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

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

. (page 7 of 38)
Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 7 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Flanders," Vol. II., p. 119).


Bellewarde Ridge. — Meanwhile, before Ypres there
had been a ten days' lull in the fighting ; but on May 24th
the enemy delivered a gas attack. This was the worst
discharge of all. Five miles away, at Dickebusch, the
4th Battalion experienced its effects, many men suffering
from sore eyes.

It was a perfect summer day and the light north-
easterly breeze just after dawn carried the poisonous fumes
across the British lines between Shell-trap Farm, north
of the St. Julien road, and Bellewarde Lake. The surprise
gained the enemy a considerable advantage, and, as the
men were searching for their respirators there began a
violent bombardment. It was a terrible experience,
waking to this inferno ; and some of the troops left their
trenches. The 3rd Battalion were at this time lying south
of the Ypres-Roulers railway, and they at once found
themselves not only obliged to cope with the poisonous
fumes and the terrible bombardment, but also with the
uncovering of their left flank, where the troops had left
the trenches. Half of No. 2 Company, under Second
Lieutenants Sealy and Holleny, were sent to occupy the
abandoned trenches north of the railway. Both officers
were killed later in the day. After 5 a.m. telephone
communication with brigade headquarters ceased, and
though constantly repaired it was as persistently broken
again by shell fire. Nos. 1 and 4 Companies were also
cut off from battalion headquarters, and the battle line
appeared to fall to pieces with small islands of steadfast
troops alone standing in the way of the German advance.

Major Johnson received a message from brigade head-
quarters ordering him to counter-attack. Two companies
of the Buffs were to support, and the East Surreys were to
co-operate north of the railway. The remainder of No. 2
Company and certain stragglers at once prepared to
advance against the ridge from the road 200 yards south
of the railway crossing; and at the same time a half
company of the Buffs moved up the sunken road south of
the wood, close to the level crossing. Major Baker crossed


the railway and sent forward the other half of No. 2 Com-
pany under Lieutenant Sealy with orders to make good the
old trench line 350 yards to the east.

But now disaster began to crowd upon disaster. Major
Johnson's attack had not been successful, and he was
wounded and had to go to the dressing station. Major
Baker collected Major Johnson's party in the wood south
of the railway and placed them in the third line trenches.
But before the Fusiliers had taken up position the Ger-
mans had worked round to the south of Ridge 44 and were
enfilading the road south of the railway. Baker now got
together some of his men and placed them in the ditch on
this road, from which position they could return the
German fire with less disadvantage. The Buffs' reinforce-
ments sent up were so thinned out by shell fire that when
the various small parties were collected they totalled only
200 ; but they were a useful reinforcement. The immediate
danger was the Germans' turning movement on the right,
and the Buffs extended the line south of the road as a
counter manoeuvre.

The Germans had been in possession of our fire trenches
since 8 a.m., but the surviving 150 (out of an original 880)
Royal Fusiliers, with the assistance of the Buffs, succeeded
in holding the third line to the end of the day. A party of
Durham Light Infantry filled up the 300 yards' gap
between the Royal Fusiliers, north of the railway, and the
East Surreys. To complete the chronicle of disaster the
84th and 80th Brigades attacked that night, but, after
a bitter and prolonged struggle, nothing further was
achieved than a final checking of the German onslaught.
A restoration of the original position had proved impossible,
and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were relieved and left the line.

In the final summing up the Germans had only produced
a surface abrasion on the positions for which the Fusiliers
had so obstinately fought. Almost from the beginning
their plight seemed hopeless. The gas, where it did no
worse, made the men incapable of all effort ; and yet the
time had come for a super-human effort. They had to make


good the defection on the left and, thus weakened, bear

a heavy onslaught from the Germans, and finally make a

deliberate counter-attack. By 8 a.m. Major Baker was

not only commanding officer ; he was the only officer left

out of seventeen. At the end of the day the battalion

casualties amounted to 536. This was probably the

worst loss in a day's battle of any Fusilier battalion

during the war.

* * * *

First attack on Bellewarde. — At the end of May

the Germans were left in possession of Bellewarde Lake,
and they established positions which made an uncom-
fortable sag in the Ypres salient. The 3rd Division was
given the task of effecting a local straightening of the line
in this area, and the 9th Brigade was selected to storm the
Bellewarde Farm Ridge.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were in position, east of Cam-
bridge Road trench, at 1.30 a.m. on June 16th, on the right
of the brigade front. Immediately in front of them lay
the wood with a trench guarding its western edge. At
2.50 a.m. the artillery bombardment began, and two hours
later two companies advanced in half-company column
and captured the front German line without much resist-
ance, the wire having been so effectually cut that no
difficulty was experienced by our infantry in climbing
through it and scaling the enemy parapet. In some places
the wire was swept away as though it had never been.
Dead and wounded were lying about ; and the unwounded
appeared to have been demoralised by our shell fire — a
welcome change — into surrender.

On the right the two supporting companies of the 4th
Battalion pushed through the wood to the trench on the
west bank of Bellewarde Lake. But they advanced too
quickly for our artillery and suffered very heavily, despite
every attempt to correct the range by coloured screens.
At 10 a.m. the brigadier of the 7th Brigade had taken com-
mand ; and he ordered Major Hely Hutchinson to go into
the wood which had been just captured by the battalion


and organise the men who remained. This was imme-
diately done.

But the bombardment by our own and the enemy's
artillery was too much, and after considerable loss the
4th Battalion withdrew to a communication trench which
had been turned into a fire trench by Captain de la
Perrelle. This position was held against all counter-
attacks until in the early part of the afternoon orders were
received to retire.

All the day the battalion was under heavy artillery fire,
and during the afternoon gas shells were used freely ; but the
men's behaviour was very fine. Lance-Corporal Filter and
Sergeant Jones were both wounded, but remained at their
machine guns until sent to the dressing station. Sergeant
H. T. Smith very bravely bandaged two wounded men
and carried them to cover, all under heavy fire ; and
Private A. Beckett was killed while assisting a wounded
comrade along a trench. Private McGee was wounded in
two places, but continued to carry messages through the
shell-swept area until sent to the dressing station by his
captain. Indeed, the battle was full of heroic deeds, but
at the end of the day only a handful of ground remained in
the hands of the battalion of all that had been taken in
that first eager rush, and the losses had been all too heavy.
Of the 22 officers and 820 men who entered battle some
15 officers and 376 men became casualties. Captain and
Adjutant O'Donel, who had been with the battalion from
their arrival in France, was killed. Lieutenants Thornton,
Harter, Warde and Rogers, with Second Lieutenants
Dudley and Banister, were also killed. Major Hely
Hutchinson was badly wounded and Captain de la
Peverelle took over the command of the battalion.

The day's fighting had been a very terrible experience,
though the divisional commander congratulated the
battalion, and General Allenby talked to the men in groups
on the 1 8th and told them they had done the finest bit of
work in the campaign.



As the spring wore on to summer a number of new
Royal Fusilier battalions made their way to France, so
that at the opening of the battle of Loos there were nine
Regular and Service battalions on the Western Front.
They settled down very easily, and showed every eagerness
to get to grips with the enemy. At first many things had
the charm of novelty. When, on July 29th, the 8th
Battalion exploded a mine in front of Frelinghem and a
trench mortar threw twenty 60 lb. bombs into the German
trenches, this formed a wonderful episode. It was the
first occasion on which a trench mortar had been used on
the battalion front, and it excited great interest. The
retaliation was even more engrossing, and a little dis-
turbing, too. On August 9th the Germans exploded a
mine and began a very heavy bombardment. Over
4,000 rounds from five batteries fell on the battalion front.
The artillery were asked to reply, and 147 rounds were
fired. The trench parapet was blown in, and Second
Lieutenant Allen and C.S.M. Perkins gallantly dug out
Lieutenant Chell, who had been buried by the mine
explosion, though they were completely in the open and
under heavy fire. The rest of the morning appears to have
been occupied by answering indignant expostulations
from the artillery about the reason for causing such a huge
expenditure of ammunition ! But Brig. -General Borrow-
dale later congratulated the battalion on their soldierly
bearing in this episode. It was all very characteristic of
the period.

On August 18th another typical incident occurred.


The 10th Battalion, who had only been in France some

eighteen days, were attached to the 8th for instruction in

the trenches.

During the early autumn the 1st Battalion remained in

the neighbourhood of Ypres, and the 4th was involved in

the operations about Hooge, which seemed ever to be

bubbling with activity. On September 29th the battalion

exploded a mine under a German trench, and the night

was occupied by a great bombing battle.

* * * *

Loos. — But in the meantime the army had launched
the battle of Loos, which, waged with intensity for some
days, set up ripples throughout the area for over a month.
The attack was elaborately staged and, in order to conceal
its exact dimensions, smoke clouds were released over an
extensive sector of the British front. This led to an
amusing incident. The 8th Battalion, still lying near
Houplines, had been ordered to light smoke fires along
their front at 4.30 a.m. on the morning of the attack.
At 4.15 this order was cancelled, and directions were given
to raise the smoke cloud at 5.30. The 40th Division, on
the right of the 8th Battalion, kept to the original order,
and about 5.0 a.m. voices from the German trenches
inquired when the 8th Battalion were going to light their
straw !

It was, however, the 12th Battalion, the last to arrive
in France, who were the first to be involved in the battle
of Loos. They formed part of the 73rd Brigade of the
24th Division, one of the two reserve units which Sir
John French had kept in hand " to ensure the speedy and
effective support of the I. and IV. Corps in case of their
success." They had only arrived in France on September
1st, and they reached Beuvry on the 24th by a succession
of tiring marches, with sick cases reported every day up
to the 22nd. They had not yet become acclimatised to
the realities of war. They had had no trench experience.
Beuvry lies about four miles from Vermelles as the crow
flies : but when it is remembered that at times a battalion


took five hours to travel a mile, and that these roads were
packed with traffic, this short distance will be appreciated
as a considerable undertaking. The 73rd was the leading
brigade, and on the approach march they were detached
and led off by a staff officer to the neighbourhood of
Fosse 8, perhaps the hottest corner of the Loos battle

This only skims the surface of the 12th Battalion's
difficulties. Colonel C. J. Stanton was destined for a
brigade, and he was summoned on September 25th to
divisional headquarters. He handed over to Major
R. D. Garnons-Williams, who was ordered to the front
line to relieve the Black Watch, who had suffered
heavily in the morning attack. There had been no time
for preliminary reconnaissance. The troops were quite
new to the area, and in the confusion of marching up the
battalion became split up. Garnons-Williams, with a
platoon of No. 1 and the whole of No. 2 Company, carried
out the relief , and so came to a position where the advance
had been most bitterly resisted and the gain was still not
admitted to be final. From their entry into the trenches
until they left them on the morning of the 28th, the
battalion was continually under shell fire. In the
mornings and evenings the trenches were attacked. The
battalion, while subjected to this unique ordeal, had no
rations, no water, no sleep. They had arrived without
bombs, yet they beat off every enemy attack until the
morning of the 28th, when, after a heavy bombardment,
the flanking battalions were attacked and a footing was
gained in the trench on the battalion's right and left.
Their position was now hopeless, and, under an attack
from both flanks, they were forced to retire. But they
went back fighting. Lieutenant Neynor organised and
led four bayonet charges as they retired, and the enemy
was driven back.

Meanwhile the other part of the battalion, under Major
H. W. Compton, endeavouring to regain touch, had
halted in the dark. When the moon came out they were


at once seen, and shelled in the open. They took cover
in some trenches, and waited for the dawn. On the
morning of the 26th they were placed by a staff officer in
the old British firing line, where they remained until the
28th, when they were relieved. The battalion's losses
had been very heavy. Major Garnons- Williams, Captains
Waddell and Phillips, Second Lieutenant Newcombe
were killed. Major Gibson and five other officers were
wounded. Two officers fell into the hands of the Germans.
Of other ranks 20 were killed, 27 wounded, 64 wounded
and missing, and 142 missing. The test to which they
were subjected one would say was too hard ; but, bearing
in mind the manner in which they bore the ordeal, it is
inevitable we should wonder if any test could be over-
hard for such troops.

The 3rd Battalion entered the battle when the 12th
were near the end of their ordeal. On the evening of
September 25th Fosse 8 lay in our hands, and Hohen-
zollern Redoubt lay behind our lines ; but on the morning
of the 27th Fosse 8, which, with its slag heap, commanded
Hohenzollern Redoubt, had reverted to the Germans,
and the redoubt itself was mainly held by the enemy.
On this day the 3rd Battalion were ordered to take over
some 700 yards of the German line north of the redoubt,
with the Buffs on their right. But as the line was at that
moment again in German hands, verbal orders were given
to company commanders at 2 a.m. to attack the redoubt
at once. No. 2 Company was upon the right, and No. 3
on the left, with Nos. 1 and 4 supporting, and the machine
gunners on the flanks. The battalion moved off, preceded
by General Pereira (85th Brigade), who was hit during the
afternoon, when the command of the brigade devolved
upon Colonel Roberts. The trenches were congested with
men wounded and men retiring, but Colonel Roberts
succeeded in leading No. 2 Company and half No. 1
Company into the redoubt, when, having placed them
on the south and south-east sides, he retired to brigade
headquarters. Major Baker took command of the


battalion, and between 6 p.m. and midnight he succeeded
in placing the battalion on three sides of the redoubt, the
East Surreys occupying the other. The operation was
carried out with great difficulty. The units were mixed.
There were no guides, and in the dark it was hard to
recognise the positions.

During the morning of the 28th the enemy attacked
the north face with bombs, but were repulsed by No. 3
Company. Another bombing attack followed an advance
of the Buffs and Middlesex. On this occasion the Germans
penetrated some distance up the south face, but were
eventually driven back by three platoons of No. 2 Com-
pany. The following morning the enemy bombed down
Little Willie, the trench leading north from the redoubt,
and the north face of the redoubt itself. They were only
forced back after a fierce struggle, in which No. 4 Company
had reinforced the East Surreys. No. 2 Company, after
attempting to straighten out the line by an advance along
the southern face, was caught in the most violent attack
of all. The Middlesex, who had been holding Big Willie,
the eastern limb of the redoubt, evacuated it, and No. 2
Company found its flank in the air. The Germans
bombed down the western face, and drove No. 2 Company
back almost to the head of the communication trench.
There a counter-attack was delivered by a company of
the Yorks and Lanes, and finally, after heavy loss, Nos. 2
and 4 Companies drove the Germans out of the western
face and Big Willie, and blocked the southern face. As
far as the 3rd Battalion goes, this disposition survived
attack. On the morning and afternoon of the 30th
bombing attacks along the southern face were all repulsed.
Captain Sutton arranged stores of bombs along the
western face and relief bombers, to be despatched to any
point as needed. At 4 a.m. the following morning the
battalion was relieved. They marched to Beuvry much
weaker than they set out. Captain R. S. Scholefield,
Lieutenant G. Murray Smith, Second Lieutenants S. W.
Bowes, J. E. Bull, G. H. L. Ohlmann and J. V. C. Batten


had been killed, and 12 other officers wounded. Among

other ranks the casualties totalled 337.

* * # *

On September 30th the 8th Battalion relieved the Irish
Guards in trenches captured from the Germans on the
25th in front of Hulloch. The following day there was
very heavy shelling by both sides. The British shelling
made it impossible to carry out the order to dig a jumping-
off trench in front of B Company's trench. For the latter,
and the ground in front of it, were constantly under our
own shrapnel, as the battery had had orders to prevent the
Germans from wiring this ground ! The 9th Battalion had
occupied neighbouring trenches on September 30th, and
both battalions, after a few days out of the trenches,
moved up again on October 13th. The 9th Battalion, on
this occasion, arrived at the German old line at 10.30 p.m.,
after having taken nearly five hours to cover about a mile.
The 35th Brigade had attacked that day, and the 8th at
night had two companies carrying bombs for them, the
other two being in trenches north of the Hulloch road in
support of the 37th Brigade.

Another small attack was delivered by troops of the
same division on October 18th. A German trench west
of the Quarries was attacked by the Essex and the 9th
Battalion supported with two squads of bombers under
Second Lieutenant W. W. Smith. The detachment
undoubtedly consumed a large supply of bombs, and the'
attack was successful. The trench was captured and con-
solidated. A and B Companies were in the fire trenches,
and the battalion were responsible for Pt. 54, with the
support of the Berks. At night the 9th were pleased to
receive a message from the Guards saying, " Well done,
neighbours. Many thanks for splendid co-operation."

The Essex were not left in undisturbed possession of
their gains. On the following day there was a sharp
attack on the captured trench. The bombardment began
at 7 a.m., and the new trench came under a concentrated
fire about 3.30. Shortly afterwards an attack developed


on the line of the 9th Battalion, and the 8th sent up

32 bombers under Second Lieutenants Oliver and Barrow.

Oliver was killed and Barrow wounded, but they had

assisted in beating off the attack. A more serious mishap

was the wounding of Lieut. -Colonel Anneslcy while he

was directing the 8th to " stand to."

* * * *

But the battle had by this time practically died down,
and the battlefield sank into that uneasy state of rest
which covered the whole line. Winter had come, and the
new battalions had time to grow accustomed to the
realities of the war. Many of them amused themselves
by erecting notice-boards near the German trenches when
any particularly heartening piece of news was available.
Thus, on December 10th the 10th Battalion placed a large
notice-board with a report of a peace demonstration in
Berlin on the German wire. Three months later the
enemy retaliated with a German cartoon showing a
Highlander gathering the German harvest. On the back
was written " Come on and let us have drink at Doberitz,
the newest British colony." This was found, neatly
wrapped in oilskin near the battalion's wire ; but, unfortu-
nately, the postmen were shot.

The Chord. — By this time, however, local actions had
begun, and in two of them the Royal Fusiliers were
engaged. The first was the action on March 2nd, 1916,
at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and was carried out by the
8th and 9th Battalions. The objective was The Chord,
joining Big Willie and Little Willie. At 5.45 p.m. the
8th Battalion, on the left (or north), exploded three mines
and the 9th four. The largest of the latter ("A") was
intended to wreck the bulk of The Chord, but it only
affected about one-third of its length. The trench mortars
and artillery were to have begun simultaneously, but the
former began half an hour and the latter a quarter of an
hour earlier. Immediately after the explosion of the
mines 50 men of A Company of the 8th Battalion, under
Captain A. K. K. Mason and Second Lieutenant Wardrop,


and 5o'men of B Company of the 9th, under Captain the
Hon. R. E. Philipps, rushed across and seized the part of
The Chord allotted to them. Twenty of Philipps' party were
buried through the explosion of the mine blowing in part
of the assembly trench, and Philipps was slightly wounded
in the face. But the men went forward rapidly and either
cut through the wire or went over it where it was covered
by the earth cast up by the explosion. Of the party of
the 8th Battalion, only Wardrop and one man reached
The Chord, the rest being either killed or wounded.
Captain Mason was killed, but reinforcements were sent
out, and A Company, though bombed along The Chord to
within thirty yards of "A," where they found contact with
the 9th Battalion, held to the position. Major Cope *
took 24 men up to Wardrop, and the position was held for
the rest of the day. Meanwhile C Company, under Chard,
had seized Crater " C," the northernmost, and A Company
had taken "B" Crater, on the right of "C." Thus all
the craters had been occupied according to plan, but there
was still a body of Germans holding out in The Chord.

The 9th Battalion had, in the meantime, seized their
objectives. They found many Germans in their sector
of The Chord who, though dazed, did not surrender and
consequently had to be killed. There followed a number
of fierce grenade fights, the Germans rushing down from
the north end of The Chord and along the trenches leading
from the east into it. C Company, under Major N. B.
Elliott-Cooper, rushed Craters Nos. 1, 2 and " A" ; and then
seized the crater in the Triangle. The grenade attack
on the right lost direction, and Sergeant Cronyn rushed
down the south-east face of the Triangle into Big Willie,
throwing grenades into the crowded dug-outs, until held
up by a party of Germans. A fierce grenade encounter
followed until the Triangle was consolidated. The 8th
had to call on the supporting battalion before the day
was over, but the craters were held against enemy bombing
attacks during the night.

* Major Cope and Colonel Annesley were both granted the D.S.O.

G 2


Though both battalions lost heavily, the operation on
the whole had been most successful. On the part of the
9th Battalion it had been particularly so, and Lieut. -
Colonel Gubbins was awarded the D.S.O., Major Elliott-

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 7 of 38)