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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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heavy. Captains Byng, Cole and Attwood and Lieutenant
Hobbs were killed, Lieutenant Orred wounded, and 200
other ranks were killed or wounded. The battalion had
been compelled to readjust their position and reconcen-
trate about the sunken road west of the farm.

Two platoons of X Company occupied Rouge Maison
Farm that night, and beat off an attack with rifle fire and
the bayonet. During the 15th the battalion clung to its
positions, retiring from the farm during the day, but


reoccupying it at night with a platoon of X Company. It
was attacked during the night, but the Germans were
beaten off, a few of them being ejected from the farm at
the point of the bayonet. The night was very wet, and the
battalion was in no enviable position ; but during the three
following days they were little disturbed and the position
was strengthened. German shells continually shrieked
overhead as the enemy devoted himself to the bombard-
ment of Vailly.

On the 19th a very heavy bombardment began about
2.30 p.m. The British artillery was outranged, and made
no effective reply. After a particularly severe shelling
of the whole battalion front at short range, the Germans
attacked about 6 p.m. with great determination. They
were beaten off with heavy loss, and one party, losing
direction in the darkness, offered its flank to the Fusiliers,
who were not slow to take advantage. Before the barrier
in front of one small part of X Company 25 German
dead were counted. The battalion suffered 50 casualties
during the day. At dawn on " Alma " day the attack
was resumed, and a heavy howitzer was brought to within
800 yards of the position, and, taking it in enfilade, caused
several casualties. Two field guns had also been
entrenched within 500 yards of the trenches, and the
battalion's position in the salient was becoming precarious
when the British artillery began to give effective support.
The howitzer had to be withdrawn. The attack was
beaten off, and although Second Lieutenant Hughes and
about 20 other ranks were killed and wounded, the
Germans suffered more heavily. At 5 p.m. the Lincoln-
shires relieved the Royal Fusiliers, who went back to Vailly
after having been in the trenches for seven days and
eight nights. Their total casualties were 5 officers and
300 men ; but their work again had been of a very high
quality, and they were the recipients of warm praise from
the brigade and divisional commanders.*

* " The commanding officer received last night from General
Hamilton, commanding 3rd Division, and from General Shaw, com-


In the early hours of the morning of the 21st the
battalion, relieved in Vailly, moved to Courcelles. During
the afternoon Sir John French visited them in billets, and
complimented them.* On the following day Sir Horace
Smith-Dorrien came to Courcelles to add his own appre-
ciation of the Fusiliers' work. During this rest two drafts
arrived, and the battalion was brought approximately
up to strength, and at 9 p.m. relieved the Royal Irish
in trenches on the south-west side of the Rouge Maison
Spur. This tour of the trenches was uneventful, and on
the evening of October 2nd the battalion was relieved,
marched south through Braisnes, and billeted north of
Servenay after a trek of sixteen miles.

5jS *JC 5(5 *p

Meanwhile the 1st Battalion under Lieut.-Colonel
R. Fowler-Butler had reached the Aisne and made their
debut in the war. They were in Ireland on August 4th,
but by mid- August had arrived at Cambridge, and reached
St. Nazaire during the advance to the Aisne. They left
Courcelles two days before the 4th Battalion went into
billets there, on relief after their tenure of the Rouge
Maison salient. On the 21st, as the latter battalion were
coming out of the line for a rest, they marched from
Dhuizel to trenches north of Soupir, via Vieil Arcy, St.
Mard, Cys and Chavonne. The brigade (17th) front

manding gth Brigade, emphatic expressions of their appreciation of the
splendid service rendered by the battalion during the eight days' close
fighting just concluded. From the warm terms of praise used by the
divisional and brigade commanders the CO. thinks it may be assumed
that the battalion has earned some measure of distinction in these
operations, and feels that this recognition of something achieved for
the country at heavy cost to the regiment, coming, as it does, after
several acknowledgments of good work at Mons, of good marching and
of all-round efficiency, will increase the feeling of pride which all have
in their regiment, and encourage all ranks to earn further distinction
in the future. From his own personal observation, the CO. has been
extremely gratified by the fine bearing and soldierly endurance of the
battalion during the campaign. Every effort must be made to main-
tain, and even to improve upon, this high standard. — (Signed) N. R.
McMahon, Lieut.-Colonel."

* " No troops in the world could have done better than you have.
England is proud of you, and I am proud of you."

F. E


stretched between the canal at Fort de Metz and the road
at La Cour de Soupir. At the latter place lay the
Leinsters, with the Royal Fusiliers on their right. Their
first tour of the trenches was comparatively uneventful.
On the part of the line where they lay the periodical
rumour that the Germans were abandoning their positions
resulted in the only casualties suffered in the first
acquaintance with the enemy. Where the 4th Battalion
had stood it was quite evident that the Germans were
still in possession ; and, indeed, even on the Soupir
section the 1st Battalion were sufficiently certified of
the enemy's tenure of the trenches 300 yards distant by
observation from the branches of a tree. But some of
the higher powers proved sceptical, and patrols were
ordered out. On the night of the 22nd Captain Howlett
was wounded, and 2 other ranks were killed, 13 wounded,
and 3 missing after one of these feelers. A daylight
patrol on the 27th resulted in 17 O.R. being killed and
12 wounded. Apart from these two unfortunately
successful attempts to test the strength of the German
trench garrison, the first tour of the trenches was unevent-
ful. They were relieved on October 1st, and were billeted
in Dhuizel. On the 4th they relieved General de Lisle's
cavalry brigade as corps troops at Chassemy, a lively spot
near the Conde bridge, held by the Germans. The bridge
consisted of only a few planks across the broken section ;
but the enemy had also two or three boats on the river,
and the approach to the battalion's position became
possible only after dark. On the evening of the 6th the
battalion marched south to follow the 4th Battalion in
the gradual movement of the British Army to the northern



By the end of the second week in October the ist and
4th Battalions were both in Flanders, moving among
places which saw more of the British troops during the
war than any others. But the condition of the two bat-
talions was very different. The ist Battalion was one over
strength in officers on the Aisne ; the 4th required a draft of
11 officers to bring it within sight of full strength. Junior
officers who had attained exalted rank returned to their
platoons, and the battalion marched, with little interval,
into the thick of a hot battle. The atmosphere of the
struggle had changed, and the troops got their first
experience of village fighting.

On October 12th the 4th Battalion moved towards
Vieille Chapelle along roads almost blocked by French
cavalry. They were in divisional reserve, and remained
so until the 15th, when they moved forward towards the
Estaires-Neuve Chapelle road. The battalion attacked
through Pont du Hem, W and X Companies being in the
front line ; and easily brushed aside the cavalry screen in
front of them. The advance was resumed on the following
day to the Rue d'Enfer, where the enemy were found
holding houses, and at dusk a halt was made on a line
extending from Trivolet (W, Captain Swifte), along Rue
d'Enfer, to Moulin du Pietre (X, Carey). There had
been little resistance, and the few casualties suffered were
due to snipers.

Herlies. — Aubers had been evacuated during the
night, and the battalion entered it unopposed on the
morning of the 17th ; but there some German cavalry

E 2


were encountered advancing from Fromelles. The bat-
talion was on the left of the division, with its flank
supposed to be covered by French cavalry. The advance
of the German cavalry delayed the march upon Herlies,
which was found to be held in some strength. Captain
Swift, with W Company, marched direct upon it by the
Aubers-Herlies road, while Colonel McMahon took the
other three companies through Le Plouich and Le Riez.
The Lincolns, on the right of the Fusiliers, moved due
eastwards ; and under this converging attack the Germans
were forced out of the village. At about 6.30 p.m.
Colonel McMahon entered from the north as Swift, with
the Lincolns, was pushing the enemy out at the point of
the bayonet. W Company lost Lieutenant Hodges,
killed, and about 10 other casualties. An outpost line
was taken up from Le Petit Riez to the southern outskirts
of Herlies. The houses were searched, and a few Germans
were discovered.

The division had now reached an uneasy equilibrium
with the German forces on their front, and no further
advance was possible. The 18th was spent in strengthen-
ing the positions, all of which came under a heavy bom-
bardment from field and heavy guns. About 5 p.m. the
battalions on the right and left of the Royal Fusiliers, the
Scots Fusiliers and the Royal Irish, attacked after a
preliminary bombardment. The Germans at once replied.
Captain Waller, Lieutenants Cooper, Gorst and Longman,
all of Z Company, were at this time having tea in a farm
at Petit Riez, near their trenches. The three first ran out
to see what was happening. Longman stayed behind ; and
a shell fell upon the farm, burst in the room and killed
him as he sat at table, a tragic end to a life of much

During the morning of the following day the 8th Brigade
took over Le Grand Riez, thus enabling the battalion to
contract their front. The Fusiliers supported by their
fire an attack on Le Pilly made in the afternoon by the
18th Royal Irish. The latter reached the station with


heavy loss, but were counter-attacked after an intense
bombardment and suffered more casualties. During the
night Lieutenant Moxon's platoon was sent to the support
of the Royal Irish in Le Pilly — it was all the help that
could be given — and the Northumberland Fusiliers took
over the position south of Herlies. The 4th Middlesex
also relieved Z Company in Le Petit Riez. The Royal
Fusiliers now held the west side of Herlies from the Le
Pilly road. About 7 a.m. on the 20th a violent bombard-
ment of Herlies with heavy guns began, and the town was
speedily reduced to ruins. The only building left intact
was the convent behind the church. The German infantry
followed this up by repeated attempts to penetrate the
village, which now lay at the angle of a narrow salient.
About 9 a.m. the Northumberland Fusiliers reported
determined attempts to outflank them on the southern
boundaries of Herlies, and Captain Carey was sent up
with a company to attempt to relieve the pressure by
initiating an outflanking movement towards Moxon's
position. They had to advance over the open, which was
now covered by shell fire, and they lost very heavily. Carey
was severely wounded by a shell splinter. Moxon had
sustained a serious wound in the head. But a platoon
reached his position. Ashburner was wounded by a shell
splinter in Herlies.

About 1 p.m. Z Company was sent back to prepare a
second position. The struggle grew more bitter, and about
4 p.m. half a battalion of Royal Scots was sent to Colonel
McMahon to reinforce Herlies. During the night the
Northumberland Fusiliers were relieved by the Scots
Fusiliers. W and Y Companies still held their positions
on the west of Herlies, but the French had evacuated
Fromelles ; and in the afternoon the battalion was ordered
to abandon Herlies. During the night the retirement was
carried out to a position between Haut Pommereau and
Le Plouich. The movement was unnoticed by the enemy,
who continued to shell Herlies long after the battalion
had left. The fighting in and about this village resulted


in 5 officers and 150 other ranks being killed and wounded.
The 22nd was spent in organising the new position, when
orders were received to retire some four miles further
back. No transport was available for much of the ammu-
nition and rations, and they had to be abandoned. After a
night march the battalion reached Pont du Hem at 4 a.m.
on the 23rd and went into divisional reserve. They had
been farther east than any British troops were destined
to be for nearly four years ; but the enemy was too strong
for the position to be maintained.

Armentieres. — Meanwhile the 1st Battalion had
become involved in the battle of Armentieres, which
embodied that series of encounters that took place on the
left flank of the battle of La Bassee. They started to rejoin
the brigade at Merris on the 14th and had to march single
file because of the congestion on the road. The conditions
of this march are sufficiently indicated by the fact that
part of the platoon under Goodliffe had to be detached to
rescue the car of General Keir (O.C. VI. Division), which
had run into snipers holding a farm about 500 yards off
the road. The car was restored with little trouble, though
it was nervous work in the dark ; and the battalion were
settling down into bivouacs when another platoon was
ordered to capture a gun which had flung two shells into
the middle of the square formation. It was thought to be
300 yards distant, but was eventually estimated to be
about 1,000 yards farther off. On the next day they
moved to Bac St. Maur. They were compelled to wait
several hours in the road, and the men were constantly
found swaying with sleep as they stood. Several horses
even fell down in the road asleep. The battalion was near
the limit of its endurance. If the crossing had been
defended in force it is difficult to imagine what would
have happened ; and the delay was due to the fact that
on the first approach a number of shots had been fired
across the river. At length some of the R.E. got across,
swung back the central section, and the battalion crossed
by the bridge.


They billeted at La Chapelle d'Armentieres on the
following day, and on the 18th marched in support of the
Rifle Brigade to test the strength of the enemy at Paren-
chies and Premesques, preparatory to the movement of
the III. Corps up the Lys. At 2 p.m. the battalion went
up on the left flank of the Rifle Brigade, who were held up
at the Halt before Parenchies. The Fusiliers advanced on
L'Epinette, where a hot fire was encountered. It was
there that an attempt was made to rescue the people from
a burning farm; but when an entry was at last forced
through a window no one could be found. The Germans
were pressed back slightly, but Captain Palairet and
Lieutenant Cooper were wounded and 4 other ranks
were killed, 27 wounded, and 4 missing. It was difficult
to move without coming under fire, and the wonder is
that more casualties were not sustained. The battalion
settled at night in a deep dyke.

Two minor attacks, chiefly on the Rifle Brigade, took
place during the night, and at 9 a.m. (20th) a rush was
made for a gap between that regiment and the Fusiliers.
During the rest of the day the positions were subjected to
bombardment and sniping ; and Lieutenant Scholefield
was wounded while crawling to obtain touch with the Rifle
Brigade. The battalion were ordered to retire their
positions slightly during the night, and the move was
successfully carried out without molestation by the light
of burning houses. Another feeble attack took place
on the 21st after a desultory bombardment, and though
this was easily beaten off, two officers, Fisher and Gals-
worthy, were wounded. The battalion were relieved on
the 23rd after a short but costly German attack. The
machine guns caught the Germans at a range of some 500
yards in the open. On relief the Fusiliers marched back
to Armentieres, having to take cover from a heavy out-
burst of firing on the way, and thence south to the Rue
Petillon, which lies about two and a half miles north-east
of Fromelles, from which place the French had retired
three days before, as we have seen. In this position they


were on the zone connecting the battlefields of Armentieres
and La Bassee.

* * * *

The 4th Battalion had not long to rest. On the 24th
they received an urgent order to fall in and to retake some
trenches which had been lost by a battalion of the 8th
Brigade. There was no staff officer to show which were
the trenches, and Colonel McMahon was informed that the
Germans were in a wood. A company was just forming
up to take the wood at the point of the bayonet when an
officer of the Royal Scots came up and said that his regi-
ment had reoccupied the trenches and that no Germans
were found. Nerves seemed to wear thin in these days.

The battalion returned to billets only to be summoned
out once more — noon, October 25th — to retake lost
trenches. The battalion moved to the Rue du Bacquerot,
and Y Company was ordered to move thence to the
Fleurbaix-Neuve Chapelle road. The remainder of the
battalion moved south to Pont Logy, about 1,000 yards
due west of Neuve Chapelle. Two companies attacked
from this point in a north-easterly direction, thus pre-
senting a flank to Neuve Chapelle. Y Company, on the
north, advanced across the open under a heavy shrapnel
fire. The two companies at Pont Logy also came under
heavy fire, but suffered few casualties until they
approached the outskirts of Neuve Chapelle, the northern
houses of which the Germans had occupied. There was
no artillery support, and Sir Francis Waller was mortally
wounded in leading his company (Z) in a gallant charge
against the enemy positions. After a severe struggle, in
which many losses were sustained, the lost trenches were
reoccupied. Neuve Chapelle was cleared, and two field
guns, which had been abandoned, were recaptured.
Colonel McMahon was ordered to leave two companies
and to return the other two to billets. Y Company was
left in the firing line, with two platoons of Z in close
support and two platoons in reserve. Major Mallock was
left in charge of these companies.


On the following day the Germans attacked ; and at
about 2 p.m. the two companies were brought up from
billets to support. Some of the trenches recaptured
by the battalion had been taken in an overwhelming
onslaught in which the Germans pressed up to the
parapets ; and a determined attempt was made during
the night to recapture them. This engagement was
one of the fiercest in which the battalion had taken
part, and the attack was not only unsuccessful, but
resulted in many casualties, including 8 officers. Sergeant
Osborne, who was sent back by Gorst, had the utmost
difficulty in getting away. The Germans were then at
the trench parapets, and the Fusiliers fought there till they
fell. On the 27th another attempt was made to recapture
the lost positions, in conjunction with the remains of
six battalions. Two companies of Chausseurs Alpins
co-operated with the Fusiliers, and, after very severe
hand-to-hand fighting, the trenches were almost recovered,
when the weight of the battalion was too light to retain the
positions. They were compelled to fall back to a new
line. Two officers were among the heavy casualties of
this day, and the battalion was reduced to some 8 officers
and 350 other ranks. Major Mallock, who was seriously
wounded in this attack; was a heavy loss. Second in
command, he had been to the fore in every action from
Mons to this moment.

The battalion were relieved on the night of the 29th and
marched to Merris via Vieille Chapelle and Doulieu.
Several drafts were received, and on November 4th the
battalion was inspected at Bailleul by Sir Horace Smith-
Dorrien and warmly complimented. The terms of this
speech deserve record. As remembered by Captain
R. H. C. Routley, they were as follows : —

" I asked Colonel McMahon to bring you into this small
yard because I wanted to express to you my admiration
for the work that your regiment, under his leadership, has
been doing.

" I have asked you to come in here because one can


hear better, and I shall be very glad if you will let it be
known to the men later on.

' I simply cannot find words enough to express my
admiration for the way in which your regiment has
behaved. All through the campaign up to now they have
had the hardest work of any regiment in the brigade, and
any work they have had to do they have carried out
exceedingly well. In fact, I can safely say that there is
no better regiment in the British Army than the Royal

" I may add that I am the officer who writes the King's
diary every day, and the work of your regiment has been
specially mentioned in it ; and I can tell you that, when
this war is over, you will have special mention made when
you get home.

" Now I must say a few words about your colonel, who
stands here with us. Of course you know quite well that
he has recently been promoted to a brigade, but the work
he has done with the regiment has been so valuable, and
so well done, that we cannot spare him to take up the
position he ought to be now occupying, and, therefore,
I am here to tell you — and I'm afraid it will be a great
disappointment to you — that, instead of the seven or
eight days' rest you were looking forward to at Bailleul,
I am very much afraid that in another twenty-four or
forty-eight hours you will find yourselves back in the
trenches again.

" You will remember a short time back General French
came up and especially and personally thanked Colonel
McMahon and your regiment for the work done, and it
was the only regiment he thanked on that day in the
whole division.

" So, when you get back, I will ask you to thank the
men from me for all they have done."

Ypres. — General Smith-Dorrien's warning was soon
fulfilled. On the night of November 6th the battalion
took over the positions from the 6th Cavalry Brigade,
east of Hooge, on the south side of the Ypres-Menin road.
They had some difficulty in reaching their positions as the
roads about Ypres were blocked with the traffic. But


they settled down on the edge of Herenthage Wood with
Zouaves on their left and the Northumberland Fusiliers
on their right. Almost at once the battalion, now so
weak, became merged in the great crisis of Ypres.
On November 7th the Zouaves were blown out of their
trenches. On the following day the shelling continued all
day, and several minor attacks were beaten off. The most
serious blow fell upon Y Company, but was dealt with
summarily. But the Zouaves were forced back, and the
Germans got into the wood, round the Fusiliers' open flank.
Stapleton Bretherton and Jackson, with half of Y Company,
delivered a violent counter-attack and penetrated to the
German trenches. Very few of these gallant fellows came
back. The two officers and 62 men were seen no more.
But, thanks to this charge and the advance of the West
Ridings, the line was restored.

On the nth came the last attempt of the Germans to
cut through to the coast. The attack was expected ; the
battalion order issued before it took place is notable.
The order, which was to be read to companies, ran as
follows : —

" It may be assumed that we are about to fight the
decisive battle of the war. The German Emperor has
arrived to command his troops in person, and Sir John
French hopes that the British Army will prove to him that
they are better men than the Germans. Both armies are
composed of regiments more or less exhausted, and short
of officers, and the result will depend very much on the
prolonged energy of every soldier in the fight and the
endurance shown during the next few days. Fire must be
carefully controlled at night, men must assist to the last,
be ready to cover every movement with fire, well aimed
and well sustained, and there must be no straggling or

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 5 of 38)