4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919
I. The 1/4th Battalion on the Menin Road
By the middle of May 1917 the British efforts on the Arras front had achieved the success which had been aimed at ; and the offensive having been sufficiently prolonged to assist the French in their operations on the Chemin des Dames, the Commander-in-Chief was free to turn his attention to the northern area of the British lines.
The first phase of the operation was opened on the 7th June, when a brilliant attack by the Second Army (Plumer) carried the British line forward over the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges, from which the Germans had dominated our positions since October 1914. This operation, which was one of the most completely successful of the whole War, resulted by the 14th June in the advancement of practically the whole Second Army front from the River Warnave to Klein Zillebeeke.
One by one the points of vantage held by the enemy since the beginning of siege warfare were being wrested from his grasp. In succession the Thiepval Ridge, the Bucquoy Ridge, the Vimy Ridge and finally the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge had fallen into our hands, and there remained of this long series of heights only the series of ridges which from Zillebeeke to Passchendaele dominate Ypres on the east and north sides. It was towards these hills that the British offensive efforts were now directed.
The opening day of the offensive had originally been fixed for the 25th July 1917, but owing to the intensity of our bombardment the enemy in anticipation of attack had withdrawn his guns, and the attack was therefore postponed in order that the British guns might be correspondingly advanced. Combined with the systematic bombardment of the enemy's trenches, strong points and communications, a definite air offensive which ensured our local supremacy in this respect, and also severe gas shelling, were undertaken.
The front of attack extended for some fifteen miles from Deulemont on the right to Boesinghe on the Yser Canal — the main attack being entrusted to the Fifth Army (Gough) on a front of about seven miles from the Zillebeeke-Zandvoorde Road to Boesinghe. The Second Army on the right was to make only a limited advance with the chief objects of widening the front of attack and distributing the enemy's resistance. At the same time the French on the extreme left (or north) would co-operate in the marshes of the Yser.
The offensive was finally launched on the 31st July 1917. The weather, which for a fortnight previously had been fine and dry and had seemed to predict success, broke on the day of the battle, and a merciless rain which changed the whole area of operations to a sea of mud fell without cessation for several days. The Corps in line on the 31st July were from left to right the XIV (Cavan), the XVIII (Maxse), the XIX (Watts), the II (Jacob) and the X (Morland). On the whole the day was one of marked success, the deepest advance being made in the northern sector of the attack. From West-hoek to St Julien the second German line was carried, while north of the latter village the assaulting troops passed the second line and gained the line of the Steenbeek as far as the junction with the French, whose attack had also met with complete success. South of Westhoek the enemy's resistance had been more stubborn, and his positions in Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood which were strongly held by machine-gun posts proved an impassable obstacle. In this region, however, the German first line was carried, and our troops managed to maintain themselves far enough forward on the Westhoek Ridge to deny the enemy observation over the Ypres plain ; the position gained running almost due south from Westhoek east of the line Clapham Junction — Stirling Castle — Bodmin Copse, and thence to Shrewsbury Forest, south of which the German second line was occupied as far as the Ypres-Comines Canal. South of the Canal also the Second Army achieved considerable success.
The rain, which began to fall in the afternoon, had a most disastrous effect on the British plan of attack. Movement over the shell -torn ground, which was transformed into a series of bogs, rapidly became impossible apart from a few well-defined tracks, and these naturally became marks for the enemy's guns. The labour of moving forward guns, relieving troops and completing the forward dumps and other preparations for the next bound was increased tenfold. The inevitable delay which ensued was of the greatest service to the enemy, who thereby gained a valuable respite in which he was able to bring up reinforcements.
The fighting of the next few days was, therefore, local in character and consisted in clearing up the situation and improving the British positions at various points in the line, in the course of which operations the capture of Westhoek was completed. Numerous counter-attacks by the enemy were successfully resisted, and the line gained on the 31st July was substantially held.
The 56th Division moved from the Third Army area on the 24th July to the St Omer area. The l/4th Londons entrained at Petit Houvin for St Omer and marched to billets at Houlle, in the Eperlecques area, some five miles north-west of St Omer. The Division was now attached to the V Corps. Its training was continued during the opening phase of the battle, after which the Division moved on the 6th August to the II Corps area, the Battalion occupying billets at Steenvoorde, where the routine was resumed. On the 8th Major-Gen. D. Smith, C.B. (who had commanded the Division since 24th July, when Gen. Hull fell sick), left to command the 20th Division and, two days later, command was assumed by Major-Gen. F. A. Dudgeon, C.B.
The same day a warning order was received that the Division would shortly move into the line to take part in the second phase of the battle, which was to be renewed as soon as weather conditions should permit.
On the night of the 12th/13th August the Division moved forward into the line opposite Glencorse Wood, which had been the centre of the enemy's resistance on the first day of the battle, and took over from portions of the 18th and 25th Divisions a sector between the Menin Road at Clapham Junction and the cross-roads at Westhoek, the 169th Brigade occupying the right of this front with the 167th Brigade on its left. The 53rd Brigade of the 18th Division remained in line on the right of the 169th Brigade, between Clapham Junction and Green Jacket Road, and came under the orders of Gen. Dudgeon.
On the morning of the 12th the 168th Brigade in Divisional reserve embussed at Steenvoorde for Canal Reserve Camp, Dickebusch.
The chain of machine-gun posts still held by the enemy in Inverness Copse, Glencorse Wood and Nonne Boschen was of immense importance to the Germans at this juncture ; as they screened the long ^pur which, running north-east from the Menin Road Ridge between the Polderhoek-Gheluvelt Ridge and the Zonnebeeke Road, formed an important point d'appui in the Langemarck-Gheluvelt line of defence. Their capture by the British would, therefore, drive such a wedge towards the enemy third line as to cause a serious menace to his communications along the Menin and Zonnebeeke Roads. No one was more keenly alive to the essential value of this position than the Germans, who spared no efforts to frustrate attempts to launch a further attack in this area. The continual severity of his shell and machine-gun fire against our outpost line served his purpose well, as it not only inflicted severe loss on the trench garrisons of the divisions in the line and seriously impeded the task of advancing ammunition and other stores incidental to an attack — a task already difficult enough by reason of the wet state of the ground — but also precluded efficient reconnaissance of the ground over which the attack was to be launched.
The 56th Division was the extreme right of the attack. The advance allotted to it was to be carried out by the 167th and 169th Brigades, whose objective was a line beyond the third German line of defence, and which may be roughly described as running north and south through Polygon Wood. The southernmost point of this advance was to be Black Watch Corner, and from this point it would be necessary to connect the southern extremity of the final objective with the line on the Division's right, on which no advance would be attempted. This meant the formation of a defensive flank facing nearly south.
This vital work of forming the flank was originally entrusted to the 53rd Brigade, and the importance of their role will be readily grasped, since on the manner in which it was carried out would hang in large measure the fortunes of the 169th and 167th and successive Brigades on the left, for the German machine-guns in Inverness Copse, if not silenced, would be free to enfilade the whole advance. The 53rd Brigade which had been in the line since the opening of the battle on the 31st July was, however, now exhausted, and so seriously reduced in strength by the tireless activity of the German machine-gunners that it was not in a condition to renew the offensive. Its task was therefore handed over to the l/4th Londons, on whom devolved the difficult operation above described of covering the right flank of the whole attack. The only troops of the 53rd Brigade who would be actively employed would be a detachment of the 7th Bedfords, who were made responsible for capturing the machine-gun nests which, from the north-west corner of Inverness Copse, dominated the whole situation.
The l/4th Londons were detailed for this attack on the morning of the 14th August, and it is important in view of what subsequently occurred to bear this date in mind. It must also be remembered that at this time the Battalion was some seven miles from the field of battle and that no officer, N.C.O. or man belonging to it had ever set eyes on the ground over which the battle was to be fought.
During the morning Lieut.-Col. Campbell, the Adjutant and the four company officers went forAvard to reconnoitre the forward area, visiting in turn 169th Brigade Head-quarters at Dormy House, and Headquarters of the Battalion in line of the 53rd Brigade at Stirling Castle. It had been intended also to reconnoitre the ground over which the advance was to be made, but such was the intensity of the enemy's artillery and machine-gun fire that this was impossible, and the company commanders were compelled to return to their companies in ignorance of what lay before them. Later in the day Lieut.-Col. Campbell was ordered to report to 53rd Brigade Head-quarters, but was unluckily hit on his way back, near Zillebeeke Lake. Although badly hit he made his way back to the Battalion, but being unable to carry on was succeeded in the command by Major A. F. Marchment, M.C. (1/lst Londons).
At seven that night the Battalion moved forward from Dickebusch to Chateau Segard, the move being completed by 11 p.m. Shortly after dawn on the 15th the forward move was continued to Railway Dugouts, in the cutting between Shrapnel Corner and Zillebeeke Lake, and here the Battalion remained during the day.
The 15th August was occupied in issuing battle equipment and rations to the companies, while Lieut.- Col. Marchment took the opportunity of conducting a reconnaissance of the forward area and communications, and of issuing his operation orders. These were explained to compan}'^ commanders as adequately as time permitted, but it must be borne in mind that when the Battalion moved forward to the assault the following morning no company or platoon officer had been able to see the ground over which he was to lead his men. At 6.30 p.m. the l/4th Londons left Railway Dugouts in battle order for the assembly area at Clapham Junction with guides supplied from the 53rd Brigade. A great deal of heavy shelling, in which four men of B Company were hit, was experienced during the advance, and in breasting a ridge near Sanctuary Wood the Battalion had to pass through a barrage put down by the Germans. Aided by the excellent discipline of the troops, however, company commanders were able to split up their companies within a few seconds, and no loss was sustained. By ten o'clock the Battalion was concentrated with A, B and C Companies in the tunnel under the Menin Road, and D Company in the trench south of the road. Battalion Headquarters and part of C Company were in the trench on the north side of the tunnel. There was no defined line of trenches in this area, the front being held by isolated shell hole posts, and the assembly was to be made on tape lines laid down under staff arrangements. The lack of shelter thus made it necessary to keep the Battalion under such cover as was obtainable till the last possible moment. During the evening an officer of each company reconnoitred the route from the concentration area to the tape lines, assistance being rendered by the 6th Royal Berkshires, and No Man's Land in front of the line of assembly was patrolled until shortly before zero hour.
The intention was to advance in a practically due east direction, while at stated points in the line of advance platoons would halt one by one, each establishing itself in a strong point, until finally, when the last platoon reached its halting point, the whole Battalion would be deployed in a line of outposts, all of which would turn to their right and face south. This advance, being made on a front of two companies, would result in a double line of posts of which the left flank would rest on Black Watch Corner in touch with the 169th Brigade, while the right flank would join hands with the 7th Bedfords in the corner of Inverness Copse.
At 3.15 a.m. on the 16th August companies began to form up on the tape lines, the assembly being completed by 4.20 a.m., when the troops were lying down in the open under a continuous and fairly heavy shell fire and a galling machine-gun fire from the direction of Inverness Copse. About 22 casualties occurred under this fire before zero hour at 5.45 a.m. The order of battle was as follows : A. Company (Spiers) on the right and B Company (Stanbridge) on the left in front ; with D Company (H. N. Williams) on the right and C Company (Rees) on the left in support.
The attack was to be delivered along the whole battle front at 5.45 a.m. under cover of a creeping barrage, supported by machine-gun barrage and heavy gun fire on the enemy back areas. At zero hour the British barrage came down, well distributed and of terrific intensity. It was hoped that the danger points in Inverness Copse would be put out of action by our artillery, so that the task of the 7th Bedfords would be an easy one, but calculations in this respect were soon found to have been mistaken. The leading companies of the l/4th Londons got away from the mark at zero, in good order and well up to the barrage, but almost immediately came under a hail of lead from Inverness Copse. The attack of the 7th Bedfords, of such vital importance to the success of the whole operation, had failed. The artillery fire had not produced the expected effect on the enormously strong enemy posts over which the barrage had passed harmlessly, and the 7th Bedfords were repulsed with loss, thereby leaving the l/4th Londons completely exposed to the full force of the enemy's nest of machine-guns on their right flank.
Within a few minutes 5 officers and 40 N.C.O.'s and men of A and B Companies were casualties, but the survivors pushed forward steadily, though a certain amount of delay caused by the gaps so suddenly torn in their ranks was inevitable. The gallantry displayed by all ranks under this devastating machine-gun fire, to which was added enemy shell fire of great intensity, was unsurpassed, but under such a storm of bullets at close range nothing could live, and the Battalion was brought to a standstill about 200 yards from starting-point, in an old German trench which skirted a ruined farmhouse about midway between Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood.
A party of some 60 men of all companies managed to gain shelter in Jap Avenue. Here they were organised by 2/Lieut. H. E. Jackman, under whom a strong post was consolidated and an attempt made to push forward along the trench. This proved unsuccessful owing to the continued intensity of the enemy machine-gun fire and the accuracy of his sniping. Further attempts by other companies to advance were also fruitless, and the Battalion was forced to content itself with hanging on to these small gains, from which at intervals it was able to engage with LeAvis gun and rifle fire small bodies of the enemy in the open near the east end of Glencorse Wood.
An attempt was made to re-establish the situation by an attack, for which the 53rd Brigade was called upon, through Inverness Copse from south to north, but so terribly reduced in numbers were its battalions that Brigade reserve was limited to two weak platoons and further action was found to be for the moment impossible.
In the centre the leading waves of the 169th, after some resistance in Glencorse Wood which they overcame, succeeded in penetrating Polygon Wood, where they probably gained their objective. The second waves on approaching the Wood w^ere, however, met with intense fire from front and flanks, and a few minutes later a heavy counter-attack developed which drove back the assaulting troops to the middle of Glencorse Wood. A further counter-attack in the evening forced the Brigade back to its assembly line.
On the left the 167th Brigade met with but little greater success. The advance was steadily conducted as far as a line level v,dth the eastern edge of Nonne Boschen, where trouble was first encountered by a sea of mud — an extensive bog caused by the springs in the source of the Hanebeek — which forced the attacking battalions to edge away to their left and thus lose touch with the 169th Brigade on their right. In this position they came under heavy machine-gun fire, and the British barrage having got far ahead, were forced to fall back. By 9 a.m. this Brigade also was back in its assembly area.
Early in the afternoon enemy artillery fire over the l/4th Battalion's front became very heavy, and retaliatory fire was directed by our artillery into Inverness Copse. No infantry action developed, and during the night the Battalion was relieved by the 12th JMiddlesex and withdrew, in support, to the tunnel under Crab Crawl Trench in the old British system south of Sanctuary Wood.
Here the l/4th Londons remained during the whole of the 17th August, which passed uneventfiilly, and in the evening was relieved by the 8th K.R.R.C. of the 14th Division, which took over the 56th Division front. On relief, the Battalion withdrew to Mic Mac Camp, Ouderdom.
Reviewing the Battalion's work on the 16th August it must be at once admitted that it, and indeed the whole Division, failed completely to perform its allotted task. That all ranks did all that was possible to achieve it is reflected in the length of the casualty list, and it is perhaps due to those who fell to comment briefly on what appear to be the causes of failure.
In the first place the operation itself was far from easy. The sea of mud and ooze to which the line of advance had been reduced must in any case have rendered the recognition by platoon commanders of the spots at which they were in turn to halt and form their post a matter of some difficulty. But the circumstances in which the Battalion became responsible for the attack effectually precluded it from the preparations for the operation which the difficulty of the task warranted. The change of command was a further stroke of bad luck. Lieut. -Col. Marchment was already known to the Battalion, but the disadvantages under which he laboured in assuming command on the eve of battle are obvious. The issue of orders was inevitably delayed as Lieut. -Col. Campbell's reconnaissance had to be repeated by Lieut. -Col. Marchment on the morning of the 15th, and it was not till the evening of that day that the scheme could be explained to companies, and then only by officers, who themselves had not seen the ground or even the assembly position. In fact the operations of reconnaissance, issue of orders and assembly of the Battalion had all to be disposed of in twenty-two hours. In addition to these preliminary difficulties the progress of the operation itself revealed further circumstances, to which also a share of the responsibility for failure may be attributed.
The extraordinary strength of the German machine-gun posts was such that the most intense barrage which the excellent Corps and Divisional artillery was capable of producing passed harmlessly over them, and only a direct hit was sufficient to disturb the occupants.
The very serious casualties at the outset of the attack — half an hour after zero, three company commanders were the only officers left standing — produced inevitably a certain degree of disorganisation, though the fact that despite these heavy losses the Battalion was able to establish and maintain itself throughout the day until relief, speaks wonders for the discipline of the troops and the efficiency and initiative of the N.C.O.'s. Further causes of failure lay in the previous exhaustion of the men owing to the bad state of the ground, which also made extremely difficult the preparation beforehand of forward supply dumps, and the reinforcement of the attacking troops during the battle.
Defeat is not always inglorious, and we feel that the 16th August may fairly be written down as a day on which the l/4th Londons failed without loss of reputation in any single particular.
The casualties sustained were as follows :
In oflBcers — ^Lieut.-Col. H. Campbell, D.S.O., wounded; Lieuts. C. A. Speyer, L. B. J. Elliott, L. W. Wrefordand A. G. Davis, killed ; Oapt. H. W. Spiers, Lieuts. A. S. Ford and E. Gr. Dew, and 2/Lieuts. L. W. Archer, H. T, Hannay, N. Nunns and H. E. Jackman, wounded ; and in N.C.O.'s and men 182 killed and wounded.
2/Lieut. H. E. Jackman was awarded the M.C. for his excellent work and devotion to duty this day.
Throughout the Division casualties were heavy and 6 commanding officers and nearly 4000 all ranks fell on this unfortunate day.
On the remainder of the battle front varying success was obtained. In the north a considerable advance was made and the German third line was broken on a wide front. The French attack on the extreme left was crowned with complete success. In the southern area, however, the enemy resistance was everywhere more stubborn, and south of St Julien the line remained unchanged as a result of the day's fighting. The Division being concentrated in the Ouderdom area remained there training and reorganising for several days.
On the 22nd August its move to the Eperlecques area began, and on the 24th the l/4th Londons entrained at Reninghelst siding for Watten, where it detrained and marched to Houlle.
The 56th Division had been so badly handled on the 16th August that its return to the battle area without considerable reinforcement was out of the question and it was, therefore, moved from the Ypres area to Bapaume. The Battalion accordingly entrained at Arques in the early hours of the 30th August and arrived in huts in the Beaulencourt area at 8 p.m. the same day.