4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919
THE 2/4TH BATTALION IN THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE SOMME, 1918
I. Preparations for the German Offensive
The southward move of Gough's Fifth Army was for the purpose of extending the British lines into an area hitherto occupied by the French. Between the 10th January and the 3rd February 1918 a considerable sector, extending from the River Omignon north of St Quentin to Barisis, in the Foret de St Gobain south of La Fere, was taken over from the French. The responsibility for the whole of this line, some thirty miles long, in addition to about twelve miles from Gouzeaucourt to the Omignon, hitherto held by Byng's Third Army, fell upon Gough.
The 58th Division was at first in reserve and was billeted in the Amiens area, the 2/4th Londons being quartered on the evening of the 22nd January at Thezy-Glimont, a pleasant village near the confluence of the Avre with the Noye, about eight miles south-east of Amiens, where French pre-war civilisation was still almost untouched. It is needless to remark how delightful to all ranks were these peaceful surroundings after the ghastly shell-torn swamps of Poelcapelle. About a fortnight passed at Thezy-Glimont in the usual routine of training, during which one or two small drafts joined the Battalion. Lieut. B. Rivers Smith left the Battalion on the 1st February for six months' duty in England.
* Three Brigades of three battalions each, and one pioneer battalion.
The most important feature of the rest period was the reorganisation of Divisions on a ten-battalion basis,of which a note has been given in the preceding chapter. In the 58th Division, as in the 56th, the 4th London Battalion was selected for continued existence, and at the end of January the 2/4th Battalion was strengthened by the transference from the disbanded 2/lst Londons of 10 officers and 221 other ranks.
The officers who joined from the 2/lst Londons were Capt. W. D. Ramsey ; Lieuts. W. C. Morton, G. J. L. Menges, W. B. Evans ; 2/Lieuts. R. H. J. Mendl, A. Woodington, C. J. C. Wildman, W. H. Parslow, S. H. E. Crane and H. W. Durlacher. After the reorganisation the infantry of the Division comprised the following units :
173rd Brigade — 2/2nd London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).
2/-4th ,, ,, ,, ,,
174th Brigade— 2/6th Loudon Regiment (Rifles).
8th „ „ (Post Office).
175th Brigade— 9th London Regiment (Queen Victoria's
10th ,, ,, (Hackney).
12th ,, ,, (Rangers).
Before the Division left the Amiens area the imminence of a German offensive was a matter of common knowledge to all ranks, and so impressed with the seriousness of the situation was the High Command, that on the 5th February a most inspiring message from General Gough was conveyed in a lecture by the Brigadier, to all officers, warrant officers and sergeants of the Brigade.
The state of affairs was indeed critical and a grave crisis in the War was approaching. Some slight account of the general conditions which had brought this about has already been attempted, and there is no occasion now to recapitulate the main factors of the situation in which the Allies found themselves. We must, however, point to one or two conditions especially attaching to the British front which had a pre-eminent influence on what followed.
The gradual and ever-increasing numerical preponderance of the Germans on the British front has been referred to ; translated into numbers the position may be better appreciated. During the period from the 1st November 1917 to the 21st March 1918, the number of German divisions on the Western front rose steadily from 146 to 192, an increase of 46, against which the total number of British divisions in France was but 58, and these sadly depleted in numbers. The question of the falling off in the numbers of reinforcements sent to France at this period has become the subject of an embittered controversy to which we do not propose to offer any contribution. We are, however, concerned in pointing to the result, whatever the cause, of this growing numerical disparity, which was to confront G.H.Q. with a most anxious problem. The British front was now some 125 miles long, and a glance at any war map will show that the general trend of the front was in a north-westerly direction, i.e. near its northern extremity the line ran comparatively close to the sea. In other words, the space available for manoeuvre in the event of a considerable break-through by enemy forces was dangerously small in the vital neighbourhood of the Channel Ports ; and a successful German offensive in this region might have the effect of rolling up our forces against the sea. In the south the space between the lines and the sea was greater, but a large enemy success in the southern area also had serious possibilities as it might entail the complete isolation of the British Armies from the French.
These were very briefly tlie two alternative possibilities which G.H.Q. had to face, and the problem awaiting solution was how to provide with the inadequate force at its disposal for the efficient defence of its lines no matter where the blow might fall. The matter was further complicated. The French were equally nervous of a sudden blow against their weak spots in Champagne and at Rheims, which might lay open the German road to Paris, and this fear rendered it impossible for them to place at the disposal of British G.H.Q. sufficient forces to make up the very grave inequality of strength which existed on the British front. The grouping of forces was, moreover, rendered more difficult by the fact that, so great were the available German reserves, it might well prove that the first enemy blow, although serious and energetic, might in reality not be the main effort. This doubt would inevitably, whatever the Allies' dispositions might be, have the effect of sterilising the British and French reserves for some days until it was quite certain that the first blow was not a feint, to be succeeded later by a still greater effort elsewhere.
Such was the problem, and surely never has a military commander been faced by a more difficult situation ; for on the wisdom of G.H.Q.'s dispositions would probably rest the fortunes of the whole British Empire.
Before stating the solution adopted by G.H.Q. in especial relation to the doings of the 2/4th Battalion, we may perhaps be pardoned for glancing at one or two aspects of Ludendorff's problem which, as is now known from his own book, was by no means free from difficulty.
The vital necessity of a stern British defence of the Channel Ports was appreciated by Ludendorff as fully as by the British G.H.Q., and he was therefore alive to the possibility — knowing the British inferiority in numbers — that the overwhelming importance of the north might lead to a concentration of British divisions in the north at the expense of the southern area. But could he be certain that this course would be adopted ? He might, after staking his all in the south, find that British G.H.Q. had outwitted him and anticipated his intention to attack at St Quentin. It was clearly essential that, to achieve the sweeping victory which alone could save Germany, Ludendorff must endeavour to encompass the temporary sterilisation of the Allied reserves which has been alluded to. To ensure this his plans must be shrouded in secrecy till the last moment ; and the organisation of so vast an attack as was ultimately launched without disclosing its location to a vigilant enemy must have caused Ludendorff acute anxiety. That it was in fact accomplished can only beget admiration on our side for a most skilful opponent. And failure to Ludendorff, moreover, was fraught with consequences quite as awful from his point of view as his success would be to the British. Austria had gained a temporary respite in its victory over the Italians, but its army was becoming disintegrated and lacking in supplies ; and no one realised more keenly than Ludendorff that the Dual Monarchy itself could not outlive a collapse of its army. In Germany the revolutionary ideas from Russia were beginning to have a weakening effect on the loyalty and steadfastness of an increasing section of the population ; hunger was becoming intensified, for the comparative failure of the U-boat campaign resulted in an ever- tightening Allied blockade. And ever in front of Ludendorff loomed the spectre of gigantic American forces on their way to France, which the U-boats were powerless to stop. How many Americans had landed ? How soon could they be thrown into the battle line to turn the scale against the Central Powers ? These were questions to which Ludendorff must earnestly have sought an answer, and which must have brought home to him the realisation that this gigantic bid for victory he was preparing would for good or evil be the last effort which Germany could make.
The decision of G.H.Q. on these questions was that the Channel Ports must be adequately defended at all costs, and that if any sector of the line must be left weakly defended, that sector must be in the southern area, which the Fifth Army had now taken over. The depth of the space available for retirement in rear of the lines in this area no doubt had its influence in this decision ; and in addition, the fact that, in the event of a considerable withdrawal of our forces under the pressure of the German attack, a natural line of defence in rear of the forward positions seemed to be offered in the line of the Somme, which at Peronne makes a wide sweep southwards, thus forming a natural barrier more or less parallel with the British front in the St Quentin district. Possibly a further factor was the apparent natural strength of the extreme south of the front between Moy and La F^re, where the Oisc Canal and marshes formed a wide and difficult obstacle between the Germans and our own troops. In the southern area, moreover, it would in case of need be more easy to make use quickly of such reserves as the French might be able to place at G.H.Q.'s disposal.
II. The Retreat Jrom La Fere
The Fifth Army was allotted a front of 42 miles, which was held by 17 divisions in line and 3 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions in reserve. The sector was held by four Corps, from left to right the VII (Congreve), the XIX (Watts), the XVIII (Maxse), and the III (Butler).
The III Corps, with which alone we are concerned, comprised at the date of battle the 14th, 18th and 58th Divisions on a front of 80,000 yards, a gigantic sector for 27 battalions, not one of which was at war strength. In reserve were the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions. The sector allotted to the 58th Division, in which it relieved the 30th between the 7th and 9th February 1918, was the extreme right of the British Armies and extended from north of Travecy, where it touched the 18th Division on the left, to south of Barisis, where it linked up with the French on its right. This enormous front of nearly 9| miles was held by two brigades, the two subsectors finding their natural division in the Oise marshes and the Canal de St Quentin, which at La Fere take a sudden turn westward, thus running at right angles into the British positions. North of the Canal the country is comparatively open and gently undulating, while south of it the lines plunge through the hilly and densely wooded district of the Foret de St Gobain.
The marsh area at La Fere is about a mile and a half wide, so that the frontage which needed active defence by each Brigade was roughly four miles. On so vast a frontage a defence by continuous trench lines was clearly out of the question, and the British defence was designed to be in great depth. It was divided into three zones of defence. The Forward Zone, about 1000 yards in depth, relied for its defence on small company redoubts with the space between taken up by hidden machine-guns. This zone was intended to act as a " shock-absorber " in which the first intensity of the enemy's onslaught might be met and checked. The main defence was to be offered in the Battle Zone, about 1500 yards in rear of the Forward Zone. The Battle Zone occupied a depth of about 2000 yards and was to consist of isolated and wired forts, again strengthened by inter-supporting machine-guns. It was hoped that a final check might be administered to the enemy's attempts in this zone, but in rear of it a further defensive system, in this case a continuous line, was to be created as a Rear Zone. Beyond this again the Somme line was to be put into a state of defence.
At the date of taking over this area from the French the defensive organisation on the lines above indicated was practically non-existent. Very little depth was provided for in the defence and in rear of the Forward Zone practically all was yet to be done. The Battle Zone redoubts were inadequate and insufficiently wired, while the Rear Zone line was merely spitlocked.
For weeks, therefore, the whole energies of every available formation, infantry holding the line, engineers, pioneers and labour corps units from all parts of the world, were concentrated on the enormous task of converting the G.H.Q. scheme into a reality. Valuable time which could have been well spent in training the infantry in defensive measures and counter-attack, and in assimilating the new personnel which had been brought into battalions by the reorganisation of January, was inevitably devoted to entrenching and wiring work, wearying in itself and trying as only work done against time can become. All ranks, however, were sufficiently impressed by the need, and all were working with the zeal born of a grim determination to prove themselves equal to the demands which would be made upon them.
The 173rd Brigade moved forward to take over the left or north brigade sector or^^the 7th February. The 2/4th Battalion railed from Villers-Bretonneux to Appilly, whence it marched to billets at Quierzy on the south bank of the Oise. Here it was joined the following day by the transport which had moved by road. On the evening of the 8th the Battalion was attached temporarily to the 174th Brigade south of the Canal, and on the 9th moved to the Forward Zone, where it relieved the 7th Londons. As was to be expected from the conditions under which the line was held, the Battalion was now rather scattered. Headquarters and C and D Companies being stationed at Amigny-Rouy, while A and B Companies were at Sinceny and the stores and transport at Autreville. Enemy activity in this area was almost non-existent and the whole energies of the Battalion were devoted to entrenching work, which was carried out under Royal Engineer supervision. Large working parties, totalling on some occasions 12 officers and 400 other ranks, were called for daily for a variety of tasks to which the only relief was a periodical exchange of companies for bathing at Sinceny. On the 24th February the Battalion completed the Divisional relief and moved to the extremity of the British lines, where it relieved the 8th East Surreys, Headquarters, C and D Companies occupying Bernagousse Quarries, while A and B Companies were billeted in Pierremande. In this area the Battalion spent a few quiet days, occupied in strengthening the battle positions under the Royal Engineers. On the 27th it was relieved by the 7th Londons, and returned to the 173rd Brigade, going into Divisional reserve in rear of the northern brigade subsector. In this area the Battalion was again much split up, Head-quarters, A and B Companies being at Viry Noureuil, and C and D Companies at Tergnier. This day the Battalion was joined by three more officers of the 2/1 st Londons, 2/Lieuts. L. F. Wardle, C. B. Francis and C. W. Cumner.
The situation on the 173rd Brigade front during February had been remarkably quiet. The policy adopted had been purely defensive, and our artillery had shown but little activity. The distance separating the British lines from the enemy's and the nature of the terrain had rendered observation a matter of some difficulty ; but the enemy's energies appeared to be devoted to strengthening his own defences of La F^re rather than to the preparation of an offensive operation. The general impression gained from the Brigade Intelligence Summary for this month is indeed that the idea of any attack being launched in the La Fere area was rather ridiculous, and that everyone was quite prepared to settle down at Fargniers for life. General Gough, however, as is well known, did not share this comfortable optimism, for almost a month earlier at a conference of his Corps Commanders at Catelet he had made what later proved to be an accurate forecast of the location of the German attack.
The Battalion's work during the three weeks immediately preceding the battle calls for little comment. After two days in Divisional reserve it moved forward to the Battle Zone, in which it relieved the 3rd Londons on the 2nd March, and this position it continued to hold until the offensive was launched, providing daily working parties for the improvement of the defences. The early days of March saw a slight increase of artillery and trench mortar activity on both sides, but the area was still comparatively quiet with but little outward indication of the storm which was shortly to burst over it.
On the 7th March 2/Lieut. D. F. Crawford joined the Battalion.
The skill with which the Germans continued to conceal their intentions was indeed marvellous. For some time past the withdrawal of divisions from the line had taken place, but so widely disseminated had this process been that it had attracted comparatively little notice. The attack divisions had been assembled well in rear of the lines, beyond the reach of our prying aeroplanes, and had there been put through a very thorough course of training, which extended to the smallest detail of what was expected of each division. Finally, about the middle of March this gigantic force had begun to move towards the line, marching by night and closely concealed by day, and by the evening of the 20th the enormous concentration was complete. Von Hutier, commanding the Eighteenth German Army, had now between the Omignon and Vendeuil 11 divisions in line, 8 in close support and 2 in reserve ; Von Gayl opposite La Fere had 4 divisions and Von Boehn at St Gobain another 2 ; making a total of 27 divisions. Opposed to this colossal strength were Butler's 5 and Maxse's 4 weak divisions. Such were the odds on the 21st March 1918.
Before proceeding to the battle itself there is one further point to which we desire to refer, and that is the thick fog which lay over the marshes of the Oise early on the morning of the 21st and the succeeding days. The effect of this fog on what transpired had been variously estimated. The general concensus of opinion of officers and men who took part in the battle is that it was a great disadvantage to the defence. In many ways this was undoubtedly the case. The complete blotting out of all landmarks beyond a few yards' radius rendered any sort of co-operation with adjoining units impossible ; the inter-supporting machine-guns between the redoubts were comparatively useless for they could not see when and where to fire. The artillery was also handicapped for it knew not where to lay its barrages to trap the advancing enemy. Many times in the course of the battle, redoubts which thought themselves not yet attacked suddenly realised that in the fog they had been surrounded and cut off. The general result was that the defence degenerated into a series of isolated battles in which companies and platoons made individual stands, unsupported by their comrades and in ignorance of what was occurring on their flanks.
But there is another side to the picture, and the German opinion is equally strong, that but for the fog their success would have been more far-reaching than it actually proved to be. The inevitable loss of direction and touch between attacking columns, the feeling of uncertainty born of drifting forwards without seeing one's surroundings, the strange tricks which fog always plays in the matters of distance and sound — all these could not but affect detrimentally the speed and cohesion of the attack — and speed was of all things the essential for complete German success. Swiftly though the attack came, from the very first day the advances were made far behind schedule, and to this extent the German attack failed. How far it failed through the fog we will not venture to estimate ; but that the fog was a contributory factor there can be no doubt.
On the afternoon of the 20th March the order " Prepare for attack " was received from III Corps, and by 3.30 p.m. all companies of the Battalion were ready to man their battle positions.
The scheme of defence has already been alluded to in general terms, and it has been indicated that both the Forward and Battle Zones were divided into a series of defended localities each held by a company. These localities comprised a main keep, supported by two or more subsidiary redoubts, while the space intervening between adjoining localities was covered by the guns of the Brigade Machine-Gun Company.
Map No. 15 shows the relative positions of the various localities in the scheme of defence, and in the Northern Brigade area, with which alone we are henceforward concerned, the disposition of troops on the night 20th/21st March was as follows :
Forward Zone — 2/2nd London Regiment.
Main Keep Locality : Headquarters and 1 company.
Jappy Locality : 1 company with a standing patrol at Beautor.
Brickstack Locality : 1 company.
Travdcy Locality : 1 company.
Battle Zone — 2/4th London Regiment.
Headquarters on the Crozat Canal, Fargniers.
Fargniers South Locality : A Company (Lieut. H. J. M. Williams).
Fargniers North Locality : B Company less 2 platoons (Capt. S. G. Askham).
Farm Rouge Locality : D Company (Capt, C. A. Clarke).
Triangle Locality : C Company (Lieut. G. E. Lester).
The two remaining platoons of B Company were detached as follows :
1 platoon (2/Lieut. D. F. Crawford) at the junction of the St Quentin and Crozat Canals.
1 platoon (Lieut. W. F. Brown) at Condren, where there was also a squadron of the Oxfordshire Hussars.
Quessy Locality : 1 company l/lth Suffolks (Pioneers). Brigade Headqviarters were at Quessy Chateau near Crozat Canal, and the 3rd Londons were in Divisional reserve at Viry Noureuil.
It will be seen that the bulk of the defensive force was concentrated — if such a word may be applied to so attenuated a defence — on the right flank, where the line of the Oise marshes, by now practically no obstacle owing to the unusually dry spring, laid open the road to Chauny and Noyon. It was quite evident that should the Germans succeed in breaking through on the St Firmin-Vendeuil front they would almost certainly endeavour to expand the breach behind the British lines and make a south-westerly dash towards Noyon and Compi^gnc in order to complete the isolation of the British armies from the French. The Oise flank therefore was vitally important, At 4.20 a.m. on the 21st March the enemy barrage opened with terrific intensity. The messages to man battle positions were already written in Brigade Head-quarters, but delay was caused in conveying them to the various units concerned, for during the first few minutes of the bombardment Brigade Signal Headquarters were knocked out by a direct hit, so that this and subsequent messages had to be sent by runner. Lieut. -Col. Dann, in fact, did not receive any orders to move until long after he had, on his own initiative, despatched his companies to their posts.
It is rather difficult to understand why the companies were kept in billets such as cellars under the ruins of Fargniers and Quessy until the last moment, especially as warning of the attack had been received the previous afternoon. Most platoons had several hundred yards, and some as much as a mile and a half, to traverse to their trenches ; and under the intense and accurate barrage many casualties were sustained during this forward move. By about 7.30 a.m., however, the companies were all reported in position.
The actual time of the attack is not known, but it probably occurred between 6.30 and 7 a.m., for at 7.10 a.m. a message was received from Lieut. -Col. Richardson (2/2nd Londons) that the enemy was in Jappy Keep, and about the same time the bombardment of the Battle Zone positions became still more intense. It must be borne in mind that fog hung over the whole area like a thick curtain, completely cutting off the Forward Zone from the observation, which it had been reasonably anticipated would be obtained over it. The Battle Zone troops and Brigade Headquarters were thus in the dark as to what was going on in the forward positions.
By 9 a.m. the enemy was reported in possession of Main Keep Locality, which meant a serious incursion into the defences on the vital flank. Steps were at once taken to employ the 3rd Londons (in reserve), one company being directed on Fargniers, while artillery and machine-gun barrages were laid on the Canal crossings at St Firmin and Beautor and on the area west of the captured positions.
Lieut.-Col. Dann now ordered forward patrols from each of the companies to endeavour to keep in touch with the situation, but it seems that if these orders ever reached the companies — they certainly were not received by the left company — the patrols themselves were destroyed by the enemy shell fire, for no information of value was obtained.
All this time no word had been received from the Travecy Locality though attempts were made to communicate from the 2/4!th Londons and from the 18th Division on the left, and it is probable that the fog enabled the enemy to surround the garrison before its commander was able to communicate with his Headquarters.
During the morning Lieut.-Col. Richardson asked for counter-attack troops to be sent forward to him in the hope that the enemy in the St Firmin area might be ejected, but this request was refused by Division on the ground that the Battle Zone garrisons must be maintained intact. In consequence, therefore, of the extreme pressure on his front, Lieut.-Col. Richardson was compelled to order a withdrawal of the few remaining details of his shattered battalion on to the Fargniers area occupied by the 2/4th Londons, and by midday the fall of the Forward Zone was complete.
Shortly after midday the fog lifted slightly, and the 2/4th Londons in the Battle Zone became engaged with the enemy, who began to exert pressure on the extreme right flank. At about 2 p.m. the platoon of A Company holding Distillery Post next the Oise Canal was driven in and Lieut.-Col. Dann ordered the company of the 3rd Londons in Fargniers to launch a counter-attack. This effort was only partly successful, and Distillery Post remained in German hands.
About the same time the enemy advanced in large numbers all along the line, especially against the Farm Rouge and Triangle Localities. The former of these had always been regarded as a weak spot in the defences, and two reserve machine-guns were at once turned on to the enemy advancing against it. By 3.45. p.m., after a stubborn resistance against overwhelming numbers. Clarke's weak company was ejected from the Farm Rouge itself, and its grip on the remainder of the Locality much weakened. The assaulting columns continued to press on in the direction of the Quessy Locality, thus isolating the Fargniers position in the corner between the two Canals and completely cutting off Lester, who was still hanging on to his position in the Triangle against impossible odds.
A prompt endeavour to counter this very serious turn of events was taken by Brigade, who sent forward two platoons of the Suffolks to reinforce Clarke and fill the gap between him and Askham. The 3rd Londons also were drawn on again, and a second company was sent forward through Quessy to strengthen the Farm Rouge Locality. Of this company, however, only two platoons ever reached their objective, the others being destroyed by the enemy's fire at the crossing of the Crozat Canal.
At about 6.50 p.m. the Battle Zone, in spite of repeated and heavy enemy attacks, was still intact with the exceptions of the penetrations next the Canal on the extreme right and in the Farm Rouge Locality, and it was decided to lay down a provisional S.O.S. line on the forward edge of the Battle Zone. The enemy, however, was continuing his attacks with great persistence, and the gradual infiltration of his storm troops between our scattered positions was constantly altering the situation. By 7.15 p.m. he had already overrun the new S.O.S. line in the vicinity of the Distillery, and was beginning to close in on Fargniers from the south.
In the 18th Division area on the left the struggle was also raging in the Battle Zone, though one or two posts in the Forward Zone were continuing their glorious yet hopeless struggle. Beyond the 18th Division the 14th had received a severe blow and the Germans had penetrated some miles into the British positions. It appeared by no means improbable that if the enemy's progress in this region were unchecked the left flank of the III Corps would be entirely rolled up. A general withdrawal was therefore inevitable to prevent the line being broken. To conform with these movements it was decided by Division to effect a withdrawal to the hne of the Crozat Canal from its junction with the St Quentin Canal as far north as a line running due west between the Farm Rouge and Triangle Localities, which latter was to be held.
Instructions to this end were immediately issued, and Lieut. -Col. Dann was ordered to conduct the withdrawal of the whole of the mixed details now in the Fargniers corner, and all troops in the Battle Zone were placed under his orders. This withdrawal was really a stubborn rearguard action, for the enemy was unrelenting in his efforts to drive in the Farm Rouge gap and reach the Canal. But a stern resistance was offered in which gallant service was rendered by the Suffolks at Quessy, and by midnight Lieut. -Col. Dann was enabled to report his heterogeneous command in position on the west bank of the Canal, with all iron rations, S.A.A., stores and Orderly Room records intact.
The defence of the Triangle Locality must now be referred to as it comprises, owing to the wedge driven into the Farm Rouge Locality early in the day, an isolated battle, and is a magnificent example of stem courage against overwhelming numbers. The casualties suffered from gas shell in this area had been numerous, but apart from the accurate shooting of the Bosche gunners, C Company had been, like the rest of the Battalion, not closely engaged until the Forward Zone was overrun. The lifting of the fog about midday disclosed a large force of the enemy, which is estimated at about a battalion, advancing against Lester's thinly held positions. From this time onwards no orders or messages of any kind reached Lester from Battalion Headquarters or the adjoining companies, and he was left to fight his own battle. The advancing enemy were hotly engaged by rifle and Lewis gun fire, and large numbers were killed. Already D Company were losing their grip on the Farm Rouge, but Lester decided that the only course open to him was to await reinforcements. These never came, and probably, owing to the utter severance of communications, it was never realised how urgent his need was. The only support to this gallant company was one 18-pr. gun firing over open sights from near Qiiessy. All the afternoon the unequal fight was maintained, though the defenders were much harassed by low-flying German 'planes. With the approach of dusk the mist came down again, surrounding the company with an impenetrable curtain. Again and again Lester sent out runners and patrols to seek connection with the adjoining troops but these never returned. " I still hoped against hope," he writes, "that we should be reinforced, as the Colonel had kept rubbing it in at conferences before the battle that we had to stand fast at all costs." At last it became clear that the flanks were in the air and that the rear of the Company was being encircled, and it was decided to fight back to the Crozat Canal. On the left the remains of two platoons under Blair managed to get back, but of the others but two men got away, and Lester, Wardle and the remainder of the company, nearly all wounded, were captured.
This splendid fight, maintained till nearly 10 p.m. against hopeless odds, was without doubt of enormous value in holding up the enemy and inflicting severe loss on his picked troops. It also formed a strong buttress to the flank of the 18th Division, without which they would have found the right of their Battle Zone turned ; and it gave time for the withdrawal of the 2/4th Londons to the Canal line.
Lieut. -Col. Dann's mixed force on the Canal was of necessity in need of organisation, and the 8th Londons, who had been in reserve at Pierremande, were on their way to relieve the troops who had borne the day's fighting. By 6 a.m. the relief was complete and the 8th Londons were established on the Canal line, while Lieut. -Col. Dann's force, consisting of the remains of the 2/2nd, 3rd and 2/4th Battalions, the Suffolks, and elements of the 503rd Field Company R.E. and of the 182nd Tunnelling Company, who had also been thrown into the fight, were assembled on a line west of Voucl, with Headquarters on the Butte de Vouel. This position was an unfinished work, in parts not more than a foot deep, and extended from the Butte almost due south to the Chauny-Tergnier Road. Brigade Headquarters had withdrawn overnight to Le Bas de Viry.
The Condren position, which had not been attacked on the 21st, remained intact but was reinforced by a company of the Suffolks.
The results of the first day's fighting were tolerably serious. The Forward and Battle Zones had been lost, and thus the greater part of the defences which had been brought to a stage in any way approaching completion were in the enemy's hands. The whole of the available reserves were already inextricably in the fight, and should the attack extend to the Southern Brigade area from Amigny-Rouy to Barisis there would be no means of assisting the defence in that vicinity. Serious losses of personnel had been sustained, and the swiftness and weight of the blow had had their effect, though the morale of the troops were still high. On the other hand the enemy had by no means gained the success which he had anticipated. On the Brigade front of some 5000 yards, held by two weak battalions reinforced by parts of one other battalion, he had employed nearly four divisions, and in spite of these ridiculous odds had only advanced an average of about 5000 yards to find that the defence had successfully withdrawn bdiind an obstacle of much natural strength. The defence was shaken, but it was not in the least broken, and a break through was the only means of ultimate success to the Germans.
On arrival in the Vouel line in the early hours of the 22nd March, the Battalion, which occupied the north end of the position near the Butte, was reorganised in three companies, with A Company under 2/Lieut. F. G. Williams on the right, B under Capt. Askham in the centre and D under Capt. Clarke on the left. As on the 21st, a dense mist appeared with the early hours, and until it rose, shortly after midday, no infantry movement took place. Under cover of the mist the Battalion was able to do a good deal of work on the Vouel line, and in this they were not much interfered with, as most of the German shells were falling on the road in front.
About 1.15 p.m. the enemy attack opened with great vigour and immense weight on the Canal line and Tergnier. The crossing of the Canal was rendered easier to the enemy by reason of the unfortunate fact that one or two bridges had not been entirely demolished after our withdrawal. All had long before been prepared for demolition, but for some reason the charges did not explode in every case. A certain bewilderment was caused to the defenders at first as the Germans appear to have gained their first footing west of the Canal disguised in British uniforms stolen from the fallen men of the 2/2nd Londons. But as soon as the 8th Londons appreciated what was happening they put up a very stubborn resistance. After getting across the Canal the Bosche seems to have tried to extend north and south along the western bank, and in this he was successful in the northern area. In the south, however, the magnificent fight made by the two companies in Tergnier checked his progress, and time after time his attacks were stopped.
During the afternoon the German 'planes were seeking for the next position held by us, and in spite of the hasty efforts of the Battalion to camouflage its trench, the Vouel line was soon discovered, and ranging on it by the German batteries rapidly ensued. No infantry attack was delivered on the Vouel line, probably on account of the enemy's lack of success at Tergnier.
Late in the afternoon the enemy's pressure on the 8th Londons grew ahnost intolerable, and little by little he was working his way into Tergnier. It was therefore decided to vacate the position, and after dusk the 8th Londons fell back on to the Vouel line, which they extended to the right from the Viry-Tergnier Road as far as the railway. The two companies in Tergnier were ably extricated by their commander and managed to get clear across the Oise, joining the garrison at Condrcn, which had not been attacked.
The Vouel line was now the most advanced position, and at 6.30 p.m. the Headquarters of the 3rd, 2/4th and 8th Londons were withdrawn from it to Noureuil. The night passed without any further attempt on the enemy's part to advance, and on our side a good deal of patrolling activity took place. This led to several encounters with small parties of enemy, and resulted in the collection of a quite useful bag of German prisoners as well as a machine-gun and team. Under cover of darkness also touch was regained with the Condren garrison.
Information was received on the evening of the 22nd that French troops were rapidly advancing to our assistance, and that they would be ready to counter-attack the next morning with the object of retaking the Crozat Canal line.
On the 23rd March mist appeared yet once more, considerably hampering our defence and giving the enemy an opportunity of massing for attack. Shortly after 8 a.m. the French attack was launched by two battalions of the 125th French Infantry which passed forward through the Vouel line. The result of the attack is not definitely known as it was impossible to see beyond a radius of about 15 yards. It is certain, however, that it failed to reach Tergnier, and by 11 a.m. the French advance was broken and the troops beginning to drift back into our lines. It should be pointed out in fairness to our Allies that they had been rushed up into the line, incomplete in equipment and transport, and that they were called on to operate without previous reconnaissance over ground which was shrouded in mist and unknown to them. On the extreme left the withdrawal was conducted in some disorder, and it was reported that the 18th Division on our left was also being forced back through Frieres Wood. The Vouel line, unfinished and shallow as it was, was already occupied to its fullest capacity, and the French falling back on it caused considerable congestion in the well -dug parts. About the same time the German artillery, which had been plastering the Vouel line fairly steadily all the morning, lifted, and was at once succeeded by an accurate and intense machine-gun barrage. This further tended to create difficulty in the position, for in view of the congestion of the trench it became very hard to get orders along, while work on the gaps between the well dug portions was almost impossible.
Shortly afterwards the mist cleared and the awkwardness of the situation became more apparent. The 18th Division were being pressed back towards Villequier-Aumont, and the left flank was entirely in the air, while the constant pushing of small highly trained bodies of the enemy was enabling them to progress along the Oise marshes on the right. Vouel itself was strongly occupied, and troops were massing for attack. By 12 noon the position was no longer tenable. The enemy was advancing frontally and from both flanks, and Lieut. -Col. Dann ordered a withdrawal on to the Green line. This was a partly dug position which formed a portion of the Rear Zone and was held by troops of the 6th Dismounted Cavalry Brigade and the 18th Entrenching Battalion, on a line east of Noureuil and Viry-Noureuil from the St Quentin Canal to the Vouel-Villequier Road. The withdrawal to the Green line from the Vouel position averaged about 1500 yards, and so hard were the enemy pressing that some platoons had to fight their way back. An attempt was made by the French machine-gunners in the Vouel line to cover the Battalion's withdrawal, but this was not effective and, together with several of our own men, they were captured.
The situation was now critical. The falling back of the 18th Division on the left revealed a gap between the Vouel-Villequier Road and Frieres Wood of which the enemy was not slow to take advantage, and there appeared every likelihood that the 173rd Brigade would be cut off from the 18th Division and rolled up against the St Quentin Canal. To meet this threat the left flank of the Green line position, consisting of troops of the Dismounted Brigade and details of the 8th Londons, was thrown back and extended towards Villequier-Aumont in an attempt to gain touch once more with the 18th Division. This line was thin, and under the continued German pressure it suffered severely. During the afternoon the enemy thrust south again and entered Noureuil, thus driving a wedge behind the flank of the Green line troops. A glance at the map will show that a further withdrawal was inevitable if the whole Brigade was not to be rounded up. This began about 6 p.m. and the troops, including all that was left of the fighting ranks of the 2/4th Londons, about 120 all told under Capt. Askham, fell back to a position west of Viry-Noureuil, which village was yielded to the enemy.
During the afternoon, while the fate of the bulk of the Brigade was still in the balance, and it was obviously imperative to check the enemy's advance into Chauny by all available means, the Brigadier ordered Major Grover of the 2 /4th Londons, who was at Chauny with battle surplus, to organise all available details for the defence of the town. With remarkable skill and despatch Major Grover collected a heterogeneous force of clerks, cooks, officers' servants, transport drivers — anyone who could hold a rifle — and by dusk reported himself in position on the eastern outskirts of Chauny with a force of 10 officers and 270 other ranks at his command. Of these, 2 officers and 54 other ranks were of the 2 /4th Londons. This very brilliant piece of work no doubt did much to save the situation, and " Grover's Force " beyond question deserves to rank high among the various similar " scarecrow armies " which these critical days produced.
During the afternoon Lieut. -Col. Dann was attached for duty to Brigade Headquarters, and the remains of the 2/4th and 8th Londons came under command of Lieut. -Col. Derviche-Jones of the latter Battalion.
The withdrawal from the Green line to the River Helot position was considerably impeded by the French troops who were streaming in a westerly direction, and Brigade therefore endeavoured to ascertain what the intentions of the French Commander were. These were found to be to hold a line from Viry-Noureuil to Villequier-Aumont, and accordingly it was decided that the whole of the 173rd Brigade Group should be withdrawn and reorganised in positions to support the French. This re-organisation was successfully carried out. In view of the rapid and confusing moves which had followed each other in such quick succession, it may be well to state in detail the Brigade positions at dawn on the 24th March :
Brigade Headquarters at Abbycourt
Grover's Force — Covering the eastern exits of Chauny from the St Quentin Canal to north of the Chauny — Viry-Noureuil Road.
18th Entrenching Battalion — Astride the St Quentin Canal on the right of Grover's Force.
6th Dismounted Cavalry Brigade — On the left of Grover's Force east of the Chauny — Villequier-Aumont Road.
Details of the 2/4th and 8th Londons — On the left of Grover's Force west of the Chauny — Villequier-Auinont Road.
The Condren garrison substantially maintained its original positions and was in touch by means of patrols with the 18th Entrenching Battalion, while on the extreme right the 174th Brigade, which had not been attacked, continued to hold the Amigny-Rouy — Barisis front.
On the left of the conglomerate force which now formed the 173rd Brigade Group tlie line was continued by the 18th and 14th Divisions, with whom French troops were interspersed in the direction of Cugny.
The whole line was strained to breaking-point under the unceasing enemy pressure. Every available man was in the firing line, and the Battalion, which had been now fighting and marching without intermission for three days, was getting worn. But in spite of the enormous odds the Battalion clung on with determination, for it knew that the saving of the situation rested with itself, and attack after attack had failed to give the German masses the break-through which was essential for them.
For the fourth day in succession the Germans were favoured with a thick fog which enshrouded their movements, and under cover of which they were able to prepare a further heavy blow. Early in the morning they attacked and broke through the French outpost line on the River Helot, and about 11 a.m. the lifting of the mist revealed them attacking Grover's Force east of Chauny, and also endeavouring to work round the south of the position next the Canal. This was serious, for a wedge driven in between the Chauny line and the Condren bridgehead, which was also under great pressure from the enemy, might possibly involve the loss of the Oise line, the retention of which was vital for us.
Arrangements were at once made by Brigade for a further withdrawal, and this was rendered the more imperative by the rapid advance made on the left of the Corps front during the day. In this region the enemy were already threatening Guiscard, eight miles north-west of Chauny, and the security of Noyon itself was seriously in doubt.
For several hours Grover's details and the tiny Condren force maintained their fight, but in the afternoon the withdrawal began in accordance with the orders already issued. Under Grover's command the mixed force was skilfully withdrawn, fighting a stubborn rearguard action, to a prepared position about 1000 yards east of Abbecourt, while the detached portion of the 2/4th Londons on Grover's left, now about CO strong, fell back to Ognes, and marched into Besme across the Oise about midnight. Early in the afternoon Major Grover was wounded and Capt. Askham took over his command. By 4.30 p.m. the Abbecourt position, being no longer tenable, was vacated and the whole of the 173rd Group, including 2/4th and 8th Londons, 503rd Field Company, R.E. and the 6th Dismounted Cavalry Brigade, had crossed the Oise at Manicamp. About the same time the Condrcn garrison which had held manfully to its positions since the opening of the battle got clear across the river.
Before this withdrawal was completed the whole of the Oise bridges, and also the R.E. Dump at Chauny, were demolished, and it may be remarked that during the four days of fighting not a single gun had been lost except those destroyed by enemy shell fire.
With the withdrawal across the Oise the hardest of the Battalion's fighting in this great battle was finished, though it remained in contact with the enemy with very little rest. The Division now held a river front of over nine miles on the south bank of the Oise from Quierzy to Servais, in addition to the original four miles held by the 174th Brigade in the Foret de St Gobain. With this enormous front in contact with an enterprising enemy no rest was yet to be expected. The early hours of the 25th March were devoted to sorting out the hopeless tangle of units which the battle had caused, and at 11.30 a.m. Lieut. -Col. Dann became responsible (in conjunction with the 6th Dismounted Cavalry Brigade) for the defence of the river crossings at Quierzy, with a composite force comprising details of four battalions, reorganised in companies as follows :
1 Coy. representing 2/2nd Londons guarding Quierzy bridge.
1 ,, „ 3rd Londons on its right.
1 ,, ,, 8th Londons on its left.
1 ,, ,, 2/4 th Londons in support.
This company of the 2 /4th Londons was the party of 60 which had reached Besme the previous evening, and was now under 2/Lieut. Griffiths.
The same night (25th/26th March) this composite force was reheved by the 246th French Regiment and withdrew to Besme to refit, Lieut. -Col. Dann taking charge of another composite force of troops of the 175th Brigade. In the meantime the remainder of the 2/4th Londons, which had formed part of Grover's Force and were now under Askham, took up a defensive position under orders of Lieut.-CoL Chart, 18th Entrenching Battalion, east of Manicamp, on the south side of the Canal and the Ailette River. At night this party was also relieved by Lieut.-Col. Dann's force and joined the remainder of the Battalion at Besme.
The 173rd Brigade was now entirely extricated from the line, and a day of reorganisation and collection of scattered details from the various composite forces, which the needs of the moment had created, was of urgent necessity. This respite was obtained on the 26th March when the three original units were re-organised as one battalion, known as the Fusilier Battalion as follows :
No. 1 Coy.— 117 other ranks 2/ith Londons under Capt. Askham.
No. 2 Coy.— 88 other ranks 2/4th „ ,, 2/Lieut. Blair.
No. 3 Coy.— 179 „ „ 2/2nd „ „ Capt. Wright.
No. 4 Coy.— 189 „ „ 3rd „ ., 2/Lieut. Curtis.
Lieut.-Col. Dann returned from the 175th Brigade to command this newly constituted force. In addition to the Fusilier Battalion, the Brigade included temporarily the 12th Londons under Lieut.-Col. Bayliffe, C.M.G., and the 18th Entrenching Battalion under Lieut.-Col. Chart.
The whole of the III Corps had now been brought south of the Oise, and Noyon fell into the enemy's hands on the 26th. The main weight of the German offensive continued to sweep westward in the direction of Amiens, but with the details of this part of the fight we are not concerned. The 58th Division, however, was not yet out of the fight, and the enemy made repeated efforts to force a breach in the long river line which it held, but without success. The French troops were now numerous in this area, and though General Butler continued to command his own Corps, the supreme command of the area was taken by the French.
In this battle the Battalion had the extraordinary experience of being driven entirely out of the battle area. It had lost severely and borne several days of the most terrific ordeal that it had yet been called on to face, but with the exception of a deep indentation in its positions at Farm Rouge on the first day there had never been any semblance of a break-through on its front. Frequently hard pressed, often almost surrounded, it had been forced back day after day, stubbornly fighting but never broken.
Constituted as described above the 173rd Brigade took over the Manicamp sector from the 175th on the evening of the 27th March, the 12th Londons occupying the right subsector, with the Fusilier Battalion on the left adjoining Manicamp village. The two 2/4th London Companies were stationed on the Ailette River and in the village. The Brigade remained in these positions strengthening the defences until the night of 2nd/3rd April, when it was relieved by the French, the Fusilier Battalion reaching Bl^rancourt at midnight. The daylight hours of the 3rd April were occupied in resting and cleaning up, and after dark the Battalion moved to Andignicourt, where it was accommodated in an enormous cave probably large enough to hold a brigade at full strength.
The following afternoon the route was continued and the Battalion reached Ambl^ny at 8 p.m. Here the Fusilier Battalion broke up, its component companies being once more organised as three battalions under their respective commanders. The 12th Londons returned to their own brigade, being replaced in the 173rd Brigade by the 16th Entrenching Battalion (Lieut.-Col. Nicholls).
The 2/4th Londons were joined on the 3rd April by Major F. G. Tollworthy, 1st Londons, as second in command vice Major Grover wounded.
On the 5th April another evening march was made to Dommiers, and the next day after a very trying march the Battalion reached Villers Cotterets at 8 p.m. Here it entrained with the remainder of the Division for an area further north to which the III Corps had been transferred. The total casualties sustained by the 2/4th Battalion in the second battle of the Somme between 21st March and 3rd April amounted to :
Officers — Lient. J. Cairns, missing, believed killed ; 2/Lieut. F. G. Williams, died of wounds; Major A. Grover, M.C., Capt. C. A. Clarke, M.C., Lieut. H. J. M. AVilliams, 2/Lieuts. R. W. Chamberlain, C. C. H. Clifford, A. Woodington, E. M. Cutlibertson and C. B, Francis, wounded ; Lieut. W. F. Brown, gassed; Lieuts. G. E. Lester, H. W. Durlacher, M.C., 2/Lieuts. D. F. Crawford and L. F. Wai'dle, captured. N.C.O.'s and men : 37 killed, 125 wounded and 217 missing.
The total losses of the Division for the same period were 2204, of whom 57 officers and 1606 other ranks were missing.
III. The Action at Villers-Bretonneux
In the first portion of this chapter we have endeavoured to give some account of the manner in which the 2/4th Battalion, with the 58th Division and the whole of Butler's III Corps, had been literally pushed aside by the main force of the German onslaught and had been extricated from the fight due southwards through French territory, while the advancing enemy bad swept on in a westerly direction towards Amiens.
By the evening of the 28th March, that is to say, a week after the opening of the battle, the Fifth and Third Armies had been forced back from the line of the Somme and over the old Somme battlefields, and had reached the Amiens defence line south of the Somme, while on the north bank the enemy had occupied Albert.
On the 28th March a further attack was delivered on a wide front from north of Arras to Puisieux which resulted in a severe defeat for the Germans ; but as only the l/4th Battalion is concerned in the fighting on this day we propose to defer the account of it to another chapter, and to pursue for the moment the fortunes of the 2/4th Battalion until the final stabilisation of the line in front of Amiens. The German offensive on the Somme front was now showing signs of weakening, though owing to the enormous losses incurred by our divisions in personnel and material the enemy was still able to make progress. The defences of Amiens in particular were threatened, and Gen. Gough had been entrusted by G.H.Q. with the task of extending and strengthening them. The last days of March saw fierce fighting in this area, and by the 31st of the month the Fifth Army south of the Amiens-Peronne Road had fallen back to the line Villers-Bretonneux-Hangard, both villages inclusive to the British, while on the right the French were holding a small corner of the angle between the Luce and Avre Rivers on the line Hangard-Moreuil Station. The German attacks finally exhausted themselves by April 5th, after which date there was a short period of trench warfare.
It was to this area, still on the extreme right of the British Armies, that the 58th Division was now directed. From Villers Cotterets, which it left on 6th April, the 2/4th Battalion was railed to Longueau, a suburb of Amiens. The battle line was now quite close to the Amiens-Paris line, a lateral railroad of vital importance to us, and as the Battalion passed Boves the British field guns were in action within a quarter of a mile of the train.
On detrainment the Battalion marched to a reserve position in the Bois de Gentelles, where a long day was devoted to reorganisation. The losses of the latter end of March had not yet been made good by reinforcements, and it was therefore decided to make use of the 16th Entrenching Battalion for this purpose. Accordingly on the 7th April two companies of this unit were transferred to the 2/4th Battalion, making an increase of strength of 4 officers (Capt. B. H. C. Hettler, M.C., and 2/Lieuts. J. W. Bocking, E. V. Grimsdell and W. T. Millar) and 344 other ranks. With this valuable reinforcement it was possible once again to organise four companies as follows :
No. 1 Coy. under Capt. G. H. Hetley \ o/i^-i t i „ ^
¦NTo i-,^c./-.Aii,f 2/4tli London men.
No. 2 „ ,, Capt. S. G. Askham I '
No. 3 „ „ (^apt. B. H. C. Hettler \ 16th Entrenching
No. 4 ,, ,, 2/Lieut. E. V. Grimsdell ] Battalion men.
It should be remarked in passing that the Entrenching Battalions had no connection with the Labour Corps. They were trained and combatant troops whose existence as Entrenching BattaUons only dated from the Divisional reorganisations of the preceding January, and they represented in effect the troops which had been " left over " after the reorganisation was completed. The bulk of the reinforcement which thus came to the 2/4th Battalion were enlisted in the 6th K.O.Y.L.I., and were undoubtedly some of the finest reinforcements the Battalion ever received : although young they were very keen, and included some most reliable non-commissioned officers.
At 7.45 p.m. on the 7th April the Battalion relieved the 12th Londons in the Reserve system between the village of Gentelles and the Amiens-Roye Road, Nos. 3 and 4 Companies occupying the front line with Nos. 1 and 2 in support to them and Headquarters in the Bois de Gentelles. For ten days the Battalion continued to occupy these positions, constantly employed in working parties on its own defences and on elaborately wiring the lines in conjunction with the R.E.'s. This wire was strengthened to form a considerable obstacle for the Gentelles line, which was the final line of the Amiens defences and was to be held at all costs. During this tour of duty the 2/4th Battalion suffered somewhat from German shell fire, for the British batteries were close behind the Gentelles line.
It was confidently anticipated that the enemy would endeavour once more to break the Amiens defences in this area. The village of Villers-Bretonneux stands on a somewhat prominent hill seven miles east of Amiens, and its possession would have enabled the Germans to play havoc by their artillery with the city itself and our important road and railway communications which radiate from it. Its value to the Germans rendered it a matter of the highest importance to us to defend it stubbornly. In anticipation of an attack, therefore, the battle surplus was sent out of the trenches on the 10th and the work of strengthening the defences pressed on with vigour.
Further reinforcements were received from the Base, numbering in all 127 other ranks. These were" mostly young lads under nineteen years of age whose despatch overseas had been rendered necessary by the impossibility of otherwise replacing the deficiencies in the ranks. They were all extremely keen and had received a good groundwork of training at home. But they reached the Battalion at a time when it had just been shaken by one battle and was about to become involved in another, and it can only be deplored that circumstances prevented any opportunity for assimilating them into the Battalion and for giving them some preliminary experience of warfare under quieter conditions. The whole Battalion was indeed rather conglomerate, for of a total of some 650 rifles about 450 were strange to the Battalion and called upon to go into action under a command unknown to them : this important point should be borne in mind in considering the battle which followed.
On the evening of the 18th April the 58th Division took over from the 5th Australian Brigade the front line east of Cachy, the 173rd Brigade occupying the whole sector. This sector extended from the immediate left of Hangard, through the Bois de Hangard to the Villers-Bretonneux-Demuin Road, the 3rd Londons on the right, the 2/2nd in the centre and the 2/4th on the left. The 2/4th Battalion's subsector, in which it relieved the 19th Australian Battalion, about 1500 yards frontage, was held with three companies (Nos. 1, 2 and 4) in the front line and one (No. 3) in support. Headquarters occupying a quarry east of Cachy. The 175th Brigade took over the Blue line while the 174th was in reserve in Cagny.
The Battalion was now straining every nerve to complete the defences. Much work was still to be done. The front line had originally existed as a line of isolated posts, and these were not yet completely connected up nor were they adequately wired. A great deal was to be done in providing efficient fire positions throughout the line in order that if lateral movement should become necessary the defence of the position might not be impaired.
Orders were received that the front line would be held till the last. The support company would be employed for counter-attack purposes in the event of the enemy gaining a footing in our positions ; and the success of the defence would clearly depend on the rapidity and skill with which this local reserve was used. The right flank of the Brigade front was further strengthened by the 10th Londons, who were temporarily attached in Brigade reserve.
On the 21st the Battalion suffered a severe loss in the adjutant, Capt. F. W. Walker, D.S.O., who was wounded, his duties being taken by Lieut. S. A. Seys, the assistant adjutant. On the 23rd Capt. Hetley was attached to the 131st French Divisional Headquarters as liaison officer, and his company was handed over temporarily to Capt. W. C. Morton.
The same day information was obtained from Alsatian deserters that the enemy attack would take place at dawn the following morning.
We may restate the distribution of companies in the trenches as follows :
In Front — No. 2 (Askham) on the right.
No. 1 (Morton) in the centre.
No. 4 (Grimsdell) on the left.
In Snpport— No. 3 (Hettler).
By an extraordinary chance the enemy was yet once more favoured by the weather, for, when his barrage dropped on our lines at 4 a.m. on the 24th April with bitter intensity and great accuracy, the day was dawning on a dense mist which impeded observation beyond a radius of about 50 yards. The bombardment was severe, and in the area of forward battery positions included gas shell.
The attack appears to have developed at widely different hours in different parts of the line : the S.O.S. was received from the 8th Division on the left as early as 5.40 a.m., and from Hangard at 6 a.m., but it was not until 6.20 a.m. that reports indicated that the 173rd Brigade front was generally engaged. On the 2/4th Battalion front all was ready to receive the advancing waves of German infantry, but it must be admitted that some of the stoutest hearts were filled with something approaching dismay when out of the fog, at a distance of 40 to 50 yards, loomed the weird forms of German tanks.
So far as can be ascertained about six tanks were directed on the 2/4th Battalion's sector, and it was the only Battalion of the Brigade against which they advanced. The tanks seem to have been uncertain of their bearings in the mist and not too skilfully handled. One at least devoted its energies to describing small circles, firing wildly into the ground where none of our troops were posted.
In spite of this unskilful manoeuvring, however, there is no doubt that the sudden appearance of these monsters shook our defence for a moment, and the men fell back a short distance. They remained perfectly under control, and were rapidly rallied by their officers a short distance in rear of the front trench, after which the German infantry, advancing in three waves close behind the tanks, were hotly engaged with rifle and Lewis gun fire, which inflicted heavy loss on them. Askham was hit about twenty minutes after the attack began, and after his departure to the Aid Post charge of affairs in the firing line, so far as control was possible over a wide front in the mist, was assumed by Morton of No. 1 Company. The first news of what was occurring in front was received at Battalion Headquarters from Morton in a message timed 6.30 a.m. : " Tanks have crossed front line trenches, front line has fallen back, have rallied them at Coy. H.Q. line."
Steadily the tanks pressed our line back though our retirement was carried out gradually and at ghastly loss to the German infantry ; and finally Morton was able to collect all available men of the 2/4th Battalion in the Cachy Switch.
The support company put up a good fight — ^Hettler was hit early — and eventually was nearly surrounded ; but it cut its way out and managed also to gain the Cachy Switch. The Divisional records time our retirement to the Cachy Switch at 7.40 a.m., but there seems no doubt that the Battalion's resistance was much more prolonged than this would indicate. Certainly Morton was not able to report the organisation of his new position till 10.15 a.m. By this time only about one hundred men of the Battalion with three subalterns. Prince, Sheppard and Ewing, were under Morton's hand, though others rejoined later. The 2/4th Battalion's retirement had involved the risk of leaving the left flank of the 2/2nd Londons on its right in the air, but this Battalion conformed to our movement, though a gap ensued between the two units. This was promptly filled by Brigade, who sent forward a company of the 2/lOth Londons. By midday our line was more or less stabilised on a line from the Cachy Switch immediately in front of Cachy village along the Hangard Road. This meant that Hangard Wood was lost, and from the left flank the bad news was also received that Villers-Bretonneux had fallen into the enemy's hands.
Beyond artillery activity no further action of importance occurred on the Battalion's front during the afternoon, which was busily occupied in forming a line of shell hole defences in the new position and in feeling out to the flanks to gain touch with adjoining units.
This was the only occasion on which either Battalion of the regiment was called on to face tanks. There can be no question as to the tremendous moral effect of these machines, though their actual destructiveness — handled as they were — was not great. Under the conditions of mist which prevented any warning of their approach, and the conglomerate composition of the Battalion, a little initial unsteadiness on the part of the less trained elements of the Battalion was almost to be expected in face of such an ordeal. The rapid recovery and steady rearguard fight back to the Cachy line, however, showed that after the first shock the innate discipline of the Londoner asserted itself and the number of enemy dead counted on the field was evidence of the heavy cost to the Germans of their success.
2/Lieut. Ewing should be mentioned. " His behaviour was splendid throughout. During the preliminary bombardment he was constantly up and down his sector encouraging his men, and when the enemy ultimately appeared his fire orders were clear and effective." He was awarded the M.C., as was also Capt. Morton, who displayed throughout the day marked qualities of leadership and coolness, Pte. Petrie, a stretcher-bearer who gained the M.M., exhibited an utter disregard of personal danger in pursuing his work of bringing in and tending wounded.
The heavy casualties sustained this day in " missing " were due to the fact that in retirement the Battalion was forced to leave many men, who might otherwise have been saved, in the enemy's hands. But the R.A.M.C. staff under Lieut. Dunaway worked magnificently under heavy shell fire till the last moment, thereby retrieving many wounded men who must otherwise have been captured.
We have already pointed to the great importance of Villers-Bretonneux in the defence of Amiens, and it is not surprising therefore that its loss was followed by an immediate order from Army Headquarters that it must be recaptured at all costs.
The counter-attack was delivered at 10 p.m. on the 24th April by the 9th Londons, the 54th Brigade and the Australians. Villers-Bretonneux again passed into our hands, while on the 58th Division's front the line was advanced about half-way forward from the Cachy Switch to the original front line.
During the 25th April the 2/4th Battalion was not engaged, though it was all day long subjected to severe artillery fire, which inflicted a good many casualties. On the evening of the 25th the 2/4th Battalion was relieved by troops of the French Moroccan Division, and withdrew on relief to bivouacs in open country east of Boves.
The casualties of the two days' action were :
2/Lieut. J. W. Docking, killed; Capts, S. G, Askham, M.C.,
B. H. C. Hettler, M.C., 2/Lieuts. S. F. G. Hears, P. J. Payne and L. H. Sheppard, wounded ; 2/Lieuts. S. C. Geering and C. W. Cumner, missing ; and in N.C.O.'s and men 23 killed, 108 wounded and 203 missing.
During the 26th April the Moroccan Division continued the counter-attack, and at the end of the day the line was substantially restored to its position prior to the German attack.
This was the last serious German attempt to reach Amiens. The line had bent perilously, but the offensive in this area had been fought to a standstill. At this point, therefore, we may leave the 2/4th Battalion and deal with the defence of Arras, in which the l/4th Battalion bore a part.