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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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Y (or " C ") Company, under Captain Ashburner, lay
north of Nimy, its right joining with the 4th Middlesex,
and its left a little north of Lock 6. Captain Forster, with
two platoons, held Nimy Bridge ; the two other platoons
and company H.Q. were entrenched at the railway bridge
and on the canal bank to the left of it.

Z (or " D ") Company, under Captain Byng, held
positions about Lock 6 and the Ghlin-Mons bridges.

D 2



36 ROYAL FCSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

X (or " B ") Company, under Captain Carey, lay about
Nimy station in support, at battalion headquarters ; and
Captain Cole lay with the battalion reserve W (or " A ")
Company north of Mons. In point of fact, therefore, the
two companies, Y and Z, were on the defensive against
six German battalions.




Sketch Map showing the General Disposition of the 4TH
Royal Fusiliers at the Battle of Mons.

To the right lies the hospital, near which part of the battalion lay on

the night after the battle.

The march to Mons had been trying, and there was no
time for rest. After a twenty miles tramp the men were
set to work to put the wood position about Ghlin into
a state of defence. When a good deal of labour had been
spent in an attempt to make it defensible, the men were
withdrawn to the canal line. Captain Byng's company
still lay on both sides of the canal ; and at first the main
position was on the German side. The Ghlin-Mons
railway bridge was blocked by the ingenious expedient



THE FIRST SHOTS 37

of wheeling cable drums thither and then turning them
over on their sides. But Z Company was not seriously
attacked except during the last three-quarters of an hour
before the retirement. The heavier attack was delivered
against the Nimy bridges, and particularly the railway
bridge. On the eastern face of the canal the German
attack was made more advantageously, because un-
hampered by buildings. To avoid a similar handicap
on the western side, the Germans made little attempt
against Nimy Bridge, which is covered by houses and
buildings, and in any case was swung back, but struck
more violently against the railway bridge and its neigh-
bourhood, where the ground was opener. The German
side of the bridge was blocked by a wire entanglement,
and across the track within the canal loop a trench had
been dug. The railway embankment stood high and the
trees on its sides gave some cover to the troops between
it and the Nimy Bridge. The two machine guns were in
small emplacements built on either buttress of the railway
bridge, the right one, with a fair radius of action command-
ing the flats, below the bridge. They afforded an
inevitable focussing point for the German fire.

It was a body of very weary men who met the Germans
on the morning of the 23rd, for many of them had been
working practically all night. The Germans could be
heard moving about in the woods north of the canal in
the dark, and early in the morning a cavalry patrol
consisting of an officer and about six men suddenly
appeared on the Nimy road. They galloped straight
towards the bridge, which was swung round, making an
impassable obstacle. The Fusiliers opened fire, shot
four of the men and wounded the officer. Two of the
men were apparently untouched, and rode off. The
officer, with his horse shot and wounded in the leg, was
captured. By a singular irony it was Lieutenant von
Arnim, son of the commander of the IV. * German Army
Corps. He was wearing his Death's Head Hussar

* Engaged against the left of Smith-Dorrien's corps.



38 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

uniform ; but the brave show merely threw into higher
relief the folly of his action. His notebook showed that
he had been observing the British position from the edge
of the wood. An aeroplane had been seen making a
thorough reconnaissance of the position the night before ;
but, despite this activity, the Germans were in complete
ignorance of the dimensions of the force in front of them,
and when, at about ten o'clock, they opened the attack,
they appeared above the skyline, approaching the railway
and Nimy bridges in column of route. They were only
about 1,000 yards distant ; and the rapid fire, assisted by
the machine guns, in a few minutes destroyed their leading
section of fours. The men had never expected such
targets, and they eagerly seized upon the opportunity.
The column retired out of view, and the position was
thoroughly shelled before the advance was resumed in
extended order. There was no reply to the German guns,
and their fire was particularly galling because of this fact.

When the Fusiliers had first taken up their positions
there had been no thought of retreat, and ammunition
boxes had been distributed about the trenches. But as
the battle developed an order came that the battalion
was to be ready to move at ten minutes' notice. The
ammunition was then put into carts with the result that
a shortage was experienced, later, in the firing line. The
German artillery very soon crept round the whole of the
canal salient and Y Company was taken in rear, in
enfilade and frontally. Some of the rifle fire aimed at this
company caught Captain Attwood's post at Lock 6, where
Lieutenant Harding's platoon lay, and, taking one of the
trenches in enfilade and reverse, led to its abandonment.
Apart from this and periodic bursts of shrapnel Z Company
suffered little. They had early sunk the boats and fired
the barges in case of retreat, and for the rest they could do
nothing but witness the plight of Ashburner's company.

In this section of the canal the position was almost
desperate. The field of fire was indifferent, but the great
volume of converging German fire could not fail to tell.




Lieutenant M. J. Dease, 4TH Battalion, who won the first
V.C. of the War at Mons, August 23RD, 1914.



FIRST VICTORIA CROSSES 39

Ashburner sent to Nimy for reinforcements, and Captain
Carey sent up Second Lieutenant Mead with a platoon.
He was shot in the head at once, but went back whistling
to have it dressed behind the trenches. He returned to
the front and was again shot through the head and killed.
All this time the company kept up a destructive fire against
the German infantry who lost very heavily. More rein-
forcements were sent for, and Captain Bowden-Smith and
Lieutenant E. C. Smith went up with a platoon. The
latter was killed and the former was left dying on the retire-
ment. Captain Fred Forster, of Ashburner's company,
was also killed. Ashburner himself was wounded near the
eye, and Lieutenant Steele was hit. The fight grew hotter
and more terrible. The machine gun crews were constantly
being knocked out. So cramped was their position that
when a man was hit he had to be removed before another
could take his place. The approach from the trench was
across the open, and whenever the gun stopped Lieutenant
Maurice Dease, the young machine gun officer, went up
to see what was wrong. To do this once called for no ordi-
nary courage. To repeat it several times could only be
done with real heroism. Dease was twice badly wounded
on these journeys, but insisted on remaining at duty as
long as one of his crew could fire. The third wound proved
fatal, and a well deserved V.C. was awarded him post-
humously. By this time both guns had ceased firing, and
all the crew had been knocked out. In response to an in-
quiry whether any one else knew how to operate the guns
Private Godley came forward. He cleared the emplace-
ment under heavy fire and brought the gun into action.
But he had not been firing long before the gun was hit
and put completely out of action. The water jackets of
both guns were riddled with bullets, so that they were no
longer of any use. Godley himself was badly wounded and
later fell into the hands of the Germans. He was cheered
in his captivity to learn that he also had been awarded
the V.C* At 1.40 p.m. the battalion was finally ordered

* These were the first V.C.'s won and awarded during the war.



40 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

to retire, and did so in perfect order. Ashburner's com-
pany had lost about 75 men, and the Germans were
within 200 yards of their position. They fell back slowly
upon Mons and, when they were well clear of their position,
Byng's company retired. For three-quarters of an hour
this company had been under direct frontal attack from
the woods in front ; but the Germans had made no head-
way. Now they had about a mile to cover, the first 250
yards over open ground with the German guns firing
shrapnel at 500 yards range, and a heavy rifle fire. There
were two railway embankments to cross ; but the com-
pany suffered little beyond thrills despite the heavy fire.
The infantry were firing high, and even shrapnel burst
too high to be effective. At the second embankment they
met X and Y Company, and with them got safely through
to Mons. The retirement was covered by W Company act-
ing rearguard with Major Mallock in charge. No Germans
crossed by the bridges which the Royal Fusiliers had
defended, while the rearguard stood north of Mons. But
the enemy had forced the Obourg bridge on the eastern side
of the canal bend, and from the higher ground to the west
of it a heavy fire was opened upon the last Fusiliers to
retire. The rearguard joined the rest of the battalion in
the Market Square, where a short halt was made.

The 4th Battalion had suffered very heavily. Besides
the officers already mentioned there were about 150 other
ranks' casualties. There were many remarkable escapes.
Lieutenant (" Kingy ") Tower, of Y Company, had his hat
shot off, his rifle hit and two bullets through his puttees.
Private Denners, of the same company, had three shots
through his hat, one on the end of his rifle, and one
through the sole of his boot, but he was unhurt.

The men had exacted a very heavy price for these
losses, and it is now known that this factor had a material
iufluence on the later German tactics.* On the immediate
course of the battle its influence was of decisive import-
ance. Though the canal bend was abandoned at 2 p.m.

* " Forty Days in 19 14," General Maurice, p. 83.



THE RETREAT, AUGUST 24TH 41

and there still remained several hours of daylight the
troops were not molested, and part of the Royal Fusiliers
were joined by the Middlesex Regiment in an open field at
the hospital in Mons.* The IX. German Corps reported
its outposts after dusk in touch with the main British
position. Von Kluck states that " the IX. Corps had
occupied the southern edge of Mons f . . ." But this
was apparently an euphemism. General von Biilow, who
seems to have been more alive to the chances of the situa-
tion, attempted to compel the IX. Corps to bestir itself.
His order issued " between 8 p.m. and 10.15 p.m." f and
received at 0.7 on the 24th directed that the corps should
" advance immediately west of Maubeuge ..." An
order was also sent direct to the IX. Corps that it " was
to be alarmed and advance at once. In reply to this, a
message was sent back that both the IX. and III. Corps
were already in a battle position facing the enemy . . . and
that the advance ordered was therefore impracticable."

They had learned a new respect for the British fire, and
no small part in the inculcation of this lesson was played
by the 4th Battalion.

Retreat. — But while General von Biilow was receiving
caustic but very unsatisfactory replies from General
von Kluck, the Royal Fusiliers were on the move once
more. At 2 a.m., after about four hours' sleep, the
battalion left Mons Hospital and took up a position south
of Mons, covering Frameries. An attempt was made to
put an extended line into a state of defence. The battalion
was in support to the 7th Brigade at this time beyond the

* This much seems clear — Byng's company were at Mons Hospital
and probably Ashburner's. The other two companies and headquarters
were clear of Mons at 3.30 p.m., and at 7 p.m. arrived at Ciply, two or
three miles south of Mons. The first point is substantiated by the
private diaries of two officers of Byng's company, and the second by
the battalion diary and Major Mallock's diary.

f " The March on Paris, 1914," p. 48. There is a certain ambiguity
about the time to which this refers. If the words " by the evening "
govern the rest of the paragraph, von Kluck is inaccurate. But during
the night, i.e., on the 24th, the British fell back.

X Ibid., p. 51.



42 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

brow of a hill. On the crest was a small house which
Lieutenant Longman's platoon loopholed, and it was later
used to cover the retreat of the firing line. The officers
of the battalion were receiving verbal instruction as to the
way the supports would have to go when the Germans
attacked, opening with an artillery bombardment to which
the British guns replied. Dawn had just broken when
Byng's company was sent to reinforce the left flank of the
position which the Germans were trying to turn. This
part of the line had not been entrenched and the half
company lying on the extreme left suffered very heavily.
The rest of the line had fallen back when Byng retired
with a loss of about 40 per cent., covered by Longman's
platoon. About 2,000 yards farther back the battalion
stood in an entrenched position, and waited for the Germans
to appear over the crest of the hill. The British guns were
bursting over the reverse slope and the heavy rifle fire
which met the enemy as they reached the crest line
caused them to fall back. The battalion remained on
this position a little longer and then retired through
Genly. Byng's section of this company alone had lost

43 men.

Then followed a long and tiring march as rearguard
across the French frontier to Bermeries, which the batta-
lion reached at 10.30 p.m. Despite the weariness of the
men they marched very steadily, and on the following day
covered about thirty-five miles to Inchy. They had left
Bermeries at 5 a.m. and arrived at Inchy about 6.15 p.m.
It began to pour with rain as the battalion reached the
northern side of Inchy. This was the worst day of the
retreat. The men were all deadbeat and suffering badly
from sore feet. Two of the companies, X and Y, were
put on outpost duty. The French maps had been handed
in on the 22nd, when only Belgian ones were retained ;
and, consequently, the men were compelled to operate in
an unknown country. The night, in a spiteful mood,
sent alternate downpours and high wind. Not far to the
north the sky was lit by the flames of burning houses.



THE ACTION OF AUGUST 26th 43

The cavalry could be heard exchanging shots with the
enemy.

Le Cateau. — About 6 a.m. the battalion fell back
through Inchy. The cavalry had ridden through about
two hours before. The battalion had now reached the
battlefield of Le Cateau. Trenches had been dug the
preceding day south of Inchy by civilian labour, but as
they faced the wrong way the battalion had to begin
digging feverishly. They had only been engaged between
half and three-quarters of an hour when the battle began.
The Northumberland Fusiliers took over the trenches and
the Royal Fusiliers moved back into support. A little
distance behind the firing line, and roughly parallel to it,
was a sunken lane. The battalion was moving into it
when a sudden burst of shrapnel caught them. Second
Lieutenant Sampson was wounded, one man was killed,
and about 20 to 25 were wounded. A slight panic resulted,
but the cool and firm handling of Mallock brought the men
speedily under control. For the remainder of the battle
the men had a comparatively good time. The cookers
were in Troisville and a hot meal was obtained. About
250 yards in the rear of the lane were two batteries of
artillery and, as a result, shells from both sides continually
crossed overhead, but without doing any damage.

The Retreat resumed. — About 1 p.m. there was a
short lull, and then came a sudden burst of firing about half
a mile to the right. It was about 2 p.m., and the Germans
could be seen passing through the British lines. Shortly
after this the order was given to retire. The Royal Fusiliers
had had a good rest and Colonel McMahon, whose coolness,
clearness and decision had meant so much to the battalion,
was now ordered to command the rearguard to the
3rd Division with the 4th Battalion ; and half the Royal
Scots Fusiliers were placed under his orders. The roads
leading south were packed with the retreating troops in
considerable confusion. The rearguard formed up in
front of the junction of two converging roads until the
confused mass had streamed past, and then fell back in



44 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

perfect order in a series of extended lines. The Germans
had learned a new caution and when pursuit would have
been perhaps decisive, none was made. The attempt had
been made to separate the two corps ; but when it was
virtually achieved there followed the inexplicable failure
to exploit the success. The 4th Battalion marched
through a village at attention, arms sloped and fours
dressed. They were seen about this time by General
Hamilton, the Commander of the 3rd Division, who, no
doubt, contrasting the disorderly retreat of the garrison
of the firing line, could not resist exclaiming, " Well done,
Fusiliers ! "

The battalion marched on till about 2 a.m. on the 27th,
when a halt was made by the roadside until 3.30, when the
retreat was resumed. They reached Hargicourt about
10 a.m., and after an hour's rest marched on again as
rearguard to Vermand, where they arrived at 6.30 p.m.
With the exception of about two and a half hours' rest
they had had twenty-eight hours' continuous marching.
Shortly after midnight they were on the move once more.
Ham was reached at 9.30 a.m., and after a short halt the
battalion fell back once more to Crissoles. Arriving at
6.30 p.m., the men were billeted and had a rest and hot food.
On the next day, Saturday, the battalion moved out
again as rearguard to the division. Here the country is
well wooded and the Fusiliers could see several Uhlan
patrols. In front of a large forest they were even able
to shoot two Uhlans who proved over-venturesome. At
dusk the battalion fell back through the wood and marched
all night via Noyons to Cuts, and, after a short halt, to
Montois. On arrival at Montois at 7 a.m., on Sunday the
30th, the battalion rested and did not leave the village
till twenty-four hours later. Leaving Montois at 7 a.m.
the battalion arrived after a hot march through woods
at Vauciennes, midway between Villers-Cotterets and
Crepy on the national road to Paris. They were billeted
in a sugar factory, which did not leave very comfortable
recollections behind it. The battalion was once more



FARTHEST SOUTH, SEPTEMBER 5th 45

rearguard when it marched south at dawn on September
1st to Bouillancy. Starting at 4.30 a.m. on the following
day they arrived at Penchard, on the main road to Meaux,
at 2 p.m., and placed outposts for the brigade. On
September 3rd the battalion passed through Meaux to
Le Mans Farm, where much wholesome food was obtained.
At 1 p.m. on the following day the Fusiliers were ordered
out to take up a defensive position south of La Haute
Maison ; and at n p.m. the march was resumed to
Chatres, which was reached at 7 a.m. on September 5th.
It was the southernmost point of the Fusiliers.

Despite their ordeal at Mons the battalion had suffered
comparatively little, and the fatigue and hardships of the
long retreat had not weakened their spirit. And when on
Sunday morning the order came to advance once more, it
was certainly received with a sigh of relief. It was exactly
a fortnight since the men had first found contact with the
German troops and they were anxious to resume that
inconclusive encounter. They had been rearguard during
the retreat. Now they marched as advance guard, moving
at first with the uncertainty that characterised the British
Army's entry into the battle of the Marne. About 10 a.m.
they passed the First Corps, and at 7 p.m. reached billets
in Lumigny. The advance was resumed on the following
day at 12 noon, on crowded roads, to La Martroy,* where,
at 7 p.m., the battalion billeted. Two hours before the
battalion had passed through Coulommiers, where signs
of the German occupation were in evidence though the
trains were again running. At La Martroy the Fusiliers
received their second reinforcements, Second Lieutenant
Hughes and 93 men.

Leaving La Martroy at 6 a.m. on the 8th the division
first achieved contact with the enemy at Orly, where they

* It is perhaps useful to point out that officers' diaries frequently
differ as to the places reached. Thus, on Sunday, August 30th, the
battalion halted at Montois ; but some diaries give this as Vic, about
a mile north. Similarly, Vaumoise is cited instead of Vauciennes, close
by ; La Bretonniere instead of La Martroy. The places given in this
chapter are those at which battalion headquarters rested.



46 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

were held up for some hours, so that the battalion only
reached Les Faucheres at 8 p.m.

On the following day the Royal Fusiliers crossed the
Marne unopposed ; and, though not engaged in the day's
fighting, were on outpost duty all night and lay in the
trenches. On September ioth the battalion came into con-
tact with the enemy at Veuilly. The men were tired after
the outposts, and a cold rain set in. But about 9 a.m. the
cavalry brought information that the German rearguard,
about two miles ahead, was breakfasting ; and the Royal
Fusiliers went forward at once. Lieutenant Steele's
platoon was first engaged, and Lieutenant Longman was
sent up as a reinforcement. A sharp engagement followed,
in which 5 men were killed, 29 wounded, and Lieutenants
Tower, Beazley, Jackson and Longman were wounded, the
first two severely. The rearguard was quickly overcome
and, in conjunction with the Scots Fusiliers, the battalion
captured 600 prisoners and the machine gun which had
inflicted most of the wounds on Y Company. With four
more officers wounded and two, Captain Whinney and
Lieutenant Barton sick, the command of the battalion
was seriously weakened. On the following day the
battalion arrived at Grand Rozoy at 1 p.m., and the day
was memorable as the first on which firing had not been
heard. The Germans had fallen back hurriedly. Small
bodies were encountered in the woods south of Brenelle on
the 12th ; but they were quickly put to flight and the
battalion billeted in Brenelle.

The Aisne.— On the 13th the battle of the Marne
began to merge into the battle of the Aisne. The bridges
had been blown up, and when the battalion reached
Vailly their only means of crossing was by a narrow plank
which wobbled very suggestively as the men went across.
A position had to be taken up to the left of Rouge Maison
Farm. When the battalion approached the spot it was
pitch dark and pouring with rain. X and Z Companies
pushed forward and took up an outpost line, just after
midnight, on the Rouge Maison Spur. The other two



THE AISNE, SEPTEMBER 14TH 47

companies occupied a hollow road in the rear ; and all
spent a very wet night in the open. The importance of
this bold advance in the dark was not realised at the
moment ; but it soon became apparent from the German
efforts to dislodge the Fusiliers from their position. The
morning of the 14th dawned wet and foggy ; and it was
at once seen that the depth of the battalion's advance had
been too great for the extent of its hold on the plateau.
One of Byng's posts was so close to the enemy main line
that the Germans could be clearly heard talking. The
two forward companies began to extend their line towards
the left, W and Y being sent forward to support them.
As W advanced to support X it was discovered that there
was a trench about 300 yards from their right, and the
company wheeled to face it. A patrol sent forward was
immediately fired upon, and the position had hardly been
disclosed before the battalion on the right was seen to
be retiring. The Germans immediately profited by this
mischance to take the Fusiliers' right flank in enfilade
with machine guns, and many casualties were suffered.
Cole and Hobbs fell at once. The whole of the plateau
now came under rifle, machine gun and shell fire, with the
support of which the Germans attacked. Byng moved
too far to the left and Ashburner, who had now resumed
command of Y Company, ceased to follow and moved to
support W. Ashburner's company was ordered to move
to the cover of the steep bank west of the road and remain
in reserve. These positions were held till nightfall, when
the losses of the day were seen to have been extremely



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 4 of 38)