London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Troyon in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

TROYON

The 14th of September probably saw more real fighting in the old-fashioned sense than any other day in which the British troops had been engaged. The whole line covering a frontage of twenty miles was involved, but the fiercest conflict was always on the right with the 1st Army Corp This day's fighting is sometimes referred to as the battle of the Aisne, and sometimes as the battle of Troyon. The former is too indefinite, in view of the protracted fighting on the river of that name; the latter is too parochial. In real truth there were four distinct but synchronous battles taking place that day along our front, viz., at Troyon, Verneuil, Soupir and Chivres. The most sanguinary, and undoubtedly the most important as far as results go, was the first of these. It may fairly be said that the British victory at Troyon on September 14th was one of the most brilliant achievements of the War. The generalship displayed was of a high order, and the troops engaged behaved with the greatest steadiness and courage.
Proceedings commenced at the very first streak of dawn. General Bulfin's 2nd Brigade, which had got as far as Moulins on the 13th, set out at four o'clock on the following morning along the road to Vendresse. This road runs between the wooded downs on either side, and the idea was to bring the rest of the 1st Division along it as soon as the heights to right and left had been cleared. Half a mile short of Vendresse the R. Sussex, the 60th and the Northamptons scaled the downs to the right of the road, and deployed in the order named, the Sussex on the left, the 60th in the middle, and the Northamptons on the right, just east of Troyon. Beyond the Northamptons were the 1st Coldstream, who had been detached from the 1st Brigade. The Loyal N. Lancashire Regiment remained in reserve down at Vendresse, and about six o'clock the other three battalions of the 1st Brigade came marching through them, along the road towards Cerny. About half a mile further on, these three battalions scaled the heights on the left of the road, so as to continue the line of the 2nd Brigade, which was on the right of the road. Here they deployed and remained till the 3rd Brigade came up on their left some three hours later.
The day was a particularly unpleasant one. There was a cold and persistent rain from the north-west right in the faces of the British, and accompanied by a kind of fog which made it impossible to see clearly for more than a couple of hundred yards ahead, and which was responsible for a good deal of unfortunate confusion through the day as to the identity of friend and foe. It also, as may be supposed, greatly increased the difficulty of our Gunners, who found it impossible to locate the enemy accurately, or to get exact information as to the correctness of their range.

Having dealt with the disposition of the three brigades of the 1st Division, we can now turn to the actual fight at Troyon. The main objective of our attack here was the Sugar Factory which stands near the five cross-roads on the Chemin des Dames. The Factory itself was very strongly held with machine-guns, and was flanked by two batteries of artillery. For a quarter of a mile on each side of it were the German trenches, on the one side running along the Chivy road, and on the other along the Chemin des Dames, the two forming an obtuse angle with the apex at the Factory itself. In addition, the enemy had four big eleven-inch guns behind their line, the fire from which greatly harassed our troops all through these operations as they completely outranged our batteries. The approach to this position was over turnip and beet fields, very wet and sticky with clay, and sloping gently upwards towards the Factory. As long as the 2nd Brigade was on the steep sides of the downs it was comparatively sheltered from the enemy's fire, but the moment this sloping plateau was reached, a tremendous fire burst upon it at close range from rifles, machine-guns, and from two batteries of artillery, which were in position behind the trenches along the Chemin des Dames.
It is difficult to conceive of conditions more unfavourable for attack: a driving rain in the faces of the assailants, an entrenched enemy, and an uphill approach across clay fields saturated with wet and two feet deep in beet plants. However, the order was to advance, so undeterred by the gaps ploughed in their ranks, the brigade pressed steadily on. The objective of the R. Sussex on the left was the enemy's trenches along the Chivy road. Towards this they pushed on at the slow plodding tramp which was the best pace which could be raised in the circumstances, till they reached the comparative shelter of a sunken lane. In this lane the R. Sussex machine-gun section was able to get a position from which it could partially enfilade the Chivy road trenches, and so effective was its fire from this angle, that after a time a white flag was raised, and several hundred Germans were seen running forward with their hands up. Col. Montresor and many other officers and men of the Sussex left the lane to accept this surrender, whereupon the enemy, from the Factory itself and from the trenches to right and left of it, poured a deadly fire into the confused mass of Germans and British, mowing them down in scores. In this indiscriminate massacre the R. Sussex lost very heavily, Col. Montresor, Maj. Cookson, and Lieuts. Daun and Hughes being killed, and Captain Cameron wounded. The Germans too suffered severely, but about 200 of them were got safely into the lane and sent off to the rear with a platoon as escort.

The R. Sussex being now very considerably reduced in numbers, the Loyal N. Lancashires were brought up from reserve, one company being sent to support the Sussex, while two and a half companies came up on the right of the 60th, i.e., between the 60th and the Northamptons. These two and a half companies being fresh troops were now ordered to attack the Sugar Factory. The position of the Factory and the lie of the ground has already been described. The Loyal N. Lancashires, in order to carry out the attack as ordered, had to advance over a quarter of a mile of open ground under fire, not only from their front, but from both flanks as well, on account of the angle formed by the German trenches to right and left of the Factory. Their casualties during this advance were terrible. The C.O., Maj. Lloyd, and his Adjutant, Captain Howard-Vyse, were killed in the first rush. Fifty per cent. of the men fell in crossing that fire-swept zone, but the remainder carried steadily on and, at the point of the bayonet, drove out the enemy and captured the Factory, an achievement which must undoubtedly rank as one of the finest of the War.
The R. Sussex now pushed forward again, and Lieut. Dashwood, the machine-gun officer, got his maxims into the Factory, and from there enfiladed the two German batteries along the Chemin des Dames. At the same time some of the R. Sussex and the 6oth crept up along the road leading from Vendresse to the Factory, till they were in a position to enfilade the German trenches to the east of it. This manœuvre produced an immediate surrender, the Germans leaving their trenches and hoisting the white flag. Warned, however, by their experience earlier in the day, the British remained prudently under cover of the road, and it was as well they did, for the two German batteries in rear of the trenches at once began bombarding this new situation at point-blank range, with the result that, while the British in the road took no harm, the unfortunate Germans who had tried to surrender were practically wiped out by their own people.

This patriotic act was destined to be the last that these particular batteries performed, for Lieut. Dashwood with the Sussex machine-guns got on to them from the Factory and rendered them incapable of further damage. The horses were all killed, and such gunners as survived made off, abandoning the guns.

The Factory itself was not held, being of no military value and presenting a first-class target for the German artillery. Lieut. Dashwood withdrew his machine-guns to a farm-house some 200 yards down the road, and from this point was able to do considerable execution on the retreating enemy. He was soon, however, located, and Lieut. Pelham, who was assisting him, was killed. The section, however, ultimately managed to get away safely and rejoin its battalion. The vacated Factory was at once heavily bombarded by the enemy, and our troops derived no little satisfaction from seeing shell after shell drop where they were not.

The victory of Troyon was now complete, and it was one of which the troops engaged had every reason to be proud. The results, too, were very far-reaching, the position thus gained being never afterwards wrested from the British troops during their stay at the Aisne.
The casualty list in this sanguinary little fight was a heavy one. The Loyal N. Lancashires lost 15 officers, including their C.O. and Adjutant, and over 500 rank and file. The value of their gallant performance was, however, officially recognized, and Captain Spread, who displayed great courage throughout the day, received the Military Cross. The R. Sussex lost 250 rank and file and 9 officers, also including their Colonel, while in the 60th, Major Foljambe, Captain Cathcart, Lieut. Bond and 2nd Lieuts. Forster, Thompson and Davison were killed.

Whilst the 2nd Brigade plus the 1st Coldstream had been engaged with the Factory and the German entrenchments along the Chemin des Dames side of it, the Black Watch and Camerons were busy dislodging the other German wing from their trenches along the Chivy road. This again was a costly affair. The Camerons were enfiladed at close range by the German artillery on the other side of the Factory, and had lanes torn through their ranks. Col. Grant-Duff was killed while heading a bayonet charge of the Black Watch, side by side with his Adjutant, Captain Rowan Hamilton. The 1st Scots Guards, who were on the hill between Vendresse and Troyon, also lost their C.O. as well as their second in command, Col. Lowther being wounded and Major Garnier killed, as were also Lieuts. Inigo Jones and Thornhill. Sir V. Mackenzie and Lieut. Stirling-Stuart were wounded at the same time. The Scotsmen, however, did not mean stopping that day, and in spite of desperate losses the Chivy road trenches were finally carried at the point of the bayonet and a number of prisoners taken. But it cost the 1st Brigade 49 officers and 1,100 rank and file.

Much of the success during this day was due to the gallant behaviour of the 116th Battery R.F.A. attached to the 1st Brigade. At an early period in the day this battery, for fear of misdirection in the mist, had worked its guns up into a dangerously exposed position close to the firing line. From here they were able to work great damage to the German defences, but, as a natural consequence, themselves suffered severely in the process. Major Nicholson, in command of the battery, had been wounded early in the morning while reconnoitring for this position, the command then devolving upon Captain Oliver, who took the battery into action. Some 1,200 rounds were fired during the day, and replenishment of ammunition had to be done entirely by hand, all spare men and drivers being led up in relays by Lieut. Gardiner. The battery remained exposed to a very galling fire till after nightfall, when it was withdrawn by order of Col. Geddes, commanding the 25th Brigade R.F.A., as its position was in front of the infantry line actually occupied. Lieut. Simson, well known as a Rugby International, was killed during the operation. Great courage and devotion to duty was shown by Bombardier Collins, the battery telephonist, who, though painfully wounded early in the proceedings, continued at his post throughout the day. The battery was warmly thanked and praised by General Maxse, commanding the 1st Brigade, for the assistance it had given him.

By noon the 1st and 2nd Brigades were extended in a straight line running east and west through the Factory. Eventually, however, the line which was actually occupied and entrenched and maintained throughout the Aisne period against incessant counter-attacks had its right resting on the Chemin des Dames half a mile east of the Factory, and from there inclined gradually backwards till it reached the river east of Soissons. When we consider that the position won this day on the Chemin des Dames was four miles north of the river, the oblique line thereafter held by the British troops was a lasting monument to the remarkable achievement of the 1st Division on September 14th.
There can be no shadow of doubt that the Germans were completely taken by surprise by the unexpected rapidity of the 1st Division's advance. It was a fine piece of generalship, and had Sir Douglas Haig only had fresh troops to bring up from reserve, it is probable that the Germans would have been swept back another mile or two.

Fresh reserve troops, however, were too great a luxury for our small force. The Loyal N. Lancashires had in the morning been the reserve battalion to the 2nd Brigade, and of these fifty per cent. had fallen. Some of the R. Sussex and 1st Coldstream, as a matter of fact, did penetrate as far as Cerny, following the road from Troyon which cuts through the high ground beyond in a narrow defile. This road was literally choked with the enemy's dead. At Cerny they found every symptom of confusion and surprise, abandoned kits, baggage and munitions, and no sign of organized resistance. The detachment, however, was small, and as it was unsupported on either flank it was deemed wise to retire.

Verneuil

We can now move across on to the next range of heights to the left, and see how it there fared with the 3rd and 5th Brigades. Here matters were neither so eventful nor so decisive as on the Troyon ridge. It was ten o'clock before the 3rd Brigade came up into line, and was ordered to extend to the left and join up with the right of the 2nd Division, which was in the neighbourhood of Braye. While carrying out this order and when within a mile or so of Verneuil, they suddenly came up against two strong German columns which were advancing with some unknown object. The rest of the day's proceedings in this quarter may be briefly described as a series of attacks and counter-attacks, which lasted all through the day, between these two German columns and our 3rd, 5th and 6th Brigades. In the fiercely contested combat between these two forces honours were during the earlier part of the day fairly easy, but towards dusk the Germans sensibly weakened, both in attack and defence, and the British troops undoubtedly had the last word.
The most conspicuous episode in this section of the fighting was a really great performance on the part of an Edinburgh man named Wilson, in the Highland Light Infantry. That battalion had just made a most successful and dramatic charge, led by Sir Archibald Gibson-Craig and Lieut. Powell (both killed), and had established itself in a forward position with its left on a small wood. From this wood a German machine-gun began playing on the ranks of the battalion with such disastrous accuracy that it soon became clear that either the machine-gun must be silenced or the position evacuated. Pte. Wilson thought the former alternative preferable, and, getting a King's Royal Rifles (60th) man to go with him, crept out towards the wood. The King's Royal Rifles (60th) man was shot almost at once, but, quite undeterred, Wilson went on alone, killed the German officer and six men, and single-handed captured the machine-gun and two and a half cases of ammunition. It need scarcely be said that he got the Victoria Cross.

Another Victoria Cross earned this day by another Scotsman was little less remarkable, though of an entirely different order.
Pte. Tollerton, a fine, powerful man in the Scottish Rifles, noticed an officer fall badly wounded in the firing line. Though himself wounded both in the head and hand, Tollerton carried the officer to a place of safety, after which he himself returned to the firing line and there remained fighting, in spite of his wounds, throughout the day. At dusk he returned to the wounded officer. In the meanwhile the firing line had fallen back, with the result that Tollerton and the officer were left behind. The latter was quite incapable of moving, and Tollerton remained with him for three days and nights, till eventually both were rescued.

Soupir

Once more it is necessary to shift our scene still more to the left and nearer again to the Aisne, where the Cour de Soupir farm stands on the crest of the river bluff.
The capture of this position was the work of the Guards' Brigade. At 8 a.m., at the time when the 1st and 2nd Brigades were in the very thick of their fight at Troyon, the 2nd Division, which was still on the south side of the river, began to cross by the new pontoon bridge at Pont d'Arcy, the 6th Brigade moving up the valley to Braye, while the 5th Brigade fought its way up the wooded slopes above Soupir. These last two brigades, as we have seen, linked up with the 3rd Brigade in the neighbourhood of Verneuil.
The 4th Brigade went down the right bank of the river as far as Chavonne, where it remained till midday, when it got the order to scale the heights in support of the 5th Brigade, which was reported in difficulties. Accordingly the 3rd Coldstream and Irish Guards forced their way up through the woods north of Soupir, while the 2nd Grenadiers and two companies of the 2nd Coldstream made for the hamlet of Les Grouins on the left, where the idea was that they were to get in touch with the 1st Cavalry Division, which was also reported in difficulties. The other two companies 2nd Coldstream stayed in reserve, in a wood clearing on the bluff, half a mile south of La Cour de Soupir farm.
The track from Chavonne to the farm zigzags steeply up the bluff above the river through thick woods. Up this track, now ankle-deep in mud, the Guards scrambled in column of fours till they reached the flatter ground above, where they at once came under very heavy fire from the neighbourhood of the farm. Col. Feilding, who was acting Brigadier, thereupon deployed the two battalions to the left, and, as soon as the Grenadiers had come up into line on their left flank, the three battalions charged through the mist and rain in the direction of La Cour de Soupir farm. As had been the case with the 2nd Brigade, they were met by a very severe machine-gun and rifle fire at close range, the moment they emerged on to the flatter ground above, and their casualties were very considerable; but, notwithstanding, they kept going, captured the farm and trenches and drove out the enemy with heavy loss.

An unfortunate incident, very similar in many respects to that which had befallen the R. Sussex at Troyon, occurred during the capture of these trenches, and was responsible for the deaths of many good men.
Just to the left of the farm a number of Germans were seen advancing with hands up and white flags. Some of the 3rd Coldstream went out to accept the surrender, whereupon a second line of Germans sprang up, and, firing on friend and foe alike, mowed them down indiscriminately.
There can be little doubt that both this and the Troyon incident on the same day were not acts of deliberate treachery on the part of the Germans, but were purely "no surrender" demonstrations, and were probably aimed more at their compatriots than at the British.

In this engagement the 3rd Coldstream lost Captain Banbury, Lieut. Ives, Lieut. Bingham, Lieut. P. Wyndham, Captain Vaughan and Lieut. Fane, of whom the first four were killed, and 160 rank and file. The position gained, however, was never afterwards lost, but, from September 14th on, was held by the Guards' Brigade for twenty-nine consecutive days, in the face of a rapid succession of counter-attacks of the fiercest description, this position being singled out by the Germans for their most determined efforts at recapture.