was a glorious morning, and we lay and basked in the sun
among the anemones, waiting for the Germans and waiting
for orders. At last we saw the rearguard of our brigade falling
back towards our lines. Our artillery opened on them promptly,
evidently mistaking them for Germans. The enemy were not
long in following them up. Over the open came their never-
ending procession of small patrols. Their field guns, moving
up with almost uncanny rapidity, commenced to drop shells
all over our wood.

Our orderly arrives from brigade, of course just at the
moment I had started to shave and was looking forward to
breakfast of a sort. We are to fall back at once to divisional
reserve at Bus. Two companies are to act as rearguards.
Company commanders are summoned. Captain Thomas is
detailed to furnish the rearguard, Forster leads the first two
companies, and I follow with headquarters.

Through the wood in single file we wend our way, and out
on to the wooden track to Neuville. Progress is slow : the day
is as hot as midsummer ; the men are overloaded. Lewis guns
and magazines have all to be carried by hand, as there are no
limbers. Where our transport has gone to no one knows.

We trek over the open in small columns, one platoon at a
time. We pass a beautiful new German aeroplane, which has
been forced to land at the edge of the wood. No one has
attempted to destroy it ; it is thoughtfully left for the enemy
to recover it.

Every one except the infantry seems to have fled, not an
engineer to be seen, not an attempt to place obstacles in the
enemy's way or to blow up the few roads by which his guns can



410 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

advance, not a machine gun to check his progress. As we
slowly move along we wonder when the first shell will land
amongst us, or whether we shall just get away in time.

We feel painfully visible. We reach Neuville, a deserted
ruin, and as we look back we see our rearguard are coming over
the open. The enemy has opened fire on them, and, with his
usual accuracy, he is dropping shells right amongst them. It
is marvellous how few casualties they suffer, and it is marvellous
to watch those undaunted men, the regimental stretcher-
bearers, attending to the wounded and slowly carrying their
helpless burdens through a regular storm of shells. No class
of men deserve greater admiration.

The canteens in Neuville are deserted, and the men wisely
fill their pockets with chocolate and cigars ; better than leaving
them to the enemy. The darkest cloud has a silver lining !

Crumps are falling on our left and pretty close to the road.
We hope he won't change his target. Thank Heaven, the two
companies are clear of the village at last.

We hear that a shell wiped out a neighbouring brigade
staff on that very road just half an hour before we arrived.
We've had luck so far. We don't linger near the spot. From
every village a huge column of smoke is ascending to heaven.
These are the dumps being destroyed, the piles of stores that
could not be carried away — at least a portion of them, for the



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 35 of 38)