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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 6 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 6 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


straying from the platoons to which men belong. The
CO. hopes that every man will sustain the great reputa-
tion that the Royal Fusiliers have already made during

this war.

(Signed) " G. O'Donel,

" Captain and Adjutant."



60 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

The morning dawned dull and misty, and about 6.30
a terrible shelling began, " much the most severe I
(O'Donel) have ever seen." It continued for two and a
half hours. The front trenches were knocked to pieces,
and many of the men were killed or buried. Routley, in
command, tried to send back a report of the plight of his
men, but it was impossible to live in such a bombardment.
Then followed the infantry attack by the twelve battalions
of the Guard Division. The 4th (Queen Augusta's) Guard
Grenadiers seem to have struck the Royal Fusiliers, and
the little band of men received the first assault with the
bayonet and hurled it back. Routley, about this time,
was the only officer left, and he was wounded in the head.
The Grenadiers delivered a second charge. Some of the
men were driven from their trenches, and their appearance
in the rear created a panic among the battalion supports,
who appear to have been chiefly special reservists, a draft
who arrived on the day before the battle and had not yet
been organised into their platoons. Colonel McMahon
went to them and tried to rally them. Suddenly he was
seen to sink on one knee and begin to remove his legging
as though hit in the leg. At that moment a shell burst
close to him and killed him. He was a most gallant and
distinguished officer, who impressed all who came into
contact with him. " A Royal Fusilier," he said to the
battalion on the eve of embarkation, " does not fear
death. He is not afraid of wounds. He only fears
disgrace ; and I look to you not to disgrace the name of
the regiment." Not merely the battalion and the regi-
ment, but the army as a whole, lost by his death.

Part of the West Ridings had also been driven from
their trenches, but a determined counter-attack on both
sides of the Ypres-Menin road by the Sussex and Scots
Fusiliers drove the German Guard back with heavy loss
and partly restored the line. At 1 p.m. the remainder of
the Royal Fusiliers were very much disorganised and
scattered. In the evening only O'Donel and Second
Lieutenant Maclean, with 50 men, could be collected. The



YPRES, NOVEMBER, 1914 61

night was very wet, and the fighting died down but little.
On the following day about 100 men were collected and
withdrawn, but they were back again in the firing line
during the evening in support of the Scots Fusiliers and
Lincolns. On the 13th they were still in support with
the two officers and 170 men. Next day under German
pressure they were compelled to retire slightly. On the
15th, wet and tired out, they were still holding on in the
rain and snow. But on the following day (November 16th)
they went into divisional reserve at Hooge. The attack
by the Imperial Guard had petered out without achieving
its objective.

On the 20th they relieved the King's Own Scottish

Borderers, south of Hooge, in heavy snow ; but on the

following night they handed over to the French, marched

to Westoutre through Ypres, and billeted. It was now

freezing hard, and the men's feet were beginning to suffer.

At night on the 21st Major Hely Hutchinson arrived to

take over command, with Captains Lee, Pipon and

Magnay from the 1st Battalion. A draft of 300 special

reservists arrived, and companies were reorganised and

given some training. But on the 27th the battalion had

to take over the trenches at Kemmel from the Norfolks.

It was the last test to apply to men so little accustomed to

warfare ; but the days were critical, and such risks had

to be taken. Major Hely Hutchinson had to deal with

some serious cases of nerves, but under his firm hand the

unit settled down, and spent three days in the trenches.

On the night of the 30th they were relieved by the Gordons,

and marched to Westoutre to billets. The trenches had

been wet, and many of the men had bad feet. Moreover,

the shortage of N.C.O.'s made discipline a little slack.

One can hardly wonder at this. The battalion had been

wiped out twice since the opening of the war. In these

four months they had lost 1.900 N.C.O.'s and men and

over 50 officers, killed, wounded, sick, and missing.

These figures must surely be unique ! At any rate, there

were not sufficient troops available in these early months



62 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

to allow more than a few units to renew themselves three

times.

* * * *

The march southwards of the ist Battalion on October
23rd had taken them once more to within a short distance
of the 4th, who at that time were withdrawing from the
advanced positions in the Aubers area. The ist only
arrived about Fleurbaix at 6 a.m. on the 23rd, very tired
and sleepy, and on reaching Rue Petillon they were
accommodated, some in houses and some in ditches.
Their orders were to support the right of the Welsh
Fusiliers ; but some Indian troops had arrived there
first. The Sikhs lost their two British officers on the
25th, and the Fusiliers found them " jumpy " neighbours.
A good deal of firing went on, especially during the night,
and the ist Battalion, after being compelled to stand to
night after night, at length took over the bulk of their
trenches. There were heavy losses from the German
bombardment. But the rhythm of the struggle had
changed to that of trench warfare. On November 5th
there were 20 casualties from the persistent shelling.
Snipers, too, became obtrusive. On the 9th a German shell
secured a direct hit on a trench. A gunner observer was
killed and three men were wounded. Sergeant Tuersley
was wounded in assisting Corporal Taimer, who had been
hit, but continued to help him though the trench was
still under fire. Three days later, at about 3.30 a.m., a
dug-out in which Captain H. J. Shaw was sleeping was
knocked in, and when the earth was removed he was
dead.

The trenches now became ankle and even knee-deep
in mud. The Germans were only about 150 yards away,
and they won the approval of the Fusiliers by a rough
attempt at sportsmanlike behaviour. Frequently they
would call out, " Hullo, Cock Robin ! " and at night,
" Look out, you English swine — we're coming ! ' Then a
volley, followed by " Good-night " and silence. Both
English and Germans put out targets to fire at, and the



THE FIRST WINTER 63

conventions were well observed. It was bitterly cold,
and fires were lit along the trenches, each side ignoring
the smoke. While on tour in the trenches on November
29th coke braziers were issued, and proved very accept-
able. On the following day sheepskins were supplied.
The next day saw Very pistols ; and, little by little, all the
familiar accompaniments of trench warfare appeared.

The 4th Battalion on December 3rd were lined up on
the road for the King's visit. After the terrible experi-
ences of the first four months the year slowed down for
them. But for the 1st Battalion the trench tours were
not without incident. They were occupying a position
with their right on the Rue du Bois, south-east of Armen-
tieres, when they were ordered to co-operate with the
attack of the 4th Division east of Ploegsteert on December
19th. They carried out this role by pinning the enemy
to his trenches by means of bursts of intermittent fire.
The Germans retorted with a bombardment, in which
Captain G. E. Hepburn was wounded and one man killed.
At about 1.30 p.m. on the 20th a number of shells were
thrown upon a farm in which were battalion headquarters
and one platoon. A few sick and some of the headquarters
staff went into the cellar, while the remainder filed into
a trench in the rear. It was an anxious moment, and a
shell went through to the cellar, killing two men and
wounding eight others.

Something akin to a truce fell over the armies on
Christmas Day and the last days of the year. The
trenches were worse than ever. Parapets fell in, and it
was found easier to build new trenches than to drain the
old. The Saxons opposite the 1st Battalion appeared
to be engaged on the same tasks. In the old days armies
went into winter quarters. On the Western Front in
the winter of 1914 they at any rate ceased from major
military operations.



CHAPTER IV

THE FIRST SPRING CAMPAIGN — NEUVE CHAPELLE, YPRES

Early in January of 1915 Lieut. -Colonel Campbell took
over the command of the 4th Battalion, who suffered
much both from the inclemency of the weather and
from avoidable hardships. The trenches were almost
intolerable through mud and water ; and in the rest area
near Ouderdom, early in March, owing to the huts not
being rainproof, the camp became a sea of mud, and
afforded little or no rest to its victims. They also suffered
from the enemy snipers, the battalion losing no less than
58 men within forty-eight hours from hostile rifle fire on
February 23rd. They had, however, the distinction of
being thanked in person by General Sir H. Smith-Dorrien
on March 8th for saving the situation at Ypres.

Previous to this their brigade (the 9th) had been
transferred to the 28th Division to replace the 85th
Brigade, a considerable number of whom went sick after
scarcely ten days in the firing line. Of these the 3rd Royal
Fusiliers had been not a little affected by the vagaries
of climate, having only arrived from India in December.
They lost temporarily about 25 per cent, of their
strength owing to acute bronchial and laryngeal catarrh
on their arrival at Havre, and large numbers had to be
evacuated to hospital with trench feet during February.
But, with the number of those who returned to duty at
the beginning of March and several large drafts, the
battalion attained the fighting strength of 25 officers and
870 other ranks by March 10th.

Neuve Chapelle. — The 3rd Londons had reached
France in January, and on February 17th found them-
selves with the Garhwal Brigade of the Meerut Division







^5* «?




Major-General Sir Reginald Pinney, K.C.B., who commanded

the 23RD Brigade at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and

later the 35TH and 33RD Divisions.



THE TERRITORIALS AT NEUVE CHAPELLE 65

at Vieille Chapelle. They were the only Fusilier battalion
to be engaged in the operations against and around Neuve
Chapelle. On March 10th they supported the advance
of the 2nd Leinsters in the Meerut Division's attack on
the south of the village.

A deviation of i/39th Garhwal Rifles to the right caused
that regiment to encounter the enemy's line beyond the
part where the wire had been destroyed by our artillery
fire, and in this fashion a gap of some 200 yards was left
unaccounted for, with the result that the Germans with
the aid of machine guns maintained a steady resistance at
this point, which was finally reduced about 6 o'clock in
the evening.

The way in which that point was won will not easily be
forgotten by the 3rd Londons. The battalion were in brigade
reserve, and by 3.30 a.m. had taken up position behind a
long breastwork, in the rear of the trenches along the
Estaires-La Bassee road. The country still looked beautiful
as the day broke. It was snowing a little, but the fearful
din of the bombardment put every other thought out of the
heads of these young soldiers as they lay huddled up behind
their sandbags for their first battle experience. The roars
and barks of the guns were accompanied by the easily
distinguishable ping of the bullets. At 8.5 a.m. the
infantry advanced and the 3rd Londons moved up to the
forward trenches to take their place. Two companies
went forward to support the left of the attack, and the
other two proceeded to a circular breastwork, on the right
of the trench line, known as " Port Arthur."

It was about 8.30 a.m. that the first two companies
advanced with the 1st Seaforths and a company of the
Garhwal Rifles to support the left flank. A Company was
ordered to take a house at the corner of the village, which
was reported to have a garrison of about twelve Germans.
The order was given to charge and the men at once came
under a terrible fire. There were, in fact, almost a com-
plete company of Germans well provided with machine
guns. Captain Pulman fell almost at once with about



66 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

ten or a dozen men. There was a momentary hesitation
in the rest of the company. Lieutenant Mathieson, one
of the gayest and best beloved of their officers, then
pushed forward, shouting, with his infectious smile,
" Come on, boys ; don't be shy ! " Few, except those in
his immediate neighbourhood could hear him. But they
saw the gesture and sprang forward. In a few seconds he
fell, shot through the head, and died almost immediately.
They lost indeed terribly, but somehow they won through
and helped on the battle a little.

The other two companies remained in " Port Arthur,"
the ruined part-skeleton of some farm building, buttressed
with walls of earth and sandbags, with machine guns
mounted upon them. At 2 p.m. only one officer had
escaped in A Company ; and at 5 p.m. the order came that
this obdurate German trench that made a gap in the line
must be taken. The men climbed over the breastwork
in full view of the enemy to cross some 200 yards of open
country, pitted by shells and strewn with dead, in a frontal
charge on the German position. With bayonets at the
charge they rushed across the open, cheering as they went.
Lieutenant Crichton was one of the first in the open and,
stepping in front of his platoon, he cried, " Follow me."
He fell after a few yards, shot in the leg. One or two men
ran to help him, but he struggled to his feet and, shouting
" Charge ! " went on again. He was wounded again, this
time mortally. Half the men who went across that space
became casualties. Men fell on all sides, but the charge
continued, and at length they rushed the German trench
and the gap was healed. " It was the finest charge I ever
saw," said an Indian officer. After the charge the wounded
trickled back to " Port Arthur," where the colonel and
another officer attended to them. One of these wounded
boys said to his officer with a smile, " They can't call us
Saturday night soldiers now, can they, sir ? "

Captains Livingston and Moore remained in the cap-
tured position for four days, and had to repel a German
counter-attack. It was during this period that Acting-



NEUVE CHAPELLE, MARCH, 1915 67

Sergeant W. Allen won the D.C.M. He was out on a
reconnoitring patrol on the night of March 13th and dis-
covered three small bridges laid down by the enemy for
their advance. These he removed, which caused the
Germans to be held up in their counter-attack, when they
were met by machine guns. This action was a splendid
opening of the Londons' fighting. The 3rd Londons lost
8 officers and 340 other ranks, but they had won their
spurs.

The 4th Londons went into the trenches at Rue des
Berceaux for the first time on the night of March I2th/i3th
and their admirable conduct under most trying conditions
in a totally novel experience won the appreciation of
Major-General H. 0. N. Keary, commanding the Lahore
Division, while visiting the battalion headquarters at

Vieille Chapelle some four days later.

« * * *

It was about this time that the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were in
the trenches east of Kemmel. Orders had been given that
considerable activity had to be shown by the troops in
the trenches. It is probable that no soldier ever welcomed
this order. Attacks are intelligible, but " hates " merely
meant counter-hates. The role of this activity was to
occupy and preoccupy the Germans during the attack at
Neuve Chapelle, but it resulted, as was foreseen, in the
Fusiliers' positions being badly knocked about. On the
night of March 9th battalion headquarters were shelled
and burned. Official correspondence, a machine gun,
rifles and eighty sets of equipment were destroyed. It
was on this occasion that Lieut. -Colonel Guy du Maurier,
D.S.O., was killed. Lance-Corporal Fovargue, who was
at headquarters at the time, stated that they were asleep
when a shell suddenly tore off part of the roof. The colonel
rushed to the doorway, and just as he reached it a shell
fell on the spot and killed him instantly. Colonel du
Maurier was not only an experienced soldier, but also a
dramatist who made a stir with the war play "An English-
man's Home." He was the elder son of Mr. George du



F 2



68 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

Maurier, the famous black and white artist, and brother
of Mr. Gerald du Maurier the artist. Lieut. -Colonel A. V.
Johnson, D.S.O.,took over the command of the battalion,
who next saw service in the Ypres area. They took over
trenches from the French with parapets not more than a
foot thick at the top ; " death traps " as a Fusilier officer
aptly termed them.

Second Battle of Ypres. — On April 20th they
moved into the Gravenstafel trenches on the left of the
28th Division. It was not their first visit ; and on the
last occasion they had suffered 72 casualties. On their
left were the Canadians with the French prolonging the
line to the north. The 3rd Battalion reached the trenches
when it was obvious a German attack was pending. The
bombardment of Ypres had begun. Its destruction could
only mean that the enemy were blocking the avenues by
which supports must reach the Ypres sector, and accord-
ingly the command looked for an attack in the general
direction from which, in fact, it came. But its onset was
so unlike any previous assault that for some days the
position was critical, and the Royal Fusiliers went through
a period of unique strain. On the evening of April 22nd
the Germans first released gas on the Western Front, and
the poisonous green cloud swept away part of the French
line on the Canadians' flank. As there was a four-mile gap
in the line the Canadians refused their left. On the 23rd
this flank was becoming more and more involved ; and a
counter-attack was launched east of the Ypres Canal.
Lieut. -Colonel Arthur Percival Birchall, an officer of the
Fusiliers commanding the 4th Ontario Battalion, fell in
this gallant attempt to redeem a lost position. The
battalion came under a very heavy fire and appeared to
waver. Birchall, carrying a light cane, with great calm-
ness and cheerfulness rallied his men, but at the moment
when he had succeeded he was shot dead. He had twice
been wounded, but insisted on continuing with his com-
mand, and he died at the beginning of the last charge
which captured the German shelter trenches and, at least



SECOND YPRES, APRIL, 1915 69

for the moment, arrested the advance. He was recom-
mended for the Victoria Cross.

The 3rd Canadian Brigade, on the left flank, was now
bent back almost at right angles and they lay in this
position when, after a violent bombardment on the
morning of April 24th, the Germans delivered a second
gas attack. It was about 3.30 a.m. ; and the 3rd Brigade,
gassed for a second time, fell back to the south-west of
St. Julien. The 2nd Brigade, on their right, swung round
to conform, and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were now left
almost at the angle of the line. Attempts were made to
restore the position, but to little purpose ; and on April
25th the Germans attacked the 2nd East Surreys on the
Fusiliers' right. The 3rd Battalion helped to repel this
attack with their machine guns.*

On April 26th the 1st Hants came up to establish
connection on the left of the Royal Fusiliers, and the
2nd Buffs carried out a partial relief ; but in spite of all
the Germans penetrated to the left rear of the Royal
Fusiliers. The battalion's position was almost intolerable.
Even after the Germans were ejected they were " absolutely
plastered with shell and every other kind of fire from three
sides at once the whole time, with practically no assistance
at all from our guns, and nothing could exist or move over
the ground in rear, as every yard of it was plastered with-
out ceasing by enormous shells." f

Late on the afternoon of May 2nd strong bodies of the
enemy had been observed moving from Passchendaele
towards the left trenches, which from that time onwards
suffered very severe bombardment, parts, indeed, being
blown to pieces, necessitating their evacuation. Between
April 22nd and May 3rd, when the line was ordered to
retire, the 3rd Royal Fusiliers had had Lieutenant H. M.
Legge, Second Lieutenants A. Hyam, G. Lambert,
W. Grady, F. Franklin and W. Dunnington- Jefferson and

* " Great slaughter was caused by a machine gun of the 3rd Royal
Fusiliers, under Lieutenant Mallandain " (Conan Doyle, " The British
Campaign in France and Flanders," Vol. II., p. 64).

f An officer's statement.



70 ROYAL FUSILIERS IN THE GREAT WAR

ioo N.C.O.'s and men killed, 13 officers wounded, and
363 additional casualties among the other ranks. But
they had clung to their position under the most desperate
conditions and had not given a yard of ground until the
whole line was ordered to fall back.

On the evening of May 3rd the battalion moved back
to bivouac in the wood north of Vlamertinghe-Poperinghe
road, where they were inspected by General Bulfin (the
Divisional Commander) on May 4th. At noon on the 8th
they were ordered to support an attack made by East
Surreys and the 3rd Middlesex between Verlorenhoek road
and Railway to regain some trenches lost in that vicinity.
The battalion took no more active participation on this
occasion than that of being the victim of perpetual sniping
from their front and right.

However, on the 12th, reinforced by several large
drafts, they were relieved by Leicester Yeomanry and
moved back to bivouac in a wood east of Poperinghe,
having lost Second Lieutenants W. Curwen and A. Ford,
with 40 N.C.O.'s and men killed ; and there were 3 officers
and 141 other ranks additional casualties during the four
days of active support.

In the severe losses they suffered the 3rd Royal Fusiliers
experienced this consolation, that they were highly
complimented by the Commander-in-Chief and Brigade
on May 20th, for their services and operations extending

from April 22nd to May 13th.

* * * *

The 4th Londons had meanwhile made a forced march

to Ouderdom on April 25th, and delivered an attack in
support of the Connaught Rangers at St. Jean, an effort
which was unsuccessful owing to the poisonous gas
employed by the enemy. On the following day the
4th Londons made another gallant attempt, this time upon
the right flank ; but also unsuccessfully. They sustained
heavy losses, Lieutenant Coates and 32 other ranks being
killed, 7 officers wounded and 165 additional casualties to

N.C.O.'s and men.

* # # *



SPRING CAMPAIGN, 1915 71

Aubers Ridge and Festubert. — Meanwhile an
attempt was being made by the First Army to engage the
enemy in the locality adjoining the scene of the Neuve
Chapelle operations. The first part of the operations
began on May 9th and the main advance was made
towards Fromelles.

On May 8th the 1st Londons had moved to assembly
positions south of the Rue Petillon with A and B Companies
on the right and C and D on the left. On the following
day, after an artillery bombardment of the German wiring
and trenches, the leading platoons of A and C Companies
advanced from their assembly positions only to be recalled
by the Brigadier. At 6.10 a.m., however, the battalion
advance * was resumed, being carried out by platoon rushes
during which the right half of the battalion alone lost 3
officers and 120 men, most of which casualties occurred
before the river Layes was reached. At half-past seven
information was received that Brig. -General Lowry Cole
had been killed, and an hour and a half later the battalion
was ordered to withdraw to the cross-roads at Rue du
Quesnes, from which they were directed to return to
billets at Bac St. Maur, having lost in the operations
Captain G. M. D. Mouat and Lieutenant R. G. B. Bowen
killed, Lieutenant J. Seaverns, died of wounds, Captain
A. A. Lyle and Lieutenant H. J. Boyton wounded and
194 other ranks casualties.

The 3rd Londons took part in the second advance which
was made, farther to the south, east of Festubert. The
Londons co-operated with their former companions, the
2nd Leinsters and Garhwal Rifles, in an unsuccessful
attack on May 16th on the enemy's trenches not far from
the scene of their previous enterprises, and in consequence
remained in trenches south of Neuve Chapelle, with their
headquarters on the Rue du Bois.

* * * *

* " They advanced over 400 yards of open with the steadiness of
veterans " (Conan Doyle, " The British Campaign in France and



Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 6 of 38)