London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories
The 1/4th Battalion in the Battles of the SOMME, 1916 - Battles of September
4TH Battalion, The London Regiment
(Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War
1914 - 1919
THE 1/4TH BATTALION IN THE BATTLES OF THE SOMME, 1916
II. The Battles of September and October
As we have pointed out in the preceding chapter, the 1st July was a day of
ahnost complete check to the British attack from Fricourt northwards. Between
Fricourt and the Somme, however, a certain measure of success had been attained,
while south of the river the French had made a considerable advance.
This limited success was exploited to the fullest extent during the first half
of July, and by the 14th, after very fierce fighting, in which eleven British
Divisions were engaged, our lines were pressed forward through the series of
fortresses forming the first German system of defence.
The Main Ridge of the Somme watershed runs east-south-east from Thiepval, above
the Ancre, across the Albert-Bapaume Road, towards the Peronne-Bapaume Road.
About a mile and a half west of the latter road it is completely severed by a
narrow and deep ravine in which lies the small township of Combles ; and about
half way between Combles and Thiepval it is deeply indented by a valley which
separates the villages of Bazentin-lc-Grand and Bazcntin-le-Petit, the head of
this valley being dominated by the high ground on which stands High Wood. The
ridge, therefore, divides itself into three sections, all on the same general
alignment, as follows : In the west, from Thiepval, astride the Albert-Bapaume
Road to High Wood ; in the centre, from High Wood to the Combles Valley ; in the
east, the high ground about Sailly Sailliscl on the Peronne- Albert Road.
The German second system of defences followed roughly the near side of the crest
of this Main Ridge, including the villages (from east to west) of Maurepas,
Guillemont, Longueval (with Delville Wood), the Bazentins and Pozieres. The
third system lay on the further slope of the ridge and included the villages of
Morval, Lesboeufs, Flers and Gueudecourt.
On the 14th July the British attacked the second system on a front from
Bazentin-le-Petit to Longueval. This attack, which was successful, was pressed
forward to High Wood, of which practically the whole was captured, and thus
secured for us a footing on the Main Ridge, dividing the German forces on the
west and centre portions of it. The advance was consolidated and rounded off
locally in the direction of Guillemont ; but the new positions formed an abrupt
and narrow salient in our line, and before a further advance to the German third
system could be contemplated it was necessary for the British hold on the Main
Ridge to be widened. It was considered by G.H.Q. that the Pozieres -Thiepval
series of fortresses at the western extremity of the ridge was too powerful to
yield to frontal attack, and it was therefore decided to extend the hold on the
centre portion of the ridge. This postulated the capture of Guillemont, Ginchy
and Combles, and a swinging-up of the British right flank which rested on the
Combles valley. The French were to co-operate on the right of the Combles valley
by the capture of Fregicourt and Rancourt. Combles itself, immensely fortified
and strongly garrisoned, was too formidable an obstacle to be likely to fall
into our hands by direct attack, except at an appalling cost of life ; and it
was therefore to be enveloped, the British advancing on the heights west of it
and the French to its east.
It is with this great outflanking movement for the capture of Combles and the
securing of the Main Ridge immediately west of it that the 56th Division and the
l/4th Londons are concerned.
Guillemont was first attacked on the 23rd July, but it was not until after
repeated attempts that it finally fell into our hands on the 3rd September. On
that day the line was advanced to the outskirts of Ginchy and to the Wedge
Wood-Ginchy Road, Falfemont Farm falling to us on the 5th.
Meanwhile local improvements had been made in our positions in various parts of
the line, and the bitter fighting of August, though productive of no very deep
advance was of the greatest value. It not only widened our hold on the ridge,
but also by a series of unrelenting sledgehammer blows had a cumulative effect
on the German morale and thus paved the way for the greater successes of
The 168th Brigade continued training in the St Riquier area until the end of
August, the l/4th Londons retaining their billets at Le Plessiel. The training
was rendered peculiarly interesting by reason of the first appearance of the "
Heavy Section Machine-Gun Corps," better known as Tanks. These engines of war,
which were regarded at first by the troops with a good deal of wonderment and
not a little misgiving, only arrived in France on the 25th August. No time was
lost in testing them and giving infantry troops an opportunity to co-operate
with them in practice prior to their employment in action.
The 56th Division received the compliment of being one of the units selected by
G.H.Q. to co-operate with Tanks on the occasion of their first appearance in
battle, and accordingly a series of practice schemes was begun on the 26th
August, the Brigades of the 56th Division being employed in turn. Needless to
say the interest aroused by the strange appearance of these iron monsters was
intense and speculation was rife as to their potential value in action, not only
among the troops, but also among the many staff officers who were present at the
demonstrations. Unfortunately the time allowed for " tuning up " the engines was
inadequate, the result being that during the first practices the Tanks showed a
most undesirable predilection for breaking down — a habit not calculated to
inspire with confidence the infantry who were expected to follow them. However,
these difficulties were largely overcome, and by the 2nd September, when the
168th Brigade's turn for practising with them arrived, the Tanks were working
In spite of the misgivings as to the tactical value of the Tanks which presented
themselves to the minds of those incUned to pessimism, their arrival undoubtedly
gave enormous encouragement to the troops who were enabled at last to realise
that the enemy were not always to be first in the field with new inventions ;
and the anticipation of a great surprise effect when the Tanks should first
appear before the enemy trenches brought all ranks to the tip-toe of
expectation. The strict injunction which was issued to avoid mention of the
Tanks in correspondence was most loyally obeyed.
On the 2nd September a warning order was received that the Division would move
forward to the battle area, and the following day the 168th and 169th Brigades
moved to the Corbie area. The Battalion left Le Plessiel in the afternoon of the
3rd, marching to St Riquier, where it entrained for Corbie, a town of some size
at the confluence of the Ancre and the Somme. Here the Battalion detrained at
11.15 p.m., marching, with the Rangers, to billets at Vaux-sur-Somme. The
remainder of the Brigade was accommodated a mile further forward at
Sailly-le-Sec, the Division now came under the orders of the XIV Corps (Cavan),
the extreme right of the British Army, consisting of the 5th, 16th and 20th
Divisions, which had this day been operating on the Guillemont front in the
action already alluded to.
On the morning of the 4th orders were received, without any previous intimation
that they might be coming, for the Battalion to move forward at once. The whole
Battalion, less personnel of the transport and vehicles, marched out of
Vaux-sur-Somme within one hour of the receipt of these orders — a credit to the
high state of organisation to which the Battalion had been trained since leaving
the Hebuterne area. Boutall writes : " The march was a long and tedious one and
I think I am right in asserting that not a single man fell out on the way. I
distinctly remember Lieut.-Col. Wheatley congratulating himself on the fact."
This march terminated at a large concentration camp known as the Citadel about
two miles north of Bray. At the Citadel the Battalion was able to form a vague
idea for the first time of the enormous effort being put forth by the British in
this aheady long drawn-out struggle. The concentration camp covered an enormous
area on the rolling hillsides above the Somme and presented an astounding
spectacle of numbers of units from every arm of the Service — gunners, infantry,
engineers — besides vast stores of materials of all kinds. The roar of the guns
in the inferno of the battle line seemed to speak to the troops of the great and
yet increasing power of the British Armies, and filled every heart with hope and
confidence. To many of those who remembered the lean days of 1915 when the
British battle line was starved for men and shells, this first contact with the
reality of the Empire's strength was almost overpowering.
On the 5th September the Division took the place in Corps Reserve of the 20th
Division, which had been withdrawn from the fighting line, and in the evening of
the same day the relief of the 5th Division in the line began.
The front taken over from the 5th Division was the extreme right of the line
from its junction with the French, overlooking the Combles valley to the left of
Leuze Wood. The 169th Brigade (relieving the 15th) took over the right sector
and the 168th Brigade (relieving the 95th) assumed responsibility in the left
September had set in with steady rain which had already converted all the roads,
tracks and camping grounds into seas of liquid mud. The Battalion, which since
arrival at the Citadel had been held at short notice to move, advanced during
the afternoon of the 5th, in full battle kit in the direction of the line. The
state of the ground made marching an impossibility, and after sliding along for
some time uncomfortably in the mud, orders were received for the Battalion to
return to the Citadel. The change of plan was, as usual, received with
philosophical resignation, and the men turned in to take advantage of the short
respite only to be roused again a few hours later the same evening when the
advance to the line began at 11.15 p.m.
At this hour the Battalion, which with the Rangers was in Brigade support, left
the Citadel, arriving in its allotted position in Casement Trench at 5.30 a.m.
on the 6th September. This trench was now reduced to a series of shell holes
which the bad weather had rendered most uncomfortable, and was a part of the
original German system opposite Maricourt.
The departure from the Citadel was marked by a most unfortunate accident. As the
column began to move the explosion of a bomb which had been left buried in the
mud occurred at the head of D Company, and this very seriously wounded Capt. A.
L. Long, the company commander, and 2/Lieut. A. G. Sharp, and caused casualties
to 19 N.C.O.'s and men.
With the advent of daylight the Battalion first came face to face with the
ghastly desolation of the Somme battlefield. In all directions every sort of
landmark seemed to be obliterated. A few torn stumps marked what had been
Bernafay and Trones Woods, the village of Guillemont was practically effaced,
and the only signs of life in the neighbourhood of the Battalion were numerous
batteries of artillery in action. Here the nucleus personnel left the Battalion
and returned to the Citadel, where the Q.M. stores were established. At 2 p.m.
the Battalion changed its position to Chimpanzee Trench in the neighbourhood of
the Brickfield, south of Bernafay Wood, and here it received a foretaste of the
German barrage. After dark the forward move was resumed, and the Battalion
entered the support trenches in rear of Leuze Wood, on the Wedge Wood-Ginchy
Road, relieving the 4th Gloucesters. This trench formed a " switch " in the
second German system which had fallen into our hands on the 3rd September.
Tlie Battle of Ginchy, 5th~10th September
The disposition of the Brigade was now as follows :
In front line, Leuze Wood : — London Scottish.
In support, Wedge Wood-Ginchy Road : — l/4th Londons.
In reserve, Maltzhorn Farm : — Rangers.
The Kensingtons were attached to the 169th Brigade, and were in line to the
south of Leuze Wood.
During the night the enemy's bombardment of the front Hne and Wedge Wood Valley
increased in intensity and two platoons of the l/4th Londons, under Lieuts.
Oldrey and Garratt, were ordered forward to reinforce the Scottish in Leuze
Wood. This advance was successfully accomplished, the platoons managing to get
through an unpleasantly heavy barrage with only one casualty. No enemy attack
materialised, and towards dawn, the hostile bombardment having subsided, the two
platoons rejoined the Battalion.
Throughout the 7th September and far into the night the enemy shelled Wedge Wood
Valley and the support line heavily, and the Battalion suffered a good many
casualties, chiefly among ration and water-carrying parties, while communication
with Battalion Headquarters was exceedingly difficult. The Wedge Wood-Ginchy
Road which ran immediately in front of the trench was sunken at this point, and
the bank was honeycombed with German dugouts, among them one which had been used
as an aidpost, and which produced an ample supply of bandages, lint and
field-dressings, and also cigars and tobacco — trench stores which were promptly
taken on charge by the Battalion.
The road itself was littered with German dead, the remnants of the battle of the
3rd, who had apparently been caught by our barrage, of the destructive nature of
which evidences were everywhere to be seen. " Unfortunately," writes an
eyewitness, " the sunken road was an attraction to countless flies in the
daytime. So numerous were they that from the road arose a continuous hum which
was audible at a considerable distance. They swarmed over into the trench and
settled on our food in such numbers that they often found their way into our
mouths at mealtimes."
During the afternoon of the 7th orders were issued for the 56th Division to
extend its front to the left by taking over the sector held by the right Brigade
of the 16th Division. This consisted of a trench following the Leuze
Wood-Guillcmont Road, from near the north corner of Leuze Wood, for about 500
yards to the left. This relief was to be effected by " side-stepping " the 168th
Brigade to the left, its trenches in Leuze Wood being handed over to the 169th
Brigade. In pursuance of this scheme the BattaUon took over with A and D
Companies the advanced front hne — ^about 200 yards' frontage on the immediate
left of Leuze Wood — from the 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers. Immediately after
relief these companies began to dig assembly trenches for the impending
continuance of the offensive, and this task was completed before dawn on the 8th
September. The Rangers meanwhile had come up in line on the left of the l/4th
Londons, while the Scottish on relief in Leuze Wood by the 169th Brigade had
withdrawn into Brigade support, where they were joined by the Kensingtons.
The 8th September was occupied in improving the assembly trenches, and in
establishing an advanced report centre in a German dugout at the south-west
corner of Leuze Wood — by now corrupted by the ever-ready wit of the Cockney
into " Lousy " Wood — while under cover of darkness the Cheshire Pioneers
connected the Wood with Wedge Wood by a communication trench. In addition a
great deal of work was carried out in collecting advanced dumps of tools, bombs,
ammunition and water, in the west edge of Leuze Wood. All this work was effected
under very heavy shell fire under which the Battalion sustained some loss.
Orders had now been received for the resumption of the offensive on the 9th, and
during the night the l/4th Londons and Rangers occupied their newly dug assembly
trenches, while the Kensingtons advanced to the Wedge Wood support trench, the
Scottish remaining at Maltzhorn Farm. The advanced report centre in Leuze Wood
was taken over by the l/4th Londons and placed under charge of Capt. Houlder
(17th Londons attached). Capt. Houlder, who could speak German fluently, was
instrumental during the action in gaining from prisoners much useful first-hand
information which he was able to pass back to Battalion and Brigade
Headquarters. The terrifying aspect of this huge British officer, coupled with
the fact that he always had a loaded revolver conspicuously displayed during his
investigations, no doubt increased tiie desire of liis victims to respond to his
The battle of the 9th September was an attack on the whole front of the Fourth
Army, the French co-operating on our right. The object of the XIV Corps, of
which the 56th and 16th Divisions were in line, was to advance the British
positions from the Combles valley on the extreme right well to the east of Leuze
Wood on a line running from south-east to north-west as far as the Ginchy-Morval
Road, which formed the left of the 56th Division front. From this point the 16th
Division was to reach a line which ran due west for some 800 yards along the
road towards Ginchy and then bent northwards to include the whole of the
Map No. 5 shows the objectives of the 56th Division, the 169th Brigade on the
right being responsible for forcing our lines forward of Leuze Wood on its north
and east sides ; and the 168th Brigade continuing the line as far as Point 141
"7 on the Ginchy-Morval Road. The map also indicates that nearly every battalion
taking part in the assault would have to make a change of direction from its
starting point in order to advance to its objective.
So far as the 168th Brigade was concerned the advance was to be made in two
stages, the first objective being a line of German trenches, running from the
north corner of Leuze Wood towards Ginchy, and the final objective being as
above described. For this purpose the dispositions of the Brigade remained as
they had been on the eve of the battle, that is :
Right Assaulting Battalion — l/4th Londons.
Left Assaulting Battalion — Rangers.
Support Battalion — Kensingtons.
Reserve Battalion — London Scottish.
The l/4th Londons were disposed for attack as follows :
Right — B Company (Lieut. H. W. Vernon).
Centre — D Company (Lieut. G. H. Davis).
Left — A Company (Capt. J. R. Webster).
Support — C Company (2/Lieut. W. E. Osborne).
Each company occupied a two-platoon frontage, so that the whole BattaHon was on
a front of six platoons and in a depth of four waves.
The morning of the 9th September dawned mistily, but by 10 o'clock the sun's
rays had dispersed the haze and disclosed to the enemy the new earth thrown up
in front of our hastily dug assembly trenches. A heavy bombardment of the
assembly areas on the whole Divisional front followed, lasting all the morning
and causing a good many casualties. The assaulting companies having already
formed up over night, the trenches were crowded with troops waiting for the hour
of attack, and the experience of having quietly to endure this remarkably
accurate and heavy shoot was one of the most trying of the whole engagement.
At 4 o'clock the enemy put down a heavy barrage on our lines. A quarter of an
hour later our preparatory bombardment, which had opened at 10 a.m., increased
to " hurricane " intensity, and for half an hour the German positions were
subjected to a frightful ordeal under which it seemed that nothing could live.
At 4.45 p.m. the British columns, on a front of several miles, moved to the
The l/4th Londons on getting out of their assembly trenches had to make a change
of direction, pivoting on their right flank, and this accomplished, they moved
forward steadily, keeping well up to their barrage and suffering comparatively
In consequence of the conflicting reports which were received during the action,
the heavy toll of casualties in all ranks, and the resultant intermingling of
companies in the positions gained, it has been a matter of considerable
difficulty to elucidate the position and to extract from the mass of evidence a
fair and impartial account of what really occurred.
It seems evident, however, that the position marked as the l/4th Londons' first
objective was innocent of the trench which it was expected to find there. At all
events if a trench had ever existed on the line of the Leuze Wood-Ginchy track
it had been so battered by shell fire as to be no longer recognisable as such ;
and it appears that the greater part of the assaulting companies overshot the
mark and moved straight on to what was really the second objective, which they
occupied under the impression that it was the first objective. It had been
arranged that A Company on the left should consolidate a strong point on the
left of the real first objective at its point of junction with the sector to be
captured by the Rangers. Evidently 2/Lieut. Brodic, to whom was allotted this
task, in making his change of direction to the right took a somewhat wide sweep
and struck the east end of the Rangers' first objective, where a trench did
actually exist, and here he formed his block practically in the position where
it was intended to be. Subsequently Brodie, finding himself, no doubt, out of
touch with the remainder of the Battalion, who had gone too far, came forward in
the attempt to clear up the situation, but unhappily was killed, together with
all his men.
The too rapid advance of the Battalion naturally brought them under the fire of
our own barrage, and during the forty minutes' pause which was ordered after the
capture of the first objective before the resumption of the advance on to the
second, a good many casualties did in fact occur from our own shells which were
dropping in and uncomfortably close to the trench which was occupied. This
trench — the real second objective — was subsequently known as Bully Trench. We
will therefore so refer to it in order to avoid confusion.
At 5.25 p.m. the Battalion, now including elements of all companies, once more
advanced in a commendably steady manner on to a trench just topping the rise of
the Main Ridge. This it occupied with very little opposition. This advanced
position — Beef Trench — was an isolated trench about 150 yards ahead of Bully
(the real second objective) with both flanks in the air. It was shallow and
evidently only in course of construction. It afforded magnificent observation
over the rearward slopes of the Main Ridge on to the German third line system in
front of Morval, and in this position the work of consolidation was begun, two
Lewis gun posts being pushed forward overlooking the Morval-Lesbceufs Road.
Middle Copse, a small spinney about 200 yards to the front, was seen to be
teeming with Bosche who were effectively dealt with by our Lewis guns.
In the meantime the right platoon of B Company under 2/Lieut. Garratt, which, in
keeping touch with the Queen Victorias, had got ahead of the rest of the
Battalion, had evidently become deflected slightly to the right during its
advance and had dropped into the communication trench connecting Leuze Wood with
Bully Trench. Apparently somewhat confusing his direction in the total absence
of landmarks, Garratt moved along this trench and turned the corner to the left
along Bully Trench. Here he came in contact with a Bosche bombing party, and
attacking them vigorously pushed them back for some considerable distance, and
eventually constructed a temporary block in the trench, probably about the
centre of the Battalion's sector, i.e. about 200 yards short of the
Quadrilateral. In this bomb fighting the men of B Company displayed great
courage and dash, and their accurate throwing contributed largely to their
success. Among these gallant men Corpl. Udall was conspicuous, and for his
devotion to duty he was awarded the Military Medal.
During the advance of the assaulting companies of the Battalion from Bully
Trench to the advanced position in Beef, a somewhat determined attack was
delivered against B Company's block by a large party of the enemy led by an
officer. Fortunately the shallowness of the trench exposed the enemy's advance
and after a brisk exchange of bombs, in the course of which some loss was
inflicted on the attacking party, including the officer who was shot by Garratt,
the survivors surrendered with the exception of a few who fled pursued by the
fire of our men and the Rangers. Garratt was subsequently awarded the Military
Cross for his good work.
On the Battalion's left the Rangers, whose line of advance was dominated by the
Quadrilateral and a small spur running from it in a south-westerly direction,
had been faced with a withering machine-gun fire under which advance was utterly
impossible. Their left company was unable to make progress, and by 8.30 p.m. was
compelled to withdraw to its assembly positions in conjunction with the right
Brigade of the 16th Division who had also been unable to overcome the German
resistance. The right company of the Rangers pushed gallantly forward losing
heavily, but was finally brought to a stand in the vicinity of the temporary
block which was being held in Bully by Garratt. Here they were forced to take
such cover as shell craters afforded them, and to reply to the Bosche fire, in
which they were assisted by the party of B Company at the block. Under the
gathering darkness a good many of the Rangers were able to make their way into
While all this was taking place two companies of the Kensingtons had occupied
the assembly trenches vacated by the l/4th Londons, and the commanders of these,
appreciating the situation of the Rangers, at once made a gallant attempt to
fill the gap on the left. Their gallantry, however, cost them dear, and the
German barrage took a heavy toll of casualties before they reached Bully Trench.
The bravery of Major Dickens was in particular remarkable. Mortally wounded some
time before he reached his objective, he continued to advance at the head of his
men, cheering and encouraging them until he collapsed into the trench. Later in
the evening the two remaining companies of the Kensingtons were also thrown into
the fight and became absorbed into the l/4th Londons' position in Bully Trench.
Darkness had now fallen, and the position of the companies in the advanced
trench was far from happy. Both flanks were in the air and heavy losses had been
suffered ; of the officers who had started with these companies, only four —
Cooper, McCormick, Qucnncll and Burford — were still standing. News from Garratt
showed that he was doubtful as to whether he could hold out against another
Fearing to lose the advantage already gained. Cooper, who had assumed command of
the force in Beef Trench, decided to reoccupy Bully temporarily, and finally
clear it of the enemy. The withdrawal was successfully accomplished in the dark,
but the enemy was found to be firmly established with an apparently ample supply
of bombs on his side of the block, which had now been completed with the help of
the Kensington and Ranger reinforcements ; and further attempts to extend our
gains northward in Bully were abandoned. Communication being now re-established
with Battalion Headquarters, orders were received in Bully for the reoccupation
of the advanced positions in Beef ; and the Bully position being now much
strengthened by Rangers and Kensingtons, the l/4th Londons moved forward alone
to Beef Trench.
During the remainder of the night a good deal of work was necessary in
reorganising the somewhat mixed force by which the forward position was now
occupied. One or two enemy patrols approached the position but were fired on and
dispersed, and apart from continued shell fire and sniping the night passed
Captain Cooper gives the following account of a remarkable incident which
occurred during the night : —
A glow was seen in a shell hole some distance to the front and on investigation
this proved to be from the cigarette of a battalion N.C.O., a corporal
(Fergusson), who had formed part of one of the forward posts. He had become
separated from his men and wounded in the back so that he was unable to walk. He
stated that he had been uncertain of his position and so had crawled into a
shell hole. A Bosche patrol had found him and removed his shoulder badges and
taken the contents of his pockets, but had propped him up in a comfortable
position and had left him his water-bottle, cigarettes and matches. He was
calmly and coolly enjoying a cigarette when found. He was sent on a stretcher to
the Aid Post.
While these events were taking place on the Battalion's front, the Queen
Victorias, the left of the 169th Brigade, had occupied their objective, and were
in touch on the right of Bully. The enemy, however, had hitherto successfully
resisted all efforts of the London Rifle Brigade to emerge from the east side of
Leuze Wood. At about 7 p.m. the Bosche at this part of the line had launched a
vigorous bomb attack along the sunken road leading from Combles, and the L.R.B.
had been forced back after a most stubborn resistance which cost them heavily.
During the night the
Queen's Westminsters took over the extreme right of the Division.
The 16th Division on the left had also met with varied fortunes. The 47th
Brigade on its left had successfully advanced through Ginchy and established
itself on its objective ; but the right brigade, the 48th, whose objective lay
along the Ginchy-Morval Road, met with most stubborn resistance from the spur
already referred to. In spite of the most gallant efforts the Brigade was unable
to make progress, and eventually fell back with the left wing of the Rangers at
about 8.30 p.m. and reoccupied their original position on the Wedge Wood-Ginchy
Road. About this time the London Scottish were ordered into the fight in order
to endeavour to clear up the situation in this part of the field. After the
march forward from Maltzhorn their preparations were completed at about
midnight, and shortly after they attacked from a position to the left of the
Rangers' assembly trenches towards the Quadrilateral. The enemy was still
vigorous in his defence, and after losing their direction in the intense
darkness, the Scottish were ultimately withdrawn, having first rendered a good
account of themselves in a lively little hand-to-hand fight with a party of the
Bosche. During the night the 16th Division was relieved by the 3rd Guards
Shortly after dawn on the 10th 2/Lieut. McCormick, who had come back to
Battalion Headquarters with a report of the situation, returned to Beef Trench
with orders for the immediate evacuation of the advanced position. Accordingly,
after establishing two Lewis gun positions in Beef Trench, the withdrawal was
proceeded with as rapidly as possible, the activity of the German snipers in the
growing daylight making movement difficult except in the smallest parties. The
return of the l/4th Londons to Bully Trench caused congestion which was
subsequently intensified by the arrival of a large reinforcement of London
Scottish. This Battalion made efforts during the day to prolong the line in the
direction of the Quadrilateral, while the Guards, working eastward along the
Ginchy-Morval Road, sought to join hands with them, but the Germans were well
supplied with bombs and put up a very gallant resistance. The continued
occupation of the spur — which on the previous day had stopped the 16th Division
— moreover forced an unpleasantly deep reentrant in the British line, leaving
the left flank of the l/4th Londons dangerously exposed. An effort to rout out
the pertinacious defenders of this spur was made during the afternoon by the
168th Stokes mortars, who fired 35 rounds with good effect into the enemy
The position on the right flank of the Battalion was still less satisfactory
than had been hoped for. At 7 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. the Queen's Westminsters
had made local attempts to gain the previous day's objective, but each time
Throughout the day the Battalion's position was kept under heavy German shell
fire which caused the already heavy casualty roll to mount higher and higher,
and it was found necessary to relieve the congestion in Bully by withdrawing the
Rangers and Kensingtons to the rear. Communication with Headquarters was
rendered exceedingly difficult, though, as always, there was no lack of brave
volunteers to try to pass through the German barrage, and these in some cases
succeeded in reaching the report centre in Leuze Wood. Moreover the trench, only
a shallow and half-finished work to start with, was becoming badly shattered and
was filled with wounded men, whom there was no means of evacuating, for all the
stretcher-bearers with companies had themselves become casualties. Throughout
this trying day all ranks displayed magnificent spirit and clung to their hardly
won gains with grim determination. That night the 168th Brigade was relieved,
the l/4th Londons handing over their objective to the 8th Middlesex of the 167th
Brigade. Following the relief, which was complete by midnight, the Battalion,
moved by companies — by now sadly reduced in numbers — to Casement Trench,
whence the Battalion moved as a unit to Billon Farm, near Carnoy, arriving in
bivouacs there at 5.30 a.m. on the 11th September.
The five days' duty just completed were perhaps the most strenuous the Battalion
had yet experienced. Almost all the time exposed to bad weather conditions and
to very heavy and accurate artillery fire, the spirit of the men was magnificent
; and their steadiness, after the loss of 15 out of the 20 officers who led the
companies into action, as well as a large proportion of N.C.O.'s, was
unsurpassed. Their fighting qualities too were firmly established, for they had
taken their objectives up to time-table and handed them over intact twenty-four
hours later. The total casualties during the five days amounted to 22 officers
and about 250 other ranks.
The officer casualties were as follows :
7th and 8th September — Capts. F. C. J. Read and H. G. Stanham, 2/Lieuts. W.
Richards, A. Potton, J. T. Middleton, 0. H. T. Heaver and L. W. Archer, wounded.
9th and 10th September— Capt. J. R. Webster, 2/Lieuts. C. J. Brodie, F. J.
Foden, W. E. Osborne, C. E. Lewis, C. S. G. Blows and C. F. Mortleman, killed ;
Lieuts. H. W. Vernon and G. H. Davis, 2/Lieuts. J. W. Price, V. R. Oldrey, C. F.
English, N. A. Ormiston and J. C. Graddon, wounded ; and
2/Lieut. W. H. Davey, D.C.M., missing, pi^esumed killed.
Throughout the 11th and 12th heavy fighting continued in which the 167th Brigade
co-operated with the Guards on the left in numerous efforts to clear out the
re-entrant and reach the Ginchy Quadrilateral. This magnificently defended
position, however, held out against the most gallant attempts of the attackers.
During the night of the 11 /1 2th September the 167th Brigade was also relieved,
the line being taken over by the 16th Brigade of the 6th Division.
The Battalion remained at Billon Farm for three most welcome days of rest and
reorganisation during which the weather, which now once more became fine and
warm, was of inestimable value in cheering the troops after their somewhat
trying experience. The relief to the men's spirits on emerging even for a short
spell from the ghastly featureless waste of the battle area to surroundings
where trees still bore their leaves, roads still crossed the hillsides, and
houses were not completely effaced, was immense ; and by the time the period of
rest was over the Battalion was once more braced up to continue the struggle.
One or two changes occurred during this period among the officers of the
BattaHon, of which the most important was the assumption of the Adjutancy by
Lieut. W. J. Boutall on the evacuation to hospital of Capt. R. L. Herring, who
had occupied this trying position practically since the Battalion joined the
56th Division. 2/Lieut. Garratt assumed the duties of Assistant Adjutant almost
immediately afterwards. Capt. J. T. Sykes left the Battalion for attachment to
the Indian Army, and the signalling officer, Lieut. E. W. Monk, to join the
R.A.F. The latter's duties were taken over by 2/Lieut. S. J. Barkworth, M.M. In
addition to these 2/Lieut, A. C. Knight was evacuated to hospital.
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette 15th-18th September
The renewal of the offensive was not long to be delayed. The object of the High
Command was to follow up the blows delivered against the German positions as
rapidly as possible, and to leave the enemy little respite for reorganisation
and rest. The constant hammering on his defences had already had an appreciable
effect on his morale, and it was hoped that before long the strain on his
resources would prove so great that the situation would develop rapidly in
favour of the Allies.
The next general attack was arranged for the 15th September, the assault being
launched on the whole battle front from Morval to Le Sars on the Albert-Bapaume
Road. The great pivoting movement by which the British right flank was to be
swung forward in line with the left on the Main Ridge had now reached an
important stage, and the operations of the XIV Corps were now more than ever
bound up with the fortunes of the French south of Combles. The French were
aiming at establishing themselves astride the Bapaume-Peronne Road at the
village of Sailly Saillisel, about two miles north-east of Combles ; but the
task presented unusual difficulties owing to the restriction of the lines of
possible advance between the deep Combles ravine on the one flank, and the
extensive wood of St Pierre Vaast on the other. The evils of this confinement
were aggravated by the fact that the enemy position about Morval at the extreme
east end of the Main Ridge dominated the whole of our AlHes' hne of advance. It
was therefore essential to the success, not only of the French in their ultimate
object but also of the combined " squeezing-out " process which was being
applied to Combles itself, that the British should at once possess themselves of
such portions of the Main Ridge as remained in the enemy's hands. This entailed
the breaking of the Third German systein on the line Morval-Lesboeufs-Flers, and
this was the task of the XIV and XV Corps on the 15th September.
The positions held by the Division at the opening of the battle were as follows
167th Brigade — On the line north of Leuze Wood and intersecting the south end
of Bonleaux Wood which had been captured on the 9th by the Queen Victorias, and
thence along the sovith-east edge of Leuze Wood for about half its length.
169tli Brigade — On the right of Leuze Wood, in a line running due north and
south, between the 167th and the French.
168th Brigade — In reserve bivouacs in Angle Wood Valley, the Battalion being at
the head of the Valley near Wedge Wood.
The position which the Battalion had captured on the 9th September was now held
by the 6th Division, who formed the centre of the Corps while the Guards were on
the extreme left.
The general idea of the attack was that the Guards and 6th Divisions should
attack positions in the German third line facing Lesboeufs, while the 56th
Division was to form a defensive flank facing the Combles ravine.
To establish this defensive flank the 169th Brigade on the right was to push
forward of Leuze Wood and occupy a position roughly north and south with its
left flank astride the sunken road from Combles, about 300 yards east of the
edge of Leuze Wood. The 167th was to clear Bouleaux Wood in two stages and
establish a line parallel to and about 100 yards in front of its east edge. The
l/4th Londons were to follow up the advance of the 167th Brigade and then "
leap-frog " through it on to the German third line immediately in front of
Morval whence they would connect up between the left of the 167th Brigade and
the right of the 6th Division.
The 15th September was on the greater part of the battle front a day of big
successes. At an early hour Flers fell before our assault, and by the afternoon
the British line had been pushed far beyond it ; the whole of High Wood was
taken, and before nightfall Martinpuich and Courcelette on the left had been
added to the gains of the day.
On the extreme right, however, the advance suffered a rather severe check. The
Guards, who occupied the left of the Corps front, were able to make solid
advances between Flers and Lesboeufs, but the 6th Division adjoining them were
held up by the Quadrilateral at Ginchy, whose brave defenders still maintained
their position most stubbornly ; and this failure naturally reacted on the 56th
Division who occupied a narrow wedge between the Quadrilateral and the Combles
At 5.50 a.m. the three tanks which were to make their debut with the Division
left their departure points for the first objective, and at 6.20 a.m. the
infantry assault was launched. Almost three hours later, at 9 a.m., the l/4th
Londons left their bivouacs in Angle Wood Valley and moved forward in artillery
formation towards the battle position on the crest between the north edge of
Leuze Wood and the west face of Bouleaux Wood. Progress was not rapid owing to
the heavy state of the ground, and under the German shell fire a good many
casualties were sustained. The advance was made, however, in good order, and
with admirable steadiness.
The 169th Brigade made very slight advances on the south of Leuze Wood ; while
the 167th managed to secure the part of its first objective which lay outside
Bouleaux Wood. The 8th Middlesex of the latter Brigade even made a heroic
attempt to reach the second objective, but had to be brought back. The enemy
barrage was heavy and fell, as it so often had in the Somme battles, between the
assaulting columns and their starting-point, thus cutting them off from supplies
and reinforcement, while the accurate intensity of their machine-gun fire from
their positions in the Quadrilateral made advance an utter impossibility. After
ten hours' fighting, during which the assaulting Brigades did all that men could
do, the Corps Commander telephoned to Gen. Hull tliat the Division would make no
further attempt against Bouleaux Wood that day.
The l/4th Londons luckily avoided the slaughter of the battle line this day, for
a few minutes prior to its advance from Angle Wood Valley an order had been
despatched to Brigade Headquarters to the effect that in consequence of the
check of the 6th Division in front of the Quadrilateral the 168th Brigade would
not occupy its battle position. This order was transmitted by Brigade and
reached the Battalion during its advance. Upon receipt of it the Battalion was
at once brought back to its assembly area at Angle Wood Valley where, in common
with the remainder of the Brigade, it remained in bivouacs till the early hours
of the 18th September. This operation cost the Battalion a large number of
casualties among N.C.O.'s and men from the German shell fire, and one officer,
2/Lieut. J. W. Chapman, wounded.
During these days Angle Wood Valley was a distinctly unhealthy locality. The
German artillery maintained a searching fire over the whole area, and exacted a
fair toll of casualties. The weather, which a few days previously had shown
signs of mending, had once more turned wet and the shell holes, which formed the
only available cover, became not the most desirable resting-place for the
troops. The strain was great, but the situation was as usual not only borne by
all in the Battalion with an almost stoical resignation, but enlivened
occasionally with those rare flashes of humour which have made the London
soldiers famous during the War in three continents.
The story of the tanks on the 15th September is too well-known to need
elaboration here, and is, moreover, too much outside the actual experience of
the Battalion to allow of more than a passing reference. The moral effect on the
Germans was immense, and considering that their employment had scarcely passed
the experimental stage.
the success gained by them was conspicuous. As was anticipated, however, the
tanks promptly became a mark for a tremendous concentration of enemy fire which
made their room far more desirable than their company. Of the three attached to
the 56th Division one did useful work in the vicinity of the Quadrilateral, and
after trampling down a good deal of wire and putting an enemy machine-gun team
out of action returned to make a personal report of its adventures. The careers
of the other two were sadly abbreviated, and the end of the day found them
derelict — one west of Bouleaux Wood, and one south-east of Leuze Wood — though
not before they had dealt out a certain amount of destruction to the German
Orders were received while the Battalion remained in Angle Wood Valley for the
resumption of the offensive on the 18th September. The objectives on the XIV
Corps front were on this occasion very much more modest than they had been three
days earlier, and so far as the 56th Division was concerned were as follows :
169th Bingade — -Tho sunken road from Leuze Wood to Conibles, between the east
edge of the wood and the orchard west of Combles.
67th Brigade — The east edge of Bouleaux Wood for a distance of 6(X) yards from
its southern extremity, and thence a line through the w'ood to Middle Copse.
From Middle Copse the objective was continued in a northerly direction by the
The 168th Brigade remained in resei've in Angle Wood Valley, but the l/4th
Londons and the London Scottish were attached to the 167th.
For this operation the Battalion was detailed as the left assaulting battalion
of the 167th Brigade, its objective being the portion between Middle Copse
(which was held by an advanced post of the 7th Middlesex) and the east edge of
Bouleaux Wood. For this purpose its assembly position was the old German
communication trench connecting Bully Trench with the north corner of Leuze
Wood. The right of the Brigade frontage was taken up by the 3rd Londons.
The hour of assault was fixed for 6.15 a.m. on the 18th, and to enable it to
reach its assembly position by 5.15 a.m. as ordered, the l/4th Londons moved
from Angle Wood Valley at 3.30 a.m. But the ground was impossible. All vestige
of tracks had long since disappeared, and the countryside in every direction was
a vast slippery quagmire in which so far from keeping any sort of march
formation it was next to impossible for the men, laden as they were with battle
equipment, to stand upright at all.
Zero hour arrived, but the Battalion as well as the 3rd Londons was still
slipping and struggling a long way short of its assembly area. The British
barrage opened and was at once replied to by a withering machine-gun fire by the
enemy. Seldom has the Battalion been exposed to so accurate and devastating a
fire. The only alternative to complete destruction was to take cover in the
water-logged shell holes, which movement was carried out with alacrity by all
ranks : in this unexpected position an order reached the Battalion abandoning
the attack and recalling it to Angle Wood.
On the right the much suffering 169th Brigade was able to achieve a series of
local bombing successes which carried their line appreciably nearer Combles.
From the 6th Division on the left, shortly after midday came the cheering news
that the Quadrilateral had at last fallen, together with the trench to the north
This important success, which had so long eluded the grasp of the successive
Divisions who had sought it, paved the way for the magnificent achievements of
the 25th September, which will be recounted later, its especial importance being
that it was practically the last heavily fortified stronghold on the central
portion of the Main Ridge to resist the British attacks.
The abortive operation of the 18th cost the Battalion a good many casualties in
N.C.O.'s and men, and one officer, 2/Lieut. W. H. Calnan, wounded.
The same evening the 168th Brigade relieved the 167th in the Leuze Wood
trenches, the London Scottish occupying the front system, which comprised Beef
and Bully Trenches. The l/4th Londons took over from the 3rd Londons the support
line, which ran diagonally through Leuze Wood in a north and south direction.
Leuze Wood was at all times an unhealthy locality and formed an unfailing source
of attraction for every conceivable sort of German projectile. The 3rd Londons
had already suffered heavily here, and the night of the relief proved to be no
exception to the rule. Throughout the evening the wood was plastered with high
explosive shell, and even the inadequate shelter of the trenches hastily dug,
damaged and water-logged as they were, was exceedingly welcome. The position
was, without exception, the muddiest that had yet fallen to the lot of the
Battalion. " To stand still," writes a company commander, " was to sink
gradually until the whole of the legs to well above the knees were immersed and
movement was correspondingly difficult." Lewis guns and rifles had become choked
with mud so as to render the Battalion practically defenceless, but with much
labour they were cleaned, and some rations which were found in the trench
distributed. Dawn broke on a chilled but yet remarkably cheerful Battalion. The
continued strain of heavy shell fire and conditions of physical misery were,
however, beginning to have their effect, and several men who in earlier actions
had given ample proof of their courage, collapsed. " One man of D Company who
had previously shown himself one of the stoutest-hearted, lost his mental
balance and suddenly became possessed of the idea of kUling all the Germans in
the German Army, and had to be forcibly restrained from mounting the parapet.
2/Lieut. Barkworth, who came up from Battalion Headquarters, succeeded by sheer
strength of personality in restraining him and getting him back to H.Q."
The 19th September was a day of comparative quiet on the battle front, though
shelling and sniping continued in a desultory fashion. Rain fell steadily and
the condition of the trenches, appallingly bad to start with, became so wretched
as to defy description.
During the night of the 19th a large working party of the 5th Cheshire Pioneers,
under the supervision of the Brigade Major (Capt. R. E. Neame, V.C, D.S.O.,
R.E.), and covered by a screen of one and a half companies of the Scottish, dug
a new trench 800 yards long. This new work, Gropi Trench, ran forward from Beef
Trench towards the German Hne, parallel to the west edge of Bouleaux Wood, as
far as the Morval tram-line. The task was successfully completed before dawn,
but with the advent of daylight and the consequent exposure of the newly
turned-up earth, the whole brigade area was again subjected to a heavy
bombardment by the enemy's artillery. The German snipers again became
particularly active, and every rash movement was promptly punished. Under this
gruelling there was nothing for the Battalion to do but to keep quietly in its
trenches and make the best of an unpleasant state of affairs. That night the
Kensingtons came forward from Angle Wood Valley and took over the support line
from the Battalion, and also Bully Trench in front of it. The relief was
completed by 9.80 p.m., and never was relief more welcome. The Rangers at the
same time took over the Beef and Gropi system from the London Scottish. On
withdrawal from the trenches the Battalion moved by companies to bivouacs at
Falfemont Farm, arriving there at 10.45 p.m.
No further movement was made during the 21st and 22nd September, and these two
days were fairly quiet as the principal target for the German guns was provided
by the numerous British batteries in Angle Wood Valley, which received heavy
Between the 20th September and the 2nd October the following reinforcements
Capt. R. N. Keen, Lieuts. W. H. Vernon and A. Bath, 2/Lieuts.
C. A. Speyer, C. Potter, AV. R. Gilford, H. W. Spiers, L. C.
Haycraft, L. J. R. Atterbury, C. P. Russell, T. R. Fletcher and S. A. G.
2/Lieut. T. Siddall (25th Londons).
100 N.C.O.'s and men.
A few days after joining Lieut. A. Bath and 2/Lieut. C. P. Russell were
evacuated, the former with a broken ankle, the latter sick.
The men of this draft represented so far as the l/4th Battalion was concerned
the firstfruits of the " Derby " scheme, and it must always be a matter for
regret that the dreadful losses already incurred by the Battalion made it
inevitable to pitchfork this fine material straight into the inferno of the
Somme without any opportunity for it to become previously assimilated into the
ranks of the Battalion. The Somme battles were a severe ordeal even to the most
veteran soldiers ; and the bearing of these young and inexperienced troops in
the trials of the latter half of the Battalion's Somme fighting stands to their
As we have already remarked, the Cockney soldier, however wretched his
conditions, is never so depressed by his surroundings as to be unable to find
humour in the situation of the hour. The Battalion had now spent seven
consecutive days in the desolation of the battle area practically without
shelter from the pitiless torrents of rain which combined with the German shells
to churn the whole surface of the ground into a disgusting glutinous mass ; the
troops were soaked to the skin and plastered with mud from head to foot ; but
the unconquerable spirit of cheerfulness held them together, dirty and
dishevelled as they were, a well-knit and disciplined fighting unit. The
condition of the ground, which added so vastly to the labours of the troops, is
illustrated by a story told by an officer who was present :
A man attempted to cross the valley and started to plough his way through the
mud, but rashly omitted to lace up his boots, which he had previously removed.
His negligence was quickly visited upon him, for scarcely had he begun his
journey when the mud claimed one of his boots, which became stuck fast. His
powers of balance were unequal to the task of putting his foot back in the boot;
and he toppled over, both his hands becoming firmly embedded. His efforts to
regain a standing position were prolonged and violent, but after a time
successful, and finally, boots in hand, he proceeded on his way amid the cheers
of the onlookers, who accepted his performance as being arranged for their
especial amusement, and were particularly interested in the man's lurid
observations on the subject of boots, mud and war generally.
There were a few occasions, however, when circumstances seemed too strong even
for the l/4th Londons, and one of them occurred that night when the rum jars
which arrived with the rations were found, alas, to contain — Hme juice !
On the evening of the 22nd September the 168th Brigade was reheved in the left
subsector by the 167th and the Battalion moved back to the comparative peace of
Casement Trench, where it occupied bivouacs until the afternoon of the 24th,
making preparations for the next bout in the battle line.
The Battle of Morval, 25th September
The continuance of the offensive had been arranged for the 21st, but the weather
conditions placed such a handicap on the chances of success that it was
postponed, first until the 23rd and again till the 25th September, when once
more the battle broke out on a front from the British right at Combles to a
point half-way between Flers and Martinpuich. The French were to co-operate in
this attack on the right of Combles ravine. The objectives of the XIV Corps
included the villages of Lesboeufs and Morval, and, as on the occasion of their
earlier attempt on the 15th, the 56th Division was to form a defensive flank
facing south-east over Combles.
A series of local bombing operations was conducted on the 24th by the 169th
Brigade on the extreme right in conjunction with the French, which gave them an
increased hold on Combles Trench immediately in front of the village, and
appreciably improved their jumping-off positions for the following day. During
the night also the two tanks allotted to the Division moved forward to their
rendezvous in the quarry west of Leuze Wood.
For the battle of the 25th the three Brigades of the Division were all in line,
the 169th on the right, with the 167th in the centre and the 168th on the left.
The l/4th Londons were the right assaulting Battalion of the 168th, their duty
being to clear the northern end of Bouleaux Wood and to establish a line of
posts overlooking the ravine, while the London Scottish on the left continued
the defensive flank in the direction of Morval
At 4.30 p.m. on the 24th the BattaHon marched from Casement Trench to occupy
positions of assembly, relieving the 7th Middlesex in the Gropi-Ranger system as
C Company — Left front, in Ranger Trench.
B Company — Right front, in Gropi Trench, and the small communication trench
leading forward to Ranger Trench.
D Company — Support, in Gropi Trench.
A Company — Reserve, in the southern part of Gropi Trench and Middle Copse.
Battalion Headqua^rters were established in a dugout west of the north part of
Gropi Trench and the Aid Post in the quarry west of Leuze Wood.
The evening of relief was fortunately fairly quiet, but owing to the complete
obliteration of all landmarks some difficulty was experienced by the guides
provided for the companies in locating the positions to be occupied. However,
Middle Copse was eventually reached, and this point being gained a little
prospecting discovered Gropi Trench, after which the relief proceeded smoothly
and was completed without unusual incident. Gropi Trench, which had been dug by
the Cheshires, was found to be very well constructed, and the excellent cover it
afforded was the means of sparing the Battalion a good many casualties from the
enemy snipers, who were active from the direction of Bouleaux Wood during the
morning of the 25th.
After a preliminary bombardment by all available batteries the British attack
opened at 12.35 p.m. on the 25th, but the 168th Brigade's positions being well
in advance of those occupied by the 5th Division on its left, its attack was
deferred until seven minutes later in order to allow the 5th Division to come up
into line. The creeping barrage, under which the Brigade's advance was made, was
supplied by batteries firing from Angle Wood Valley, and being thus in enfilade
was particularly efficient and accurate ; and under its excellent protection the
l/4th Londons and the London Scottish advanced steadily at 12.42 p.m.
The advance of the Battalion was led by C Company (Grimsdell) in two waves at 50
paces distance, followed by D Company (Cooper) in similar formation. B Company's
role was to conform to the advance and protect the Brigade's right flank against
any possible hostile action from the southern half of Bouleaux Wood, while A
Company in reserve moved forward to occupy the positions vacated by the
The Battalion reached its objectives in the northern fringe of the Wood with
little opposition, and with slight loss, killing a large number of Germans in
the western edge of the Wood. A great many of the enemy were also put to flight,
and these were caught on the open hillside on their way to Comblcs by the Lewis
gunners of the Scottish advancing on our left, who did great execution among
them. The consolidation of the strong posts allotted to the Battalion at once
began, but was considerably interfered with by German snipers, who were still
clinging to their posts farther south in the Wood. Under their fire Grimsdell
(in charge of C Company) fell, shot through the head. This harassing fire
rendered communication with Battalion Headquarters a matter of some difficulty,
and continued through the night, as the 167th Brigade on the right had not been
successful in pushing through the southern extremity of Bouleaux Wood. By
nightfall the new posts were completed and occupied as follows :
Post A — By 30 men and Lewis gun of C Company.
Post Bl — By 25 men of D Company.
Post B2 — By 30 men and 1 Lewis gun of D Company.
These posts were improved and wired by parties from the Royal Engineers and the
Cheshire Pioneers, while A Company subsequently constructed an additional post
in the tram-line embankment north of the Wood.
Meanwhile the London Scottish had been equally successful on our left, and had
taken possession of the German trench running north-east from Bouleaux Wood in
the direction of Morval ; and farther still to the north the Guards Division had
captured Lesboeufs, while the 5th Division were hammering at the western
outskirts of Morval.
The positions now occupied by the Brigade were of immense importance, as they
secured excellent observation over the northern exits of Combles ; and
information received through the French from a German officer prisoner being to
the effect that the Combles garrison was making preparations to fight its way
out north-eastwards, the further operations of the Brigade were directed towards
working round the north side of Combles and cutting off its communication with
Morval. This scheme naturally affected the left flank of the Brigade more than
the right flank, on which the Battalion was posted.
Shortly after midnight the 167th Brigade gained a foothold in Bouleaux Wood on
the right of the Battalion, and a reconnaissance made by Lieut. -Col. Wheatley
soon after dawn on the 26th showed that the Wood was finally cleared of the
enemy. Touch was rapidly gained with the 1st Londons and the line established in
front of the east edge of the Wood.
A few hours later definite information was received that the enemy had evacuated
Combles and that troops of the 56th Division had entered it and had met in its
deserted streets patrols of the 56th French Division.
The remainder of the day passed quietly for the Battalion, and a distinct lull
occurred in the enemy's shell fire, while owing to the clearance of Bouleaux
Wood the ground west of it, which had been on the previous afternoon so much
swept by snipers, was now quite peaceful.
Combles having fallen into our hands the most immediate need was to improve
touch with the French and carry the united line forward east of the village.
Early on the morning of the 26th Sept. the French captured Fregi-court and
succeeded in establishing themselves in touch with the 169th Brigade south of
Combles, thus securing the whole of Combles Trench ; while on the north of the
village they managed to push patrols forward towards the sunken road leading to
Morval. The road was occupied by the Rangers who had orders to occupy if
possible the main German third line between Morval and Fregi-court. This was
found still to be strongly held and the assistance of the Division's two tanks
were requisitioned. Unfortimatelv both these machines became badly " ditched "
before reaching their objective, and the Rangers' attack was therefore
That evening the Battalion was reUeved in Bouleaux Wood by the Kensingtons, and
withdrew to Bully and Beef Trenches with feelings of immense elation at having
contributed materially to this striking and solid success.
During the 27th September the trenches held by the Battalion were heavily
shelled, but no attempt was made by the enemy to launch a counter-attack on the
Brigade's front, and the Germans were evidently content to accept the loss of
Combles as irretrievable. In the evening the 168th Brigade handed over its
positions to the 2nd French Division, and the Battalion, without relief in Bully
and Beef Trenches, withdrew to Casement Trench.
The casualties sustained by the Battalion during this highly successful
operation were remarkably few, amounting to 2 officers (2/Lieuts. R. E.
Grimsdell, killed, and E. McD. McCormick, wounded), and about 30 N.C.O.'s and
men killed and wounded.
During the evening of relief reports of the full success of the battle of the
25th September reached the Battalion, including the splendid news of the fall of
the famous series of German redoubts on the Thiepval Ridge. This welcome
intelligence, combined with the knowledge of the Combles success, put all ranks
into the highest spirits, and created the pardonable expectation that a "
break-through " on a large scale was imminent. How premature these high hopes
were the Battalion was to learn to its cost on the 7th October.
Mention should be made here of the tasks performed by R.S.M. Harris during the
period the Battalion was operating in the Leuze Wood and Bouleaux Wood area. He
was responsible for organising all carrying parties up to advanced Battalion
Headquarters with water, rations and munitions. These duties he carried out in a
highly praiseworthy manner, both he and his small band of carriers being
continually called upon day and night to tramp up the long Angle Wood Valley,
often in the rain, on practically impassable tracks and more often than not
under shell fire. "As Adjutant," writes Boutall, "I highly appreciated the
assistance he gave me in thus relieving me of a considerable amount of
additional work and anxiety. I do not remember a single instance during this
whole period when he failed us, in spite of the difficult and heavy tasks we
were obliged to impose on him."
The Battle of the Le Transloy Ridges lst-18th October
Owing to the shortening of the line consequent upon the fall of Combles, and the
extension to their left of the French, the 56th Division was now withdrawn and
moved out of the battle area, the Battalion marching at 2 p.m. on the 28th Sept.
from Casement to Ville-sur-Ancre, where rough but welcome billets were occupied.
The Division's rest was destined to be short-lived, for the following day a
warning order was received that it would take the place in the line of the 6th
and Guards Divisions, which had suffered considerably during a prolonged period
The Battalion at this stage was unfortunate in losing Lieut. -Col. Wheatley. The
prolonged exposure had already undermined his health, and at this period he was
recommended a rest by the Medical Authorities. He refused to go to hospital, and
compromised by going to the Divisional Rest Station, Major H. J. Duncan-Teape
taking command, but so keen was the Colonel to be with his unit, that without
having sufficiently recovered he returned on October 2nd.
The sector to be occupied was about 2000 yards in frontage, running in a
north-west to south-east direction through the eastern outskirts of Lesboeufs,
and was taken over on the evening of the 30th September with the 169th Brigade
on the right, and the 167th on the left, the dividing line being the
Lesboeufs-Le Transloy Road. The left subsector (or northern half of the line)
lay just below the crest of the ridge above Lesboeufs, and orders were issued
for the advancement of this part of the line to positions from which direct
observation could be obtained over the German positions in front of Le Transloy,
in preparation for an early renewal of the offensive.
The 168th Brigade remamed in Divisional reserve, and on the morning of the 30th
the Battahon, together with the London Scottish, moved forward to their former
bivouac area between Trones and Bernafay Woods, the Kensingtons and Rangers
remaining at the Citadel.
The Battalion remained in the Trones Wood area during the 1st and 2nd October,
and a Brigade relief having been ordered for the following day, moved forward at
4.30 p.m. to Lesboeufs, relieving the 2nd Londons. The positions taken over by
the Battalion formed the left subsector of the Brigade front and extended from
the Lesboeufs-Le Transloy Road, which formed the left boundary, for some 800
yards southwards to the junction with the London Scottish, who were in line on
the right, the latter battalion being the right flank of the British Army. The
Kensingtons moved into Brigade support in the old Morval-Flers line, and the
Rangers occupied bivouacs at Ginchy.
The main position taken over by the Battalion was a roughly constructed trench
known as Shamrock, about 50 yards east of the sunken road leading from Lesboeufs
to Morval. In advance of this main position, which was allotted to A and B
Companies, were a number of embryo trenches in varying stages of construction
and quite isolated from the main line. Of these isolated trenches the chief was
Rainy, which adjoined the Lesboeufs-Le Transloy Road, about 300 yards ahead of
Shamrock, and Foggy, some distance farther south and separated from Rainy by a
gap of probably 300 yards. C and D Companies and Battalion Headquarters took up
positions in the old Lesboeufs-Gueudecourt line west of the village.
The resumption of the offensive was imminent ; and it was indeed first fixed for
the 5th October, though subsequently postponed till the 7th owing to the
continuance of adverse weather conditions.
A great deal of constructional work was immediately necessary in assembly and
communication trenches, as well as in the completion of the necessary advanced
dumps of munitions and stores of all kinds. Working parties from the Battalion,
of the greatest available strength, began work on part of these tasks on the
night of the 4th, the new trenches to be dug comprising communications to join
Rainy with Shamrock and with a small advanced position on the crest of the ridge
overlooking Le Transloy. In addition the road at Rainy was barricaded. Large
working parties were also provided by the Kensingtons to provide an advanced
assembly position for the attack by connecting Rainy and Foggy, and by the
Cheshire Pioneers and the R.E.'s on other tasks. This latter task, however,
could not be completed in one night and was continued the following evening. The
shocking state of the ground prevented it from ever being finished, and on the
day of the attack only about 150 yards of trench had been added to Foggy. On the
night of the 6/7th also a fresh assembly trench for the use of the centre
battalion was taped out by the Brigade Major, and dug by the Kensingtons. This
work was called New Trench.
Although the weather once again had embarked on a dry spell the long continued
rains had rendered working tasks immensely difficult of accomplishment, and the
tenacious character of the mud added incalculably to the labour of digging and
of reaching the site of the work. The isolation of the various tasks in this
appalling swamp, from which every landmark had been swept out of existence, and
the constant harassing fire of the enemy's machine-gunners, caused great delays
to working parties in even locating their work, and all these factors together
tended to reduce the work actually carried out far below expectations.
The Battalion, not being originally detailed for the assault, was relieved in
the trenches on the evening of the 5th by the Rangers and moved by companies on
relief to bivouacs between Ginchy and Guillemont, leaving A and C Companies in
line for the completion of their tasks begun the previous night. The following
day, however, intimation was received of a change of orders, and the Battalion
returned to the trenches that night as the centre assaulting battalion of the
Brigade, its place in brigade support being taken by the Kensingtons.
So far as the 56th Division was concerned the attack of the 7th October was for
the purpose of advancing the hne some 1400 yards farther down the reverse slope
of the Main Ridge, in order to provide a suitable " jumping-off " line for a
further offensive to be launched later against the fourth German line in front
of Le Transloy, which guarded the Bapaume-Peronne Road. The advance was to be
made under a creeping barrage, in two stages, to objectives which were not
marked by enemy trenches, but on the farther of which the Division would dig
itself in. On the Division's right the French line would also be advanced by the
5Gth French Division, with whom touch was to be gained on the Fregicourt-Le
The 168th Brigade's assault was entrusted to the London Scottish (right), l/4th
Londons (centre) and Rangers (left), the dispositions for attack of the
Battalion being as follows :
D Company — (W. H. Vernon) two platoons in New Trench and two platoons in 25
Trench ; in touch with London
C Company — (Speyer) in Foggy Extension ; in touch with Rangers.
B Company — (Gifford) in Shamrock.
A Company — (Keen) in support in the sunken road.
Battalion Headquarters (Col. Wheatley) were in dugouts south-west of Leshoeufs,
and an advanced report centre (Major Duncan-Teape) was established in the
southern outskirts of the village.
The plan of attack was for D, C and B Companies to advance at two minutes after
zero to the first objective, the two platoons of D in New Trench being
especially detailed to the task of " mopping up " some German gun pits some 150
yards to the front which were believed to be held by a few enemy snipers. At the
same time A Company was to occupy Foggy Extension. After about fifteen minutes'
pause on the first objective, the assault on the second objective would be
pursued by C and B Companies only.
Reference has already been made to the difficulty experienced prior to the
attack by working parties in locating their tasks, and similar difficulty was
met with by all troops throughout the operations. The consistently bad
atmospheric conditions had rendered aerial photography ahnost impossible, and
all through the action the doubt which existed in the minds of commanders as to
the exact position of trenches, our own as well as the enemy's, was a fruitful
source of confusion and loss. The assembly of the companies for attack was
indeed only accomplished after serious delay owing to the extraordinary but
largely justifiable bewilderment of the guides detailed to the Battalion. C
Company only reached its position just before dawn after having been led several
hundred yards out of its way, to find on arrival that its assembly trench was
only knee deep and already filled with wounded. Add to these obstacles to
success, the fact that, owing to the previous terrible losses in commissioned
ranks, it was impossible to avoid sending into the battle as many as nine
officers who had not been previously in action with the Battalion at all, having
only a few days earlier arrived from England, and it will be appreciated that
the probabilities of success were not great. Zero was fixed for 1.45 p.m., and
at that hour the barrage dropped. Two minutes later the Battalion rose out of
its trenches and made a gallant attempt to advance. The story of the remainder
of the day is a pitiful tragedy. The gun pits which had been allotted to the two
platoons of D Company in New Trench were found to be alive with bravely-manned
machine-guns, and under their withering fire D Company simply melted out of
existence. C Company, following slightly to its right, was able to avoid total
extinction by taking cover in shell holes in dead ground close by, but 2/Licut.
C. M. Taylor fell under this fire at the head of the leading wave of the
Company. B Company, following on from Shamrock, met the full blast of the enemy
counter-barrage, and suffered heavy losses, but pushed bravely on and eventually
filtered into the same general line as was already held by C Company and the
remains of D. Under the devastating fire from the gun pits further advance was
impossible, and the troops continued to suffer loss where they lay. The
afternoon wore on and the Battalion remained clinging to its position, about 50
yards from its starting-point, until after dark. Sergt. H. F. Page of D Company
displayed magnificent coolness, and from his shell hole passed a busy afternoon
picking off the German gunners in the pits with great deliberation. He was
subsequently commissioned to the King's Own Regiment (Royal Lancaster). All
ranks alike were exposed to the fire and all suffered proportionately. L. C.
Haycraft, a promising young subaltern of D Company who had already proved his
worth with the bombers of the Civil Service Rifles in the Hairpin at Hulluch,
made an attempt after dark to ascertain the enemy's position, but he never
returned from his reconnaissance.
Gifford, in charge of B Company, also fell, as did his platoon commanders,
Fletcher and Richardson, the two last wounded ; and C.S.M. James, who received
the Military Medal for his good work, took charge of the Company and brought it
out of action at the end of the day.
On the left the Rangers had met with a similar fate at the hands of the
machine-gunners in Dewdrop Trench, before whose fire they had been stopped dead
with ghastly loss immediately they rose from the assembly trench.
The London Scottish, on the right, gained a little success, their right flank
achieving a maximum advance of about 400 yards, but their left felt the blast of
the deadly guns in the pits, and they were kept out of all except the southern
extremity of Hazy.
At about 8.30 p.m. the enemy delivered a counter-attack from Hazy and Dewdrop
under heavy artillery support, which had the effect of forcing the Brigade
definitely back to its starting trenches.
In the meantime a company of the Kensingtons had been brought up to Burnaby with
the idea of forcing the Dewdrop position by outflanking it from the north, but
the Germans being found still strongly in possession of Spectrum, north of the
road, the attack was cancelled.
It having become obvious that the assaulting battalions were dangerously
weakened, immediate reliefs were arranged, and the Battalion that night handed
over its position to the Queen Victorias, who were attached to the Brigade, and
withdrew to the bivouacs at Trones Wood. Here it was joined by the London Rifle
Brigade. The withdrawal of the Battalion was supervised by Major Duncan-Teape,
who managed by great efforts to get the whole of the remnants of the companies
back over the Ridge just before daylight broke. The roll call at Trones Wood was
a gloomy spectacle, for neither the l/4th Londons nor the London Scottish could
muster more than the strength of about one company.
The total losses in all ranks sustained by the Battalion on this unfortunate day
amounted to about 300 all ranks, the casualties among officers being :
Killed-Lieut. W. H, Vernon, 2/Lieuts. C. M. Taylor, W. H. Gifford, L. J. R.
Atterbury and L. C. Haycraft.
Wounded— Capt. R. N. Keen and 2/Lieuts. T. R. Fletcher, H. W. Spiers and S. A.
Of this, the last of the Battalion's actions in the great Somme battles, but
little more need be said. The position which it had been proposed to carry with
three weak battalions was attempted again the following day with equal lack of
success ; and subsequently other Divisions suffered heavy casualties in the
unsuccessful endeavour. Indeed the position never did fall into our possession
until the enemy deliberately gave it up in his retirement of the succeeding
February on to the Hindenburg line.
Lieut.-Col. L. L. Wheatley, D.S.O., had led the Battalion through many trying
ordeals with the unfailing confidence of all ranks who had the honour to be
under his command ; but as already indicated, the strain of the long-protracted
struggle, especially of the last few days, combined with continually wet
clothes, had proved too much for him, and he now contracted an acute attack of
dysentery and was evacuated to hospital on the 10th. He never returned to the
Battalion which his compelling personality had made essentially his own.
On the 11th October the Battalion moved to the Citadel Camp, the gateway through
which thirty-five days earlier it had entered the inferno of the battle ; and
the Division being concentrated here after relief by the 4th Division, it
marched the following morning to Ville-sur-Ancre, moving thence by motor-buses
to a rest area north-west of Amiens, billets being provided for it at St
Of all the great series of actions of the War the battles of the Somme in 1916
stand out perhaps in the public memory as the most heroic, and at the same time
the most appalling, and we cannot leave the subject finally without a few
remarks generally reviewing the Battalion's experiences. Of the thirty-five days
spent in XIV Corps area only four had been spent in rest bivouacs, and during
the remaining thirty-one the Battalion had taken part in active operations five
times. The losses incurred amounted to the enormous total of nearly 700 in all
ranks, of whom 40 were officers.
It would be unfitting to close our account of the Somme battles without paying
some tribute to the magnificent work performed throughout by Rear Headquarters
under Major H. J. Duncan-Teape. The administrative ranks of a battalion in
action are invariably worked to the limits of human endurance, but usually with
inadequate recognition of their importance ; for it is no exaggeration to say
that on the efficiency with which they maintain the stream of supplies, whether
of rations or munitions, to the fighting ranks, depends not merely the success,
but the very existence of the troops in advanced positions. On the Somme the
consistently atrocious weather increased tenfold the fatigue and strain of the
administrative portion of the Battalion : the mud swamps which had to be
traversed, the severe shell fire which plastered all back areas, the wretched
misery of the whole struggle, and above all the vast responsibility which rested
on them, all combined to make the work of Rear Headquarters an enormous strain
both mental and physical. But throughout the battles Major Duncan-Teape was
constantly alert and constantly at advanced Headquarters, ascertaining exactly
what was wanted, and getting it done. In Lieut. H. B. A. Balls, the Acting
Quartermaster, and in R.S.M. Harris he found able and devoted lieutenants whose
cool handling of all difficulties was invaluable.
The transport sections of all battalions were brigaded under Capt. L. G. Rix at
the Citadel, and the l/4th Londons' transport section under Lieut. G. V. Lawrie
worked throughout magnificently and never once failed to deliver the day's
supplies. Those who were present will fully appreciate what this means. The work
for horses and men was exhausting and incessant ; and oftentimes the limbers
returned from the forward area to the transport lines only just in time to load
up once more for the upward journey. The results that were obtained could only
have been achieved by the whole-hearted devotion of all ranks.
Of the men in the companies on whom day after day fell the burden of physical
discomfort and mental strain it is impossible to speak adequately. The record of
their achievements speaks, and can be left to speak, for itself.
The decorations awarded for services rendered between the 1st July and the 7th
October were :
M.C.— Lieut. W. J. Boutall, 2/Lieuts. O. D. Garratt, S. J. Barkworth, M.M., E.
McD. McCormick and Rev. R. Palmer, O.F.
D.C.M.— C.S.M. R. Davis, Sergt. T. Clark, Ptes. J. O'Brien and H. S. Payne.
M.M.— C.Q.M.-Sergt. R. Forbes, Sergts. H. C. Gearle, H. H. Merrell, R. Hebberd,
R. R. L. Hyde, C. James and T. Lock, Corpl. J. Castle, L.-Corpls. H. Whitehead,
A. Sergeant, A. J. Moger and L. R. Webb, Ptes. H. E. Hyde, W. Buckingham, A. E.
Colvin, F. Hedger, W. Lawrence and C. F. Collins.