The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919
THE HUNDRED DAYS — FIRST BATTLES
The German offensive had spent itself for the time being at the end of April, but the British Army had been seriously weakened numerically and strategically. Every effort was strained to make good the grave impairment of the Allied positions by the loss of the full use of the important junctions of Amiens, Bethune and Hazebrouck, which had been brought under the effective fire of the enemy's guns ; and incessant labour was applied to the construction of a new defensive system. Between April and August these were the most important preoccupations of the British Army ; and to such purpose were their energies directed that at the end of the period over 200 miles of broad gauge track had been laid, and " a complete series of new defensive lines had been built, involving the digging of 5,000 miles of trench." Apart from these labours, the period saw many operations of a minor character, and witnessed a definite and significant change as the inevitable phase of active defence approached its close.
Though the Royal Fusiliers delivered numerous raids, in only one of the minor operations mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's despatches did any of them figure. Many of them shared one experience which will not easily be forgotten. An epidemic of influenza played havoc with the troops in June. Thus between the 16th and 21st June inclusive some yy officers and men of the 1st Battalion went sick, and other Royal Fusilier battalions also had a sick-rate that began to resemble the malaria inroads in the Balkans.
The Lys. — In the attack of June 3rd, when the Mont de Merris was captured, the 2nd Battalion co-operated by capturing Lug Farm. Major Tower and Second Lieutenant Stokes went out after dark on the night of June 2nd and taped the assembly positions. The attack was delivered by Y Company, commanded by Second Lieutenant W. E. Stokes, at i a.m., and in twenty-seven minutes the capture of the farm was signalled. Fifteen prisoners were taken, and a considerable amount of equipment. The position was consolidated by daylight, and was improved on the following night, when the Lewis-gun posts were pushed out eastwards to conform to the general alignment. The small operation, which was carried out with great rapidity and at a small cost, won the congratulations of the corps, divisional and brigade commanders. The latter wrote : " It upholds the finest traditions of your regiment."
On the night of June 14th another operation took place in the Lys area. The 4th Battalion were still lying on the southern face of the salient made by the German advance, and the purpose of the attack was to secure better positions across the canal. The ground was open, and the chances of success depended upon the possibility of securing the advantage of complete surprise. It was accordingly planned to strike at night and without preliminary bombardment. Dumps of material for consolidation and two days' rations were accumulated across the canal in case the enemy's barrage should prevent movement across it ; and after dark on the night of the 14th the position of the canal foot bridges was changed.
SUCCESSFUL RAIDS, JULY, 1918
The 4th Royal Fusiliers with three platoons of the Northumberland Fusiliers represented the 9th Brigade on the right of the attack, and there were two other battalions of the 3rd Division on their left. Zero was at 11.45 p.m., and the barrage was intense and accurate. It lifted after about eight minutes, and the battalion advanced, X Company (Captain Mabbott, M.C.) being on the left, and Z (Captain Lord, D.S.O., M.C.) on the right, with W (Captain Attewell) in support to both companies. Advancing in three shallow columns, wearing white armlets, the men quickly reached their objective.
On the extreme left of the battalion Lieutenant Brasher's platoon was held up for a time before a machine-gun post, but the garrison were eventually bombed out. One platoon of Y Company, under Second Lieutenant B. D. Robertson, with two platoons of the Northumberland Fusiliers, attacked and cleared two posts in the German front line. By dawn the objective had been taken and consolidated. The line had been lifted forward an average distance of 500 yards, support posts had been dug (by W Company), about 60 prisoners and 7 machine guns had been taken, and the battalion were in touch with the units on both flanks. The total casualties were 3 officers and 94 other ranks. But the operation had been very successful, and the battalion received the congratulations of the divisional commander.
* * * *
During the month of July the 7th Battalion were exceptionally active and daring in their raids. They were still in the Mailly area, and their raids were instrumental in causing the whole divisional front to be advanced. A raiding party on the night of July 4th did considerable damage in the German front line, killed 5 and captured 4 of the enemy for a casualty list of 1 wounded. Sergeant West became separated from the main body of the patrol. He had taken a prisoner, and the two wandered about in No Man's Land. They were completely lost, but West stuck to his prisoner and at length brought him in to the Drake Battalion. West was awarded the M.M. for this exploit. This and further raids during the month won the congratulations of the G.O.C. division, and the front of the division was carried forward about 400 yards. On July 27th, when the new forward positions had been taken up, the battalion received the following message : " The divisional commander is extremely pleased with the good patrolling work done by the 7th Battalion Royal Fusiliers during their last tour of duty in the trenches, which reflects great credit on the officers and other ranks concerned. He is also pleased with the manner in which this battalion advanced their line and occupied the forward posts in the vicinity of Hamel on the night of 22nd — 23rd, which was also very creditable."
The men had never lost their spirit even in the darkest moments, and this increased activity and growing success on various parts of the front indicated the approach to equilibrium through the waning of the German superiority. Some excitement was caused when, on the 29th July, the C.O. of the 2nd Battalion received a wire stating that the French had captured 500,000 prisoners and 600 guns. The battalion were enjoying a concert during a period of training. No one knew whence the news had come, but it seemed appropriate and obviously acceptable, so it was read out. It was discovered later that the signallers had been sending a test wire ! But these were days when such stories appeared good enough to be true. General Mangin had delivered the great counter-attack which, threatening the German communications in the Marne salient, compelled a retreat under risky conditions. The plans for the attack destined to disengage Amiens were soon to be put to the test.
GERMAN ATTACK, AUGUST 6th
The Battle of Amiens. — The share of the Royal Fusiliers in the great battle that first, beyond all ambiguity, marked the turn of the tide, is apt to be overlooked, sharing in the quite undeserved criticism that has been applied to the work of the 3rd Corps on this occasion. By an unfortunate coincidence the Germans anticipated the advance of the 3rd Corps, and the nth Royal Fusiliers lost very heavily in this undesigned prelude to the Fourth Army advance. A reorganisation of the sector north of the Somme was in progress in the early morning of August 6th when the Germans suddenly attacked. This part of the front had been the scene of a striking Australian victory on July 29th, and the fresh 27th Wurttemberg Division had been brought down from the Lille area to restore the moral of the neighbouring troops by a sharp local attack. To the normal difficulties of a relief were added those of a side-stepping relief. The Bedfordshires were relieved by troops of the 58th Division, and they themselves were engaged in relieving the East Surreys lying to the north. The attack in such circumstances was assured of success ; and, in fact, it penetrated about half a mile into the British positions and secured 200 prisoners. This was not the worst of the attack, for it had changed the starting point of the infantry and also the artillery programme for August 8th. An attempt was therefore made to restore the original situation, though even this prejudiced the battle of Amiens by exhausting troops who were to have taken part in the advance.
During the night of 6th — 7th a persistent drizzle fell, and the trenches were filled with mud. The counter-attack was delivered by two companies of the nth Royal Fusiliers, north of the Bray road, with one company each of the Bedfords and Northants, of the same brigade. But misfortune continued faithful. B Company, on the left of the nth Battalion, could not locate the unit on their left, and the gap of 300 yards in this part of the front had to be filled up by two platoons. The whole plan was vitiated by this mischance. When the barrage opened at 4.40 a.m. the company had 300 yards of front more than had been allocated to them. An attempt to advance with two platoons proved a failure, and the men returned without taking the objective. In effect they filled the role which had been given to a company of the East Surreys on the left. D Company, in command of Captain P. Baker, had meanwhile captured their objective.
But the barrage died down at 5.10 a.m., and at 6 o'clock four attacks were delivered by the Wurttemberg troops. All of these were beaten off, but one platoon, having exhausted their bombs, had to fall back. The enemy gained a footing in Cloncurry Trench, the German front line, and began to bomb down it. Private Maloney's Lewis gun had been knocked out by a direct hit from a trench mortar ; but after a search he discovered another, and promptly bringing it into action, checked the enemy advance. Both flanks of D Company were now in the air, but Captain Baker held on until all his bombs were exhausted and only three men remained. He was wounded, but crawled back and reorganised Croydon Trench. Lieutenant Wixcey with two platoons of B Company pushed up this trench shortly afterwards and recaptured part of Cloncurry Trench. They were working north and south when another heavy German attack at 3 p.m., after a sharp fight, pushed them back. The brigade had decided to make a carefully prepared counter-attack in the evening, but before this could be rearranged officers on the spot delivered a counter-attack, which completely exhausted the battalion ; and at the end of the day they had to fall back to the original positions. Many were the acts of gallantry in this action. Captain Baker was awarded the M.C., as also were Second Lieutenants Measures and Ross for their courage and skill. Private Maloney secured the M.M. But the net effect of the gallantry and skill was not to be measured by positions. The battalion inflicted heavy loss on the enemy, and thus had their part in the success of the morrow without the glamour which that victory threw over the battle.
The 9th Royal Fusiliers were lent with their brigade to the 1 8th Division to take the place of the 54th Brigade, who, as we have seen, had been badly handled on the two preceding days. They had had no time for preliminary reconnaissance of the ground, and the Somme Valley, with its gashes of deep ravines, was pre-eminently an area for careful study. The early morning was very misty, and with the night's gas bombardment this proved an additional handicap. The tanks were rather effectively mixed up through these conditions, and the 9th Battalion had to attack without them. The battalion were assembled on the starting line by 3.30 a.m., but three officers and the bulk of two platoons had been placed hors de combat by the heavy shelling while moving up. Indeed, the enemy expected a counter-attack after their advance on the 6th, and the element of surprise was unfortunately lacking on the sector which most needed some adventitious counter-poise to its inherent difficulties.
ADVANCE ON AUGUST 8th
Zero was at 4.20 a.m., and the barrage fell ten minutes earlier. At this moment the men could see only about ten yards ahead owing to the mist. Yet in these conditions A and B Companies promptly gained the first objective, and D and C passed through to the second battalion objective, i.e., the first objective for the day. The 53rd Brigade then passed through towards their objective, assisting in their stride in establishing the units on the first. But a prompt German counter-attack drove them back, and in the afternoon the 9th Battalion found that they were holding the front line. This was a little to the west of the first objective of the day ; and in this position the battalion consolidated in touch with troops on the right, and eventually with the 5th Royal West Kents on the left. They had lost 6 officers, including Lieutenant W. E. Hill and Second Lieutenants R. T. Eagar and A. Nicholson, killed, and 350 other ranks ; but they had captured 300 prisoners, 30 machine guns, and 8 trench mortars. Taking into account the extraordinarily difficult conditions under which they attacked, this must be held a very creditable performance.
To the south the 174th Brigade (58th Division) played a similar role to that of the nth Royal Fusiliers, and the 173rd or Fusilier Brigade went through towards the second objective of the day. The three battalions were all engaged in this phase of the battle. The thick fog nearer the river caused the 3rd Londons to lose direction, and they became involved in fighting before the 174th Brigade had gained their objective. Battalion head-quarters pushed forward and attacked the quarry beyond Malard Wood. After a sharp struggle they captured four machine guns and over 70 prisoners. But when the first objective had been captured by the 174th Brigade, the 3rd Londons were already too weak to go further. The 2/4th, on the left of the 3rd Londons, fared no better ; and a final attack of the 3rd, 2/4 and 2/2 Londons in the evening, though it carried them on to the Chipilly Spur could not achieve success. An outpost line was taken up during the night. On the following day the attack was renewed. At 5.40 p.m. the three battalions moved forward again, and captured Celestine Wood and Chipilly Spur, north of Chipilly. They were relieved on the 10th, by which time they had lost 680 officers and men. On this day, while the 3rd Londons were in close support, Lieut. -Colonel S. E. Saunders, M.C., was severely wounded, a serious loss to the battalion.
Morlancourt fell on the 9th, and the 9th Royal Fusiliers moved to the east of the village to consolidate. At 10 p.m. on August 10th they too were relieved and moved back to the old British front and support lines north-west of Morlancourt.
Further action on this part of the front was of a local character. The 9th Battalion on August 13th took part in a useful little engagement, which gave their division a foothold on the highest part (Hill 105) of the ridge which rises above Morlancourt, Dernancourt and Meaulte. The attack was delivered at 4.55 a.m., covered by a heavy barrage, and was immediately successful. But a German counter-attack drove back the 7th Sussex on the Fusiliers' right, and the 9th Battalion, retaining their positions, swung round their right flank to the original front line, where they achieved contact with the Sussex. This small engagement cost the 9th Battalion only four casualties, all wounded.
CAPTURE OF ABLAINZEVILLE, AUGUST 21st
The Battle of Bapaume. — The resistance of the enemy in front of the Fourth Army having stiffened, Sir Douglas Haig determined to transfer the front of attack to the sector north of the Somme, where an attack seemed unexpected, and " it was arranged that on the morning of the 2 1st August a limited attack should be launched north of the Ancre to gain the general line of the Arras-Albert railway, on which it was correctly assumed that the enemy's main line of resistance was sited."* The forward positions across the Ancre, including Beaumont-Hamel, Serre, Puisieux and Bucquoy, had been evacuated a week before. The 13th and 10th Royal Fusiliers formed up in the newly recovered ground ; and at 4.55 a.m. the 13th, lying south-west of Bucquoy, for a loss of only 13 captured their objectives, which consisted of part of the high ground east of Bucquoy and Ablainzeville.
The 10th Royal Fusiliers had a more eventful day, though their right companies, B and D, reached their objectives and consolidated within thirty-five minutes. B's role was to move south of the village of Ablainzeville, followed by D, and assist in cutting off the village from the east. The heavy ground mist enabled the men to assemble un-observed, and very little opposition was encountered. C and A Companies pushed through the village with eight tanks, C on the left and A on the right. The latter also had a very quiet journey, and cleared their part of the village without a casualty. C, on the other hand, was under machine-gun fire from the very beginning. The starting point lay so near the village that the north-west corner escaped the barrage. But after a brisk fight, assisted by the tanks, the village was completely cleared, 56 prisoners (including 2 officers), six machine guns, and one trench mortar were captured.
In the second stage of the advance the fog proved a greater handicap than in the first phase. The leading brigades of the 63rd Division who passed through to continue the advance became confused. It was difficult for the platoons, in artillery formation, to keep in touch. The tanks lost their bearings, and when the brigades re-formed for attack their barrage had stopped, and they were held up. The 7th Royal Fusiliers with the 190th Brigade passed through the leading brigades, and with some difficulty were able to consolidate positions on a line parallel with the southern edge of Logeast Wood. But this was not achieved until soon after dark. Meanwhile the 23rd Royal Fusiliers, starting at zero from before Ayette, advanced about 2,000 yards to Aerodrome Trench.
At this point the 3rd Division passed through the 2nd, and with them went the 4th Royal Fusiliers. The battalion had already suffered heavily on the way up to assembly positions when in a burst of shell fire they lost their CO., Lieut. -Colonel Hartley, severely wounded, another officer and 50 other ranks. The whole brigade, moreover, found the greatest difficulty in finding their positions in the Blue Line, secured by the 2nd Division. By a diligent use of the compass they at length arrived, after reducing a few machine-gun posts on the way. For the next stage of the advance the 4th Battalion were in the rear of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, the right battalion of the 3rd Division.
Very little opposition was encountered in reaching the railway, but in the 2,500 yards between it and the Blue Line the utmost difficulty was experienced in keeping touch with the other units. The 4th Battalion completely lost the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, and advancing by compass, marched direct upon the railway, which they reached before the " leading " battalion. They were then lying some 2,000 yards east of the north-east corner of Logeast Wood. But the 63rd Division had not come up on their right. The right front (Y, Captain Royle, M.C.) and support (Z, Lieutenant Evans) companies both lost their commanders ; and Lieutenant F. A. Hicks, M.C. was also killed. By 10.20 a.m. the Northumberland Fusiliers were signalling that the railway crossings were fit for whippets. The position was established and consolidated, with the Northumberlands* right flank drawn back from the railway towards Logeast Wood.
THE CROSSING OF THE ANCRE
The 4th Royal Fusiliers were now drawn back to support. During the following day several attacks were delivered on the new positions, and shortly after noon the Germans pushed into the gap between the right of the 3rd Division and the left of the 63rd Division. The 7th Royal Fusiliers found their position turned, and there was a fierce struggle before the gap was filled and the original line restored. The day was very hot, and the 7th Battalion suffered much from lack of water and small arm ammunition. The expenditure of ammunition was very heavy, and the arrangements for supply by aeroplane did not work very well. Some was dropped in No Man's Land, some in Logeast Wood, where it could not be found. At one point the battalion had to borrow 3,000 rounds from the Bedfords, and at 6 p.m. the brigade supplied 20,000 rounds.
Of the heavy casualties suffered in these two days the bulk in the 2nd Division units were caused by gas. The 17th Royal Fusiliers, who were in support, had 92 casualties from this cause, and the 23rd Battalion lost 14 officers and 369 men. Gas does not seem to have proved so terrible a weapon to other units ; and this, with the strange differences of movement and achievement among the troops, goes to round off an attack which, though successful in the main, reads like failure in the detailed experience of many of the battalions who carried it out.
But on this day, August 22nd, the attack was extended according to plan. The Third Army advance had brought their front forward to positions before Achiet le Grand and along the north bank of the Ancre. The action of August 22nd on the Fourth Army front was designed to bring forward their left in preparation for a joint attack of both armies on August 23rd. The enemy had to be driven out of his positions in and around Albert, and the nth Royal Fusiliers were involved in the capture of the ground between Meaulte and Albert. They had first to cross the Ancre, and the trestle bridges made by the R.E. were placed in position on the night of August 21st. It was bright moonlight, and many of the men seemed to regard the undertaking as a joke. As a consequence the attention of the enemy was aroused, and the men came under a heavy machine-gun fire. Private F. G. Hughes, finding one of the bridges could not be placed for this reason, jumped into the river and pulled the bridge into position, despite the concentrated fire from three machine guns.
The patrols anticipated the barrage, and seizing a foot-hold on the Albert-Meaulte road above Vivier Mill, enabled the nth Battalion to cross the Ancre and form up on this road. In front of them lay a belt of marshy ground which, outside a few paths, was quite impassable. Frequently the men had to wade with the water up to their hips, and Sergeant Ryan, seeing two platoons held up in the marsh, went back under an intense fire and guided them by a path to the German position. C.S.M. Balchin reorganised his company under similar conditions, and headed the assault on the first position. Wounded men were in danger of drowning ; but the gallantry of Private C. Smith, in charge of the stretcher-bearers, saved many by repeatedly crossing the treacherous ground, despite the enemy's fire. The battalion, through these and other acts of cool courage, carried their front to about 500 yards east of Bellevue Farm, with their left bent back to Black Wood. Until the brigade on their left got through Albert no further progress could be made, and the battalion were relieved in these positions.
A little to the south the 9th Royal Fusiliers went forward on a front of 1,000 yards to a depth of 2,500 yards, keeping pace on their left with the 5th Royal Berks, who captured and cleared up Meaulte. The 9th Royal Fusiliers, with an easier task, overcame the resistance in their front readily, and for a total casualty list of 83 captured 100 prisoners, twelve machine guns and four trench mortars. Unfortunately among the casualties were Lieutenant H. A. Kilmister, Second Lieutenant L. F. Wade, and Second Lieutenant A. H. King killed ; and the experience of the day proved the need of officers.
FIGHTING AT BULLECOURT, AUGUST, 1918
Bullecourt. — On the following day the main attack was launched as far north as Mercatel, and by the end of the month the British positions on this front had changed remarkably. The 1st, 2nd and 4th Londons — 56th Division — had in front of them a region of country that
had never yielded much to the repeated assaults of both British and German troops. At the beginning of the German offensive the front had only been some four and a half miles to the east. Over a week's hard fighting was now necessitated to carry the positions over the five miles, including Bullecourt. On the 23rd the 4th Londons were in the centre of the brigade who carried Boyelles and the ground up to Summit Trench, 1,000 yards west of Croisilles. Less than 3,000 yards to the east lay the Hindenburg line, and the 1st Londons pitted B and D Companies against this obstacle on August 24th. But five belts of wire lay in front of them, and the attack was unsuccessful. Fooley Trench (south-west of Fontaine les Croisilles) and Fooley Post provided the objectives for several further abortive attacks. The 1st Londons made an attempt on the 25th, but without success. They were relieved on the following day by the 2nd Londons, who, attacking due east towards the Hindenburg line, captured and cleared Fooley Trench, capturing twelve machine guns and four prisoners. The wounded still remaining in No Man's Land from an earlier counter-attack were collected under fire by a party under Second Lieutenant G. H. Merrikin, who lost his life while so doing. Croisilles, which formed the objective of another unit this day, was as yet unreduced, and the battalion came under heavy enfilade fire from the right, the northern corner of the village. But they fought on against a heavy resistance up Sensee Avenue, when, reduced to 2 officers and 63 other ranks, they were ordered to stand and abandon the attempt to advance further. They consolidated with a line of strong posts. In this battle they lost 9 officers and 199 other ranks.
On March 28th the 4th Londons relieved the 2nd, and they had the distinction of twice fighting through Bulle-court in the next few days. On the 31st, in about half an hour after the beginning of the attack, the left company (D) were half-way through the northern end of the village. The right company (C) were at this time held up, but the support company entered the village and began to " mop up." Slow progress was made, but by 8.40 a.m. the left company were through the northern end of the village and in touch with the Middlesex. The reserve company rilled the gap between the two leading companies, and C Company were able to push through to the east, where they were held up some time by machine guns in a derelict tank. At 3 p.m. the village was clear of the enemy, and Lewis-gun posts were established across the eastern out-skirts. After this very useful attack the battalion were relieved on September 1st. The three battalions of the London Regiment lost in the August operations 38 officers and 805 other ranks, and after the recapture of Bulle-court they were withdrawn to refit.
The Lys. — Meanwhile the rest of the front had changed more rapidly. Even in the Lys area the German gains were being surrendered. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers returned to the sector of the line, which in April had seen their brave but unsuccessful attempts to check the German advance, on August 17th, and two days later co-operated with the attack on Outtersteene Ridge by sending out patrols to Lynde Farm. It was thought that in this sector with a little persuasion the line could be advanced, but a very hot machine-gun fire soon brought disillusion. Second Lieutenant Quinn was killed, with 5 other ranks, while 15 men were wounded. A planned attack was delivered at 5 p.m. on the 19th. The fortified farms Lynde and Lesage were captured ; and W Company, on the right, also assisted the 12th Norfolks in the capture of Labis Farm. The battalion that night held a line in front of the sector of the Vieux Berquin-Outtersteene road, running from the cross roads to the railway. Their total casualty list was 73 killed and wounded, including Second Lieutenants Whyte and Brown killed ; but they took prisoner 1 officer and no men and captured ten machine guns and two trench mortars. On the next two days patrols were pushed forward to Haute Maison, over 1,000 yards due east. No opposition was met, and the forward positions were consolidated.
RECOVERY OF KEMMEL HILL
Kemmel Hill. — A more important readjustment of the line took place before the end of the month on the northern face of the Lys sector. The 26th Royal Fusiliers had moved to this part of the front at the end of June, their division relieving the French troops who were then holding it. When they went into the front line on July 10th the defences still showed signs of bitter fighting. The front line companies held shallow rifle pits without any communications. They were consequently confined to their positions during the long summer days, and could only leave them in the brief hours of darkness. Even then the commanding position of Kemmel Hill made movement risky. Despite all handicaps, Second Lieutenants Hector and Freemantle took out a raiding party of B Company towards the end of the month and secured the necessary identifications.* They were relieved by American troops on July 31st, but returned to the line on August 29th. They were due to be relieved on August 31st, but on the preceding evening they were very heavily shelled. About 9 p.m. the barrage appeared to be directed on the German front line positions ; and, appreciating the significance of this procedure at once, the commanding officer sent out patrols under Second Lieutenant K. B. Legg and Second Lieutenant F. J. Quinton. The German front line was reported evacuated, and it was inferred that the Germans were abandoning Kemmel Hill. The relief was cancelled ; and C Company, under Lieutenant W. Willson, were ordered to follow up the retirement. They began to move forward before dawn, and were half-way up the western slope before they met with any opposition. A very heavy machine-gun fire was then experienced from the left, and the company were halted while scouts went forward. At 10.30 a.m. C and D Companies crossed the hill and advanced down the eastern slopes. In the lower ground the enemy could be seen retiring covered by small rear-guards. The 26th Battalion now formed part of an organised advance ; and they rapidly pushed eastwards about a mile and a half, in which position they were relieved in the morning of September ist. The only casualties were two men wounded in one of the most bitterly contested areas on the whole of the front, a striking indication of the different tempo of the fighting. The Lys front was yielding, and the 2nd Battalion advanced on August 31st and September ist to a line from La Becque to a point about 1,000 yards due west of La Creche. The German guns had been moved back, and only a few shells and occasional snipers met the troops as they advanced.
* Both these officers received the M.C.
Meanwhile the main attack had been delivered to the south. On August 23rd the 4th Royal Fusiliers were to advance with the general movement of the 3rd Division. As the 76th Brigade moved on Gomiecourt at 4 a.m., the 9th were to complete the capture of the railway. The 2nd Division were to pass through the 3rd Division at 11 a.m. with the 37th Division on their right ; but at 10.20 a.m. the 9th Brigade were ordered to fill the gap between the 2nd and 37th Divisions, the Northumberland Fusiliers being followed by the 4th Royal Fusiliers. The Northumberland Fusiliers accordingly advanced about a mile beyond the railway and the 4th Royal Fusiliers closed up to the west side of the line.
The 24th Royal Fusiliers, who went through with the 2nd Division at 11 a.m., met with a heavy artillery fire at once. In crossing the railway they also suffered from rifle fire directed from a small post on their right. Gomie-court was left on the south, and the battalion swung to the right in the face of a heavy fire from all arms. Their way was pitted by 8-inch shells, and machine-gun fire met them on both flanks. The conditions, in fine, were almost intolerable ; but the battalion went through the barrage, cool, unhurried, unfaltering, and, with the Highland Light Infantry, they reached and consolidated the ridge west of Behagnies. Here a field gun, limbers, and eight horses were captured, with much booty, including a number of valuable documents.
THE 13TH BATTALION'S FINE SUCCESS
C Company of the 17th Battalion, advancing in support of the 1st King's attack a little to the north, captured five 77-mm. guns. The 23rd Battalion provided a composite company, who also attacked in this sector of the front, and succeeded in securing positions just west of Sapignies.
Achiet le Grand. — The 13th Royal Fusiliers, attacking on the south-west, had a more stirring time. No. 2 Company, under Captain Whitehead, M.C.,* on the left front, skilfully turned the brickworks west of Achiet le Grand, capturing 60 prisoners and n light machine guns ; but No. 3 Company, on the right, met with intense machine-gun fire on the top of the railway embankment. The Germans were in good cover, and could not be easily located. The attack was held up temporarily, and then, under cover of a heavy and sustained fire, the men were enabled to crawl up the embankment and enfilade the enemy. A Lewis-gun team rushed across and took the Germans in the rear. Indeed, this was a fight of fights. The team were picked off one by one, but not before they had so demoralised the Germans that a sudden rush finished the struggle. The cutting was like a rabbit warren. It was simply alive with Germans, and their surrender was almost embarrassing. Dug-out after dug-out was cleared. One of them disgorged a German staff, including an officer who spoke English. He was promptly pressed into service, and went round with the mopping-up party. His authoritative orders to come out and surrender were obeyed with alacrity. Out of this cutting at least 400 Germans were taken, with many light and heavy machine guns. The position had been thought so secure that in one of the dug-outs a meal had just been taken. Hot coffee lay on the table. It was one of the greatest days experienced by the battalion, and their right flank was apparently in the air. Patrols were sent down for 1,000 yards without locating any other troops. The cutting was crossed, and the advance was resumed. Through the battalion's collecting station that day over 1,000 prisoners passed, and the battalion's casualties from the 21st to the 27th inclusive were little more than a fifth of this number. Captain J. Marguard and Second Lieutenant A. McCarthy were killed in this engagement, and 5 officers were wounded.
* He received the D.S.O. for his services on this day.
The 10th Royal Fusiliers passed through to attack Achiet le Grand at 1.30 p.m., after the village had been bombarded for an hour. D Company were on the left, A on the right, with B in the centre. The village held a large German garrison ; but apparently the crushing of the resistance in the cutting to the west, combined with the bombardment, had broken their morale, for Second Lieutenant W. F. Smith With his platoon, only 19 strong, alone captured 118 of the enemy. The village was soon cleared and the battalion advanced to the east ; but their right flank was in the air and so continued throughout the day and night. About 200 yards south of the village the enemy were still in possession of a strong post, and a heavy machine-gun fire was kept up from this quarter. The village was also heavily bombarded ; but there were few casualties, as the battalion had withdrawn to the east. On the following day the battalion were relieved and went back to the dug-outs in the cutting which had been so skilfully cleared by the 13th Royal Fusiliers.
Behagnies. — The attack of the 24th Royal Fusiliers on August 23rd carried the battalion to the ridge west of Behagnies, while the 23rd Battalion were moving to the threshold of Sapignies. On the 25th Behagnies, Sapignies, and Favreuil were attacked, the first and last by the Royal Fusiliers to whom they fell. In effect, the troops were aiming at the northern flank of Bapaume. On the 24th the 17th Royal Fusiliers had co-operated in the attack upon Mory. The contribution of the regiment to the successes of the 25th was more significant. The 24th Battalion had spent a day in reorganisation and preparation for the resumption of the attack. The assault began at 3.30 a.m., and was a complete surprise. Behagnies was strongly held, and there were no machine guns. But the troops followed the barrage so closely that they were upon the positions before the elaborate defences could be manned. Many of the men were sleeping in their dug-outs. These for the most part recognised the inevitable and surrendered. Some who attempted to escape were promptly shot down. The support company did their work of mopping up thoroughly and expeditiously, while the leading companies pushed through the village towards their objective, the ridge about 300 yards east of Behagnies. This was occupied and put into a state of defence ; and the support company, having completed their work in the village, took up positions to guard the southern approaches. Many young and untried troops took part in this action. It was their first battle, but they behaved with all the sang froid of veterans. At 6 p.m. the village was completely in the hands of the battalion with 200 prisoners, a number which exceeded the total casualties of the battalion for the two days' operations.
CAPTURE OF FAVREUIL, AUGUST 25th
Favreuil. — In the afternoon of the same day the 10th Royal Fusiliers moved up in support to their brigade, passing through a heavy barrage straight to Favreuil. Five hundred yards west of the village they found the 13th King's Royal Rifle Corps held up by a heavy machine-gun fire. The battalion were intended to attack from the west and north-west, but under the circumstances such action would have been costly folly. The battalion accordingly moved southward, and achieving a position from which they enfiladed the enemy lying on the west of the village, caused them to surrender. The orchard and north-west corner of the village were still strongly held with numerous machine guns. When darkness fell a concerted attempt was made to reduce these positions. Second Lieutenant C. W. N. Woodcock with a platoon moved along the northern edge of the village. Machine guns opened fire upon them from the orchard, and several were rushed. Another platoon moved through the centre of the village, and established contact with the 13th Rifle Brigade on the east side. This platoon also came under fire from the orchard, but towards midnight the two platoons began to approach each other, and the enemy withdrew under the threat of envelopment. A gap between the 13th Rifle Brigade, 400 yards east of the village, and the New Zealand Division, was filled by two platoons of A Company, under Second Lieutenant A. W. Usher. The village was completely held by 3 a.m. on August 26th, but the battalion had not achieved contact with the 2nd Division on the north. A few hours later they were relieved.
Thilloy. — The 63rd Division on August 26th attempted to capture Thilloy, Ligny Thilloy and Riencourt. But the two brigades devoted to this attack were held up before the first two villages, and in the renewed attack on the following day the 7th Royal Fusiliers advanced with the 4th Bedfords. The day appeared to be out of joint. At 11 a.m. the barrage began, and was short, many casualties being inflicted on the troops assembled for attack. The first assault, launched with such handicaps, produced nothing but further casualties. In the afternoon another attack was delivered, and the troops penetrated into the village of Thilloy. But the battalion were now seriously weakened, and the losses of officers were particularly heavy. The surviving men, being leaderless, at length withdrew ; and the battalion were relieved after a disastrous day.
Towards Peronne. — Meanwhile the Royal Fusiliers in the III. Corps had been heavily engaged against a growing resistance north of the Somme. On August 25th the second line London battalions and the 9th and nth Royal Fusiliers were all involved in the attack. Moving from positions west of Bronfay Farm, the 2/2 and 2/4 Londons pushed well forward to the east of the Carnoy-Suzanne road. The 2/2nd at the end of the day lay astride the Fricourt-Maricourt road east of Carnoy, after capturing Carre Wood and an elaborate trench system ; while the 2/4th held positions to the north-east of Billon Wood, which they had captured after a very fierce struggle. To the north the 9th Royal Fusiliers advanced on a front of 1,200 yards to a depth of about 2,000 yards, carrying the line forward to the south-western edge of Fricourt. Patrols were sent eastward along the north-west edge of Mametz, and reported the village evacuated. Fricourt was also found to be clear of the enemy at the same time, and the division advanced. But this weakening resistance did not confront the nth Royal Fusiliers, who, attempting to capture the high ground in front of Montauban, encountered a most stubborn resistance, and were unable to capture their objectives. The struggle was renewed on the following day, and fighting vigorously across ground where they had first gained their spurs, the battalion pressed into Montauban.
TERRITORIALS CAPTURE MARICOURT
The 3rd Londons on this day (August 26th) represented the Fusilier Brigade. Attacking at very short notice astride the Peronne road, the battalion had gained all objectives by 9.30 a.m. Their final line lay across the western outskirts of Maricourt. B Company, indeed, had entered the village, but had been forced to retire. The village was attacked and carried on the 27th, and on the following day the 2/2 Battalion captured the German positions between Bois d'en Haut and Support Copse, while the 9th Royal Fusiliers, on their left, advanced about 2,000 yards to their objectives. Hardecourt fell to them, and 50 prisoners of various battalions of the 2nd Guards Division with sixteen machine guns. They had suffered heavily from machine-gun fire, but the capture of prisoners from a famous division was an inspiriting performance. The second line Londons on August 26th received a note of well-earned praise from their Brigadier : " The Major-General commanding the division, in congratulating you all, wishes me to tell you that Sir Douglas Haig, the Army Commander, and the Corps Commander, have all expressed the highest praise for the way in which the brigade is fighting. For myself, I cannot say how proud I am to be in command of such a brigade as the Fusilier Brigade."
At 5.15 a.m. on August 30th the nth Royal Fusiliers advanced through the Northants. The preceding day the brigade had gone forward in column of route, the leading companies alone being in open formation, and with little resistance had reached the edge of Combles. But the nth Battalion came under heavy fire and were held up at Priez Farm. By this time this battalion had secured during August 3 officers and 450 other ranks prisoners. They had received a letter of warm congratulation from Sir Henry Rawlinson for their feat in crossing the Ancre, and, indeed, their action had been deserving of all praise.
On August 31st the 4th Battalion, who had moved up to positions south-east of Ecoust, attacked eastwards. Ten minutes before zero the assembly positions were subjected to a heavy shell and machine-gun fire, and there were many casualties ; and when our barrage began, five minutes later, it missed the chief obstacles in the way of the Royal Fusiliers' advance. As a consequence, while the battalions on both flanks advanced with little trouble, the 4th Royal Fusiliers were decisively checked by machine-gun fire from the sunken road, about 250 yards to the east. Z Company made several most gallant attempts to reach these guns, but the men were mown down, and all the officers but one became casualties. The tank which should have assisted in coping with this obstacle caught fire a few minutes before zero. Another tank broke down actually in the road, and a German officer, climbing on top of it, shot or took prisoner the whole of the crew. A machine-gun nest in the south of Ecoust also devoted too much attention to the battalion, who were completely held up. About 8 p.m. the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers cleared the sunken road under a creeping barrage, and before dawn on September 1st the 4th Royal Fusiliers had advanced 1,500 yards. At 6 p.m. on the same day, with only eight casualties, the battalion carried the line still further, clearing the sunken road midway between Longatte and Noreuil. In this operation 70 prisoners and several machine guns and trench mortars were captured.
ADVANCE OF SEPTEMBER 3rd
As a result of the fighting since August 8th, the enemy had been beaten out of his positions over a great stretch of front. " During the night of September 2nd— 3rd he fell back rapidly on the whole front of the Third Army. By the end of the day he had taken up positions along the general line of the Canal du Nord from Peronne to Ytres, and thence east of Hermies, Inchy en Artois and Ecourt St. Quentin to the Sensee east of Lecluse."* The retirement was promptly followed up. At 5.20 a.m. on September 3rd the 17th Royal Fusiliers began to advance. Only two hours before, they had reached the position, relieving another battalion, on a line about 1,000 yards east of Vaux-Vraucourt. With A Company (Captain Ashwell) on the right and B (Captain Sword) on the left, the battalion rapidly advanced to the first objective, about 5,000 yards from their starting point, and they were ordered to resume their progress at 1 p.m. Major Smith, the adjutant, who rode forward to give final instructions, could not locate the battalion at first ; and they did not resume the advance until 2.30 p.m. Doignies was soon passed, but about 1,000 yards to the east they were held up by machine-gun fire from the neighbourhood of Boursies. At this point two platoons of C Company were sent up to make good the casualties in B Company. At 6.20 p.m. the advance was resumed with the help of artillery, and Demicourt was taken. At 6.55 p.m. positions were taken up covering Demicourt and Boursies, which B Company occupied. At the latter village they were in touch with the Guards, and on the left they were in contact with the South Staffords. The battalion had been advancing almost continuously for over thirteen hours, prepared for anything, in verification of an inference of the high command. In this period they had covered some 9,500 yards,| at a total cost of 52 casualties.
The next day the 13th Royal Fusiliers carried on the advance a little to the south, but their progress was more chequered, and at the end of the day they encountered a firm resistance. They set out at 7 a.m. from near Hermies, with the purpose of taking up a line east of Havrincourt. But they had only advanced 200 yards before they were held up by machine-gun and trench-mortar fire from the right flank. But the trench mortars were put out of action and the machine guns compelled to retire, and the advance was continued. The Canal du Nord runs roughly parallel to the railway about 1,100 yards south of Hermies, and then turns northward about 2,000 yards east of the village. Near the bend, on the southern side, is the north-western extension of Havrincourt Wood. At the west corner of the wood a platoon crossed the canal to the south. The 1/1 Herts, who were on the right of the 13th Battalion, were at this point 500 yards in the rear ; and the Royal Fusiliers were suffering from enfilade fire from this quarter. After a halt to enable the Herts to come up the advance was resumed due eastward, and Lewis guns were established on Yorkshire Bank. The right were now once more out of touch, and Germans could be seen moving up in the wood at the bend of the canal. The right company were then withdrawn to the tunnel under the canal a little to the west. On the left the line was established in front of Square Copse, and in the evening touch was achieved with the 2nd Division. The battalion had covered about 2,500 yards in their advance, but under greater difficulties than had faced the 17th Battalion. The next two days patrols were pushed out eastward, and the position consolidated in depth at the same time that it was being advanced.
But the enemy resistance had now definitely hardened on this part of the front, and the 23rd Royal Fusiliers, attacking east of Doignies (September 7th) , suffered very heavily. The Canal du Nord, with the approaches swept by enemy fire, formed a formidable line of resistance. Below, from the neighbourhood of Havrincourt, the main line was the Hindenburg system ; and at this time the Germans held very strong positions, in advance of the main trench system, at Havrincourt and Epehy. Before the attack on the Hindenburg line these outliers had to be taken. It fell to the Royal Fusiliers to put the strength of one of these outposts to the test.
EPEHY-PEZIERES, SEPTEMBER 10th
Epehy. — Epehy-Pezieres forms topographically not two, but one feature, and against this position the Fusilier Brigade of the 58th Division advanced on September ioth. The battalions were all weak, the 2/2 Londons mustering only 17 officers and 481 other ranks before the battle. The 2/2nd and 3rd Londons advanced to the attack at 5.15 a.m. The objective of both battalions was the east of the two villages. Pezieres was to be taken by the 2/2nd, and Epehy by the 3rd Londons. The German line in this sector had been heavily reinforced ; and the Alpine Corps, a body of formidable troops, held the objectives of the Fusiliers' attack. The advance began in a heavy storm of driving rain ; and, despite the stubborn resistance, the objective was gained by both battalions. But such positions could not be reduced in face of the resistance of organised garrisons without a much heavier treatment by artillery and the assistance of tanks. Neither Epehy nor Pezieres was thoroughly mopped up, and as a consequence when the counter-attack came the attacking companies of the 2/2 Londons found themselves surrounded. The men had to fight their way back. They retired on Tottenham Post, in the north-western outskirts of Pezieres, with a loss of 8 officers and 164 other ranks. The 3rd Londons were also compelled to abandon their objective. They had suffered heavily in the advance from fire directed from the trenches south of Epehy. in the afternoon the commanding officer led a bombing attack on these trenches and succeeded in turning the Germans out. The remnants of A and C Companies who, under Captain S. W. Johnson, had held positions on the railway embankment for some time, were forced back by the counter-attack from the railway embankment to a position slightly behind the assembly position. The 3rd Londons lost only 7 officers and 8y other ranks, a sufficiently heavy casualty list for an unsuccessful action, but not half the loss of the sister battalion. The 2/4 Londons, who had been in support and were occupied in mopping up, took 80 prisoners, twenty machine guns, and three anti-tank guns. Owing to the difficulty of replacing the casualties, the 2/4th were amalgamated with the 2/2nd on September 12th.
On September 12th Trescault and Havrincourt were taken, and the 24th Royal Fusiliers became involved in the 2nd Division's attack near Mceuvres. An attempt by the 10th Royal Fusiliers to capture the Bilhen Chapel wood switch on the 14th led to one of the most protracted bitter and evenly contested actions of this phase. For the next few days the troops were rested and exercised in preparation for the larger action against the approaches to the Hindenburg system.
Battle of Epehy. — At 5.20 on the morning of September 1 8th the Fourth and Third Armies struck on a front of about seventeen miles from Holnon to Gouzeau-court. North of the main attack the 13th Royal Fusiliers were engaged on this day in one of those actions that recurred almost to the very end of the war. The assault was launched in a rain storm, and the battalion found themselves held up by a strong belt of wire. The artillery had failed to destroy it, and there were several bombing blocks which had escaped untouched. No headway could be made, although the battalion three times attacked. After this the attempts ceased, and the battalion retired to their original positions.
A few miles farther north the 4th Battalion were heavily attacked by the enemy. At 3.30 p.m. a bombardment of the battery area began, and three-quarters of an hour later the front line and headquarters came unc'er an intense barrage. At 5 p.m. the Germans attacked and succeeded in penetrating the battalion front in three places, pushing vigorously along the sunken road and railway leading into Havrincourt. Captain A. J. Lord, D.S.O., M.C., and Captain Mabbot, M.C., on the right and left fronts respectively, counter-attacked, drove the enemy out and completely re-established the original front line. Captains Smith and Howard, support and reserve, threw the Germans back from the exposed left flank which they had penetrated. Seventy prisoners and five machine guns were captured. Second Lieutenant E. Twigg and 19 other ranks were killed, and there were 52 other casualties ; but the honours of this small engagement remained in the hands of the Royal Fusiliers.
SECOND ATTACK ON EPEHY-PEZIERES
In the main attack the two London battalions again moved against Epehy-Pezieres. The 2/2 Londons were on the left and the 3rd Londons on the right. Despite the bad weather and the most obstinate resistance, the two battalions made excellent progress, and by 10.20 a.m. had cleared Pezieres all but one post. The 2/2 Londons found the second stage of the attack more difficult. They had to cross the tangle of trenches north-west of Pezieres, and very little impression could be made upon Poplar Trench. This trench threw a roughly semicircular loop over the ridge above Catelet Valley, on the road leading north-west from Epehy. At 9 p.m. Captain Whitehead, M.C., attacked it with all the force available, but was only able to establish three posts on the road below the trench. It was attacked again at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on September 19th, and a block was established about half-way up the trench. Another attack at 11 a.m. made but slow progress. At 3 p.m. a platoon under Second Lieutenant A. K. Chesterton reinforced Captain Whitehead's party and did good work, but it was not until 7 p.m. that the whole of the trench had been cleared and touch obtained with the brigade on the right. Every yard had been fiercely contested, and it says much for the 2/2 Londons that their persistence at length wore out a famous German unit. Meanwhile the 3rd Londons had the task of reducing the strong points in Pezieres. Their task was made more difficult by the successful resistance of the Alpine Corps in Epehy. Fisher's Keep, one of the objectives of the 3rd Londons, held out until 7.45 p.m., when only 17 unwounded men remained of the original garrison of 3 officers and 45 men. On September 19th No. 1 Company held four of the enemy posts, and No. 2 had a grip on the railway cutting east of the village.
The 9th Royal Fusiliers moved due east from the railway south of Epehy and north of Ronssoy to their final objective, about 1,500 yards ahead. The battalion on the left lost direction, and when the 9th Royal Fusiliers had reached their final objective, their flanks were in the air. On the right they had been in touch at the first two objectives, but not at the final one ; and the resistance in Epehy disturbed the day's plan. At the end of the day the battalion dug in on their objectives with Lewis guns protecting their flanks. They had captured 1 officer and 65 other ranks from the Alpine Corps and 1st Guard Grenadier Regiment with seven machine guns. Captain W. E. Bott and Second Lieutenant G. S. Lowe, killed, were among the 113 casualties. On September 21st the 9th Royal Fusiliers were again called upon to attack in an endeavour to secure the final objectives of the 18th ; but, despite several gallant attempts, little headway could be made, and the battalion lost very heavily. Eleven officers were lost, three, Second Lieutenants F. C. L. Harrup, M.C., V. H. Isaacs and B. Spence, being killed. These were very important losses, and, with the 270 other ranks casualties, badly weakened the battalion.
Hard fighting was the lot of all these units in this battle, but, for the complexus of difficulties involved, the 11th Royal Fusiliers' role must have been almost unique. The R. W. Rents, attacking with the 54th Brigade, were to capture and hold a line through the eastern outskirts of Ronssoy. The Bedfords were to pass through them and establish a line at the junction of the Bellicourt and Guillemont (farm) roads. The Northants on the left and the nth Royal Fusiliers on the right had then to form up and attack northwards, at right angles to the main line of advance, with May and Lempire among their objectives.
ELEVENTH BATTALION'S HARD TASK
By 7.30 a.m. (September 18th) the nth Battalion were formed up. This alone was no slight matter under the circumstances. In the fog the attacking lines of the three battalions became considerably mixed. Despite the heavy machine-gun fire about Ronssoy, Captain G. E. Cornaby exposed himself freely in order to organise his company ; and this done, he led them forward under the barrage to almost the whole of their objectives. Captain Hornfeck with Captain Cornaby " led his men forward, and, in spite of his exposed right flank and heavy machine-gun and point-blank artillery fire from that direction, succeeded in gaining his objective, capturing two field guns and several trench mortars. On Captain Cornaby becoming a casualty he took command in this area, reorganised round the principal strong points and drove off two counter-attacks."* Some of the men moved throughout the morning to the whistle of the sergeant-major as though in extended order drill. To complete the anomaly, a German prisoner, eating black bread and sausage, insisted on following the sergeant-major, and, all threats notwithstanding, cheerfully continued to do so. But, despite all gallantry and skill, the troops did not reach their final objectives, and when the 55th Brigade attacked through them they, too, could make very little headway. The enemy's resistance on the east of Basse Boulogne and in Lempire could not be overcome.
* Both of these officers gained the M.C.
In order to complete the capture of the objectives of September 18th, the attack was resumed at 5.20 a.m. on the 21st, the nth Royal Fusiliers being in reserve. But about midday two companies, organised as one, were attached to the Bedfords, and they were sent forward against Duncan Post at 12.15 am - on the 22nd. There was a little moonlight, but not much, and the company, losing direction, captured Cat Post (500 yards farther south) and some trench elements, sending back 20 prisoners. There was thus a gap on their left flank. About 1 p.m. the Bedfords carried Duncan Post with a number of prisoners. About ioo Germans attempted to escape eastwards, and the attached Fusiliers gave chase. In the midst of this incident our barrage came down to break up a counter-attack farther north, and some of the Fusiliers were caught in it. Somehow out of the confusion a solid achievement emerged, and the ground was cleared for the general offensive.