London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories
Royal fusiliers in the Great War - FIRST BATTLES — MONS TO THE AISNE
The Royal fusiliers in the Great War
1914 - 1919
FIRST BATTLES — MONS TO THE AISNE
In England the first contact of the British forces with the German Army formed a
unique episode. Other encounters took on a grander colouring ; others were
viewed with a graver anxiety. But the battle of Mons, which saw the first entry
of the British Army into the world war, stirred the emotions deeper than any
It was not in this way, however, that the army first gave battle. The 4th
Battalion Royal Fusiliers engaged at Mons with a coolness which is bewildering
and almost distressing to the civilian. Stationed at Parkhurst at the outbreak
of war, it had reported mobilised before midnight on August 8th. It began to
move on the 12th and sailed for Havre at 6 p.m. on the following day. The speed
and smoothness of its preparations had outpaced the arrangements for its
reception ; and only the Northumberland Fusiliers of the 9th Brigade could be
accommodated in tents at the rest camp at Harfleur. The weather was hot. The
battalion had embodied 734 reservists ; and as the troops struggled up the steep
hill to the rest camp after a seven mile march about 97 fell out.
The men had met with an enthusiastic reception at Havre. French soldiers on the
quay gave them a hearty welcome, and the troops did their best to show their
sense of gratitude by whistling the " Marseillaise." By a transition which needs
no explanation to those who know the ordinary Tommy, they then turned to " Hold
your hand out, naughty boy." This, sung with great fervour and seriousness, was
received with bared heads by the French, who quite pardonably thought it the
British National Anthem. It was a great day, and even the settling down into
orchards for the night did not chasten the men's spirits.
But that night a terrific thunderstorm burst over the camp, and the men, lying
in the open, were soaked to the skin. The rain came down in torrents and it
continued almost to the moment when, on the 16th, the battalion entrained for
the concentration area. The train slowly crossed the country via Amiens to
Landrecies, and everywhere on the line were cheering French crowds with presents
of flowers. Early on the 17th the battalion arrived at Landrecies and marched to
Noyelles, where, with a little rest and marching, the men got into condition.
These were the days when people at home were almost holding their breath ; but
if they could have seen several officers and men fishing in a tiny pond and
catching minnows on pins they might have been reassured, or perhaps, more
On the 20th the battalion left Noyelles for Taisnaires, and on the following day
they marched out as advance guard and billeted at La Longueville. On this day
the outposts of the 9th Brigade lay across the battlefield of Malplaquet. The
hour of departure on the 22nd had been fixed at 4 a.m. for 6.30 a.m., but at
five o'clock a message reached brigade headquarters that the starting time was
to be advanced by an hour and a half.
The 4th Battalion were on the march before 5.15, a very remarkable performance.
They were again advance guard, and by the evening they had reached Nimy, after
meeting with an enthusiastic welcome from the people of Mons, who loaded them
with presents of eggs, fruit, tobacco, and even handkerchiefs. The position at
this moment deserves notice. Army orders issued by von Bulow at 8 p.m. on the
22nd showed very clearly that no appreciable force of the British was thought to
be within the marching radius of the First and Second German Armies. On the
other hand, the British Army did not expect to meet with anything more than a
stimulating opposition from the Germans. It is necessary to bear the latter fact
in mind to appreciate the dispositions of the Royal Fusiliers.
They formed part of the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division, and their orders were
to the effect that the canal was to be " the line of resistance." But on the
night of the 22nd the battalion was occupying posts covering Ghlin, just south
of the Bois de Ghlin and the Bois Brule. There was no field of fire, and every
opportunity for unseen approach. Such a position, obviously, would have been
unthinkable if any prolonged defence had been contemplated ; and, indeed, late
in the afternoon the men were withdrawn to the canal. Even now there were strict
orders that the canal bridges should not be destroyed without explicit orders
from the 3rd Division ; and, finally, the general disposition of the line, with
its sharp salient about Mons, sufficiently emphasises the provisional nature of
the position and the implied probability of a light encounter and a subsequent
Mons. — The Royal Fusiliers were to bear the brunt of this misconception. As the
right-hand battalion of the brigade, they were disposed along the western face
of the canal bend, with the charge of all the crossings up to and including Nimy
Bridge. On their right lay the 4th Middlesex, charged with the defence of the
eastern face of the canal. The left (IX.) corps of the First German Army was
engaged on this part of the front, each of the two battalions in the canal bend
having to withstand the attack of two regiments (each of three battalions) of
the 18th Jager Division. On the morning of the 23rd the battalion, mustering 26
officers and 983 other ranks, was disposed as follows : —
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
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.
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 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 unhampered 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 neighbourhood, 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
commanding 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 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.
* Engaged against the left of Smith-Dorrien's corps.
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
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
reinforcements 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 retirement. 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 ordinary 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 posthumously. By
this time both guns had ceased firing, and all the crew had been knocked out. In
response to an inquiry whether any one else knew how to operate the guns Private
Godley came forward. He cleared the emplacement 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 to retire, and did so in perfect order.
Ashburner's company 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 headway. 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 company 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 acting 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.
* These were the first V.C.'s won and awarded during the war.
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 importance. Though
the canal bend was abandoned at 2 p.m. 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 situation, 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
* " Forty Days in 19 14," General Maurice, p. 83.
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.
* 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.
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 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 battalion 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
THE ACTION OF AUGUST 26th
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 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 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
* 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
Leaving La Martroy at 6 a.m. on the 8th the division first achieved contact with
the enemy at Orly, where they 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 contact 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 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 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 reconcentrate
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 bombardment 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 Lincolnshires 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.*
ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST BATTALION
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 appreciation 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.
* " The commanding officer received last night from General Hamilton, commanding
3rd Division, and from General Shaw, commanding 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 maintain, 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."
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 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 uneventful. 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 flank.