The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919
THE HUNDRED DAYS — LAST BATTLES
The battles which began with the Franco-American attack north of Verdun on September 26th logically opened a new and the last phase of the war. The general offensive consisted of a series of converging attacks which ' depended in a peculiarly large degree upon the British attack in the centre. It was here that the enemy's defences were most highly organised. If these were broken, the threat directed at his vital systems of lateral communication would of necessity react upon his defence elsewhere."* Yet it must be evident that the British armies entered upon this critical phase weary and weakened from the almost continual fighting from August 8th. The engagements fought, now here, now there, by the various battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, under great stress and with heavy casualties, are in their way a fairly just indication of the state of the Army generally. But when Sir Douglas Haig decided to embark upon the new offensive against a defensive system of extraordinary strength, he recognised that never had the morale of the British troops been higher. This confidence had been fed by a long series of victories, and as the last phase developed it was inflamed by the successive defection of Germany's allies and the German efforts to obtain an armistice.
But it must not be thought that the Germans did not fight very valiantly through the greater part of this period, though the resistance was " patchy." Almost to the end some of the Royal Fusilier battalions had to make their way against very heavy righting ; and it is part of the difficulty of describing these last days that in some places the battalions covered great distances without meeting any real resistance over ground that seemed to offer every evidence of enforced and hasty retreat, through scenes and experiences entirely novel, while others fought numerous heavy battles, and could make little headway against the defensive.
CAPTURE OF RIBECOURT, SEPTEMBER 27th
September 27th. — The British offensive on the St. Quentin-Cambrai front was not launched as one great attack. The defence was more formidable on the southern half of the front, and the British artillery on this sector laboured under a handicap until the Hindenburg line and the approaches to Cambrai had been won. In order to assist the Fourth Army attack, Sir Douglas Haig, therefore, struck first between Gouzeaucourt and Sauchy-Lestree on September 27th. On the extreme north of the front of attack the 2nd Londons, who on the preceding night had assembled midway between Villers-lez-Cagincourt and Baralle, advanced to the canal and waited there while the Canadians cleared up Marquion. They then crossed the canal, headed by D Company under Captain D. Sloan, moved through the village and advanced to the first objective. D Company encountered some resistance on the canal line, and B, under Captain W. T. Telford, M.C., took their section of the line at the double. At 3.28 p.m. the advance was resumed behind a creeping barrage. A Company, on the right, went forward as steadily as if on parade, and their first prisoners were a German doctor and his Aid Post staff. Sauchy-Lestree was captured with little difficulty, a company of the London Rifle Brigade clearing it up while the Londons advanced. Part of Sauchy-Cauchy was within the battalion's boundaries, and the troops wheeled left to deal with it. A cleared Cemetery Wood, and their patrols found numbers of Germans in dug-outs between it and Oisy le Verger. Some machine-gun nests north of the wood resisted four attacks, but succumbed to the fifth, and by 3 a.m. on the 28th the Londons were on the final objective after a very brilliant advance. A company (C) continued the advance towards Palluel at 10.30 the following day and established posts between the village and the Bois de Quesnoy as directed. Besides much materiel they had captured 6 officers and 454 other ranks, and their total casualties were only 71. Meanwhile the 4th Londons assisted in clearing up the western side of the canal up to the railway south-east of Palluel.
Some miles to the south the 7th Battalion had to attack over familiar ground. Assembling on the railway west of Moeuvres, the battalion moved forward at zero (5.20 a.m.) and crossed the canal without much opposition ; but on the spur south-west of Bourbon Wood, the final objective, the Fusiliers had to crush by rifle and machine-gun fire an attempt to hold them up. The battalion quickly took the trench on the spur, and reorganised before the 188th Brigade passed through. Second Lieutenant R. H. Righton was killed by a shell in the trench ; but the casualties were few, and the battalion had captured a field gun, 10 light and 10 heavy machine guns, and 4 officers and 400 other ranks. They remained in the trench during the night.
The Royal Fusilier battalions of the 2nd Division were not engaged this day, but the 17th Battalion, resting at a place where they had stood after the German counter-attack in 1917, Lock 7, suffered 32 casualties from a German aeroplane which secured three direct hits. The 4th Royal Fusiliers carried out a businesslike advance to Ribecourt. Moving off in artillery formation behind the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and 13th King's Liverpools at 8.20 a.m., the battalion's progress was uneventful until the leading companies found themselves held up by a machine-gun nest about 800 yards west of the southern end of Ribecourt. The two support companies then closed up, and the four companies, advancing in line, surrounded and captured the post. The battalion were again checked at the western edge of Ribecourt ; but at 10.30 they had penetrated into the village, and in another hour they had crushed all resistance and had begun to consolidate on the eastern edge of the village. Among their captures on this day was a 6-inch howitzer.
The Canal Crossing. — On September 28th the 17th Royal Fusiliers found themselves faced with a task calling for every spark of their daring and resource. Two companies, C and D, had been directed after dark on the preceding day to form a defensive flank on the left of the brigade, and were ordered to attack on the 28th with the high ground across the canal, north-east of Noyelles, as their final objective. By 8.30 a.m. Noyelles had been captured and the River Scheldt crossed. But the resistance stiffened very considerably at the canal crossings, and the whole of the division were held up. At this juncture it was decided to make an attempt to put a company of the 17th Royal Fusiliers across the canal by sending them down the river on a raft to the point where it is crossed by the canal. The plan was to raft the company under the canal arches, and then land and form up on the east of the canal. D Company with a platoon of B were ordered to undertake the task. Second Lieutenant F. G. Waters was ordered to reconnoitre the river with a view to the practicability of the operation. This young officer " swam the Scheldt in broad daylight with a rope in order to get a raft across for an attack to be made on the enemy ; and reconnoitred the ground on the east side with the enemy only fifty yards away. He was in charge of the leading wave of the attack, and led his men with great courage and determination against two machine guns, killing both crews. Later, when the enemy counter-attacked, he rallied his men and led them forward, remaining at duty after being wounded." * D Company started to cross at 5.15 p.m., but the low clearance underneath the arches proved too great a handicap ; and the bulk of the men crossed by the lock bridges in single file under heavy fire. It is one of the odd chances of war that these men, silhouetted against the skyline, got across with extremely few casualties. But their adventures on the other side speedily reduced their numbers. At 3 a.m. on September 29th the Germans counter-attacked the King's Own, on the right, driving them back upon the 17th Royal Fusiliers. There was much confusion, and many fell back to the west side of the canal. Captain Spencer, M.M., assisted by Captains Sword and Panting (CO. of D Company) rallied the men and restored the situation. But the machine-gun fire was intense and the casualties heavy. On the morning of the 29th they were ordered to take up a position between Paris Copse and Range Wood, towards the outskirts of Cambrai. They advanced beyond this line. The CO. and Captain Spencer (Adjutant) went forward to bring them back and organise them in depth. This was done, and C Company formed a defensive flank on the right until the battalion were relieved a little before midnight. The establishment of this bridge-head, so necessary to the division, and depending upon multiplied acts of gallantry, cost the battalion the loss of 249 officers and men.
* Official account. He was granted the M.C.
ELEVENTH BATTALION ENTER VENDHUILE
Vendhuile. — But by this time the Fourth Army attack had been launched, and the northern front was being revolutionised. The nth Royal Fusiliers were on the left of the Fourth Army line, and, forming up at Sart Farm, about 500 yards south-east of the Lempire, advanced to their objective, the trench line on the outskirts of Vendhuile. To this position they held throughout the day (29th), despite the unwelcome attentions of German artillery and some short firing of our own guns. As the enemy were observed to be withdrawing on the following day, the nth went forward to clear the village. Very brisk fighting took place before this was accomplished, but it had been completed when the Bedfords arrived to help. The battalion were relieved that night, and with the brigade left the line for a well-earned rest.
Flanders. — Two battalions of the regiment were also involved in the fourth of the converging attacks mentioned by Sir Douglas Haig, the advance in Flanders. The 2nd Battalion had left the Lys area on September 27th, and at 5.30 the next morning moved forward from the position of assembly east of Ypres in support of the Dublins. W and X Companies formed the first wave, and, passing through the Lancashires at 7.8 a.m., moved after the Dublins. On the Stirling Castle ridge considerable opposition was encountered from pill-boxes and from the short firing of our own artillery ; and the Royal Fusiliers became involved in the firing line. Several pill-boxes were smartly cleared, forty prisoners being taken from one and the garrison of another, who refused to come out, being put out of action. After passing through the Dublins, the first opposition was encountered from a trench about 200 yards north of Veldhoek. W Company put an end to the resistance, capturing 15 prisoners.
A number of pill-boxes were rushed at this point, and the total of prisoners began to swell. At 9.45 a.m. the battalion rushed the line Polderhoek Ridge-Cameron House, and three-quarters of an hour later they crossed the Menin road and captured Gheluvelt. The positions which had resisted so obstinately all the earlier assaults now began to fall into the hands of the troops like ripe fruit. On this day the 2nd Royal Fusiliers made a striking advance, suffered very few casualties, and captured about 300 prisoners, many machine guns, and a complete battery of 5.9's. That night they formed a defensive flank to the 88th Brigade, a little to the east of Hooge. The advance was resumed the following morning, the Royal Fusiliers being echeloned on the left rear of the 88th Brigade. In spite of heavy machine-gun fire the ridge across the Menin road, which the Becelaere road follows, was captured and held. A line was established on this ridge for about 1,000 yards north of the road, and on this the battalion remained until night under persistent sniping, machine-gun and shell fire. Up to this time they had only had 47 casualties in the two days' fighting.
ADVANCE IN FLANDERS, SEPT. 28th-29th
On October 1st they relieved the Lancashires at about the centre of the road between Gheluwe and Dadizeele ; and on the following morning they attempted to advance with the 88th Brigade to the capture of Gheluwe. This was the hardest day's fighting yet experienced in the new offensive, and despite the utmost gallantry neither the Royal Fusiliers nor the troops on their right could make much headway. If the advance had been continued at the pace of the first two days, Lille would have been out-flanked. The defence was accordingly strengthened on this sector, and the battalion were relieved at night after a heavy day.
The 26th Royal Fusiliers had also been brought up to the Ypres area for the offensive /and advancing without artillery support at 2 p.m. (28th) from a position about 100 yards west of Canada Tunnels, met with no resistance worth speaking of, except from snipers, for 3,000 yards. At this point the battalion faced Green Jacket ridge, where a stubborn resistance was experienced. On reaching the crest they encountered a heavy fire, and a counter-attack was attempted from Dumbarton Wood. But D Company on the left charged down the slope under Lieutenant H. Van Der Weyden and broke up the German counter-attack with very heavy loss. The battalion then resumed their advance to a line a few hundred yards east of Basse - ville beek, and on this position the battalion rested that night, D Company forming a defensive flank on the left. The advance was resumed on the following day, an hour after dawn, B and C Companies passing through A and D. At the outset many casualties were suffered from rifle and machine-gun fire ; but this did not prevent the battalion reaching their objective, the road running north-east from Houthem to the Tenebrielen-Zandvoorde road. At this stage the 123rd Brigade passed through and advanced towards Comines, but they were beaten back and retired through the 124th Brigade's line. The 26th Royal Fusiliers held their positions that night, and at 2 a.m. rations came up, and they had their first food for twenty-four hours. A and D were in the van once more when the advance began on September 30th. There were numerous small and fierce encounters as the battalion moved south-east, but they reached their objective, the railway about Godshuis, and posts were pushed out to the Lys. In this very striking advance of three days the battalion's casualties only totalled 61, killed, wounded and missing. They spent eight more days in this area, constantly under shell fire, prepared for anything, before they were relieved.
Towards Cambrai. — The 7th Royal Fusiliers attacked at 6.30 on the morning of September 30th from positions east of the Proville-Mt. St. (Euvre road, while two companies of the 23rd Battalion advanced against Mt. St. (Euvre. It was a very difficult area for attack, and the 7th Battalion, after advancing about 200 yards with the barrage, were held up by machine-gun fire from the north and the east. The same reason accounted for the non-success of A and B Companies of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers. On the following day the 24th Royal Fusiliers were engaged in much the same area. To co-operate with the attack of another division on Rumilly, two companies of the 24th Battalion were ordered to clear the ground north-east of the village and establish a line east of the railway. The attack on Rumilly began at 5.45 p.m., and at 6.30 B Company, with four platoons in line, advanced close up to the barrage and rushed the enemy positions. There were two quarries, honeycombed with dug-outs. B were only 3 officers and 67 other ranks strong at this time, but they captured over 200 prisoners and 50 machine guns, and the supporting company were able to pass through and establish the fine east of the railway with ease. The position was consolidated after a very striking success.
Le Catelet. — On October 4th the 3rd Royal Fusiliers again made an appearance on the Western front. They had arrived at Dieppe on July 14th, and, after resting and training, had marched up towards the battle zone two months later as one of the battalions of the 149th Brigade, 50th Division. They marched throughout the night of October 3rd, and at 6.10 in the morning of the following day they advanced between Le Catelet and Vendhuile
END OF FIRST PHASE, OCTOBER 5th
upon the redoubt at Richmond Copse. It was not an advance that one would choose. The battalion had to move down the slope to the Scheldt Canal and then up a valley on the opposite side. They were enfiladed on both flanks, from the neighbourhood of Vendhuile and from Le Catelet. But they reached their objective at 7.30 a.m., and then, finding themselves practically isolated, had to go back step by step to near their starting point. They had swept a path clean, taking some 300 prisoners from machine-gun teams, so that the 4th King's Royal Rifles could advance over the same ground in the evening with few casualties ; but they had lost very heavily. Lieut. - Colonel E. H. Nicholson, D.S.O., Captains R. T. T. C. Chadwick and J. M. McLaggan, M.C., R.A.M.C, Captain and Adjutant W. T. Humphries, Lieutenants E. C. Nepean, R. A. L. Davies, C. E. P. Cross, B. J. O'Connor and Second Lieutenant H. Marsh were killed * ; 2 officers were wounded, and there were 139 other ranks casualties. Few actions of the Royal Fusiliers had been more tragic. Many had been more costly, but very few had carried the troops to their objective only to see them compelled to fall back almost to the starting point with the bulk of their leaders killed.
This point forms a natural division in the British offensive. By October 5th the first phase had been completed. " The enemy's defence in the last and strongest of his prepared positions had been shattered. The whole of the main Hindenburg defences had passed into our possession, and a wide gap had been driven through such near branch systems as had existed behind them. The effect of the victory upon the subsequent course of the campaign was decisive. The threat to the enemy's communications was now direct and instant, for nothing but the natural obstacles of a wooded and well-watered countryside lay between our armies and Maubeuge." f
* This appears to have been the greatest number of officers killed in any one action of the Royal Fusiliers. Despatch.
Second Battle of Le Cateau. — " The second and concluding phase of the British offensive now opened, in which the Fourth and Third Armies and the right of the First Army moved forward with their left flank on the canal line which runs from Cambrai to Mons, and their right covered by the First French Army." * The first stage of the subsequent fighting began with the second battle of Le Cateau, which was launched on October 8th.
The 7th Royal Fusiliers were in position near Niergnies on the morning of the battle, and held their position while the division secured their objectives. During the day the enemy counter-attacked with tanks ; but the assault was easily beaten off, and when the battalion left the line at night they had only suffered three casualties. The 23rd Battalion at the same time attacked and captured Forenville, and, despite a number of counter-attacks, held it all day. The 4th Royal Fusiliers, attacking a little to the south at 4.30 a.m., had gained their objective in less than two hours, but were ordered to assist the 13th King's in a further attack on the second objective at 12.40 p.m. The battalion pushed ahead on to the slope north of Serainvillers, but were there held up by a converging machine-gun and artillery fire. Heavy casualties were sustained in this position, and the battalion became too weak to hold on to the forward line. They retired to the line west of Serainvillers, and at two o'clock the next morning withdrew to Masnieres to enable the Guard to take up the attack. Their total casualties were 121 officers and other ranks ; but against this they could set 128 prisoners, thirteen machine guns, and three guns, and they had so heavily treated the enemy that the Guards found very little opposition when they advanced.
Both the 10th and 13th Royal Fusiliers attacked on this day against the Masnieres-Beaurevoir line. The final objective of the 10th Battalion was the sunken roads north-west of Hurtebise Farm. The companies moved off at 4.34 a.m. close to the barrage, and reached the
13TH BATTALION ENTER BETHENCOURT
Beaurevoir line to find the wire not sufficiently cut. There was some difficulty in passing through, and the machine-gun posts inside the wire took advantage of the situation. Two platoons of C Company were left to hold the Beaurevoir line, and the other companies pressed on and captured Bel Aise Farm, with a considerable number of prisoners. A platoon of C were left to complete the mopping up, and the battalion advanced to their final objectives, which they reached and held, despite an intermittent bombardment throughout the day. The objective of the 13th Battalion was Hurtebise Farm, about two miles north-west of Walincourt. They started under the handicap of having to fight their way to their jumping-off line, as Bel Aise Farm and part of the Beaurevoir system were still incompletely cleared. But they went forward so rapidly that they were within half a mile of their objective before the barrage had gone sufficiently far to check the enemy machine guns on the high ground south of the farm. But Nos. 2 and 3 Companies pushed straight on, and at 7.15 a.m. had begun to consolidate their final position. The enemy's fire compelled them to withdraw from the south and east sides of the farm until the 1/1 Herts passed through to Briseux Wood.
On the following day they were ordered to continue the advance in support of the 1/1 Herts, who reached Ligny en Cambresis without opposition by 8 a.m. Within less than two hours the 13th Royal Fusiliers had established a line on the road right and left of the town. They advanced once more on October 10th to establish strong points on the south and east of Caudry, thereby cutting off the town from the east while the 1st Essex carried out a similar operation on the west. The battalion met with little resistance, except from our own tanks, which apparently did not expect British troops so far east, and from the barrage, which was late. No. 3 Company, finding no resistance in their path, pushed forward, captured Bethencourt and threw out a line of outposts to the east. Lieut. -Colonel Smith and Major Whitehead had in the meantime entered Caudry, where they were enthusiastically received by a large number of French people. In these three days the battalion had covered a considerable amount of ground, had captured 200 prisoners and some twenty machine guns. Their total casualties were 116, including Second Lieutenant E. M. Rees killed, Second Lieutenant J. Kinahan died of wounds, and 10 officers wounded. A few days later General H. Bruce Williams, G.O.C. 37th Division, inspected the battalion, and commended them in words which deserve record : " I am extremely pleased with the smartness of the battalion under extremely trying conditions, and also with your steadiness on parade. The work you have done under all circumstances since August 21st, when the offensive opened, has been of the highest order. At present you are the making of the 112th Brigade. You have served under me for two years now, and have never failed me or let me down. I congratulate you."
The 1st Battalion attacked on October nth from Rieux, but were caught heavily by the enemy barrage while assembling for attack. This mischance was but the beginning of a series which dogged the steps of the battalion during the day. The enemy machine-gun fire was so sustained that the battalion were definitely held up with heavy loss before reaching the first objective. Rieux lies in a shallow valley through which the river Ereclin flows. To advance meant to ascend, and from the high ground the enemy were prepared for all such ventures. There were no tanks available ; but a German tank came up as the battalion were relieving the 73rd Brigade, fired a few shots and sheered off. During the night the patrols found that the enemy had retired, and posts were then established on the high ground west of Villers en Cauchies and St. Aubert. Captain J. H. Jacobs, M.C., Second Lieutenant G. B. Wright, and Second Lieutenant R. W. Reed were killed on this occasion ; 6 officers were wounded, and there were 125 other ranks casualties.
FURTHER ADVANCE IN FLANDERS
Flanders. — While the Third and Fourth Armies were approaching the Selle River the forces in Flanders were preparing for another attack, and this was launched on October 14th. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers, who took part in this battle, assembled near Ledeghem, and began to advance at 5.35 a.m. They went straight through the village, brushing aside the weak resistance in their stride. The small posts of three or four men here and there were quickly rushed through the smoke screen. A battery of field guns was surprised by No. 9 platoon of Y Company from the flank, and was captured with ease. The enemy had been so completely taken by surprise that, though some of the troops carrying the light bridges for the crossing of the Wulfdambeek lost direction in the smoke and caused the left flank to cross later than the right, the objective, the ridge lying north-east of Moorseele, at the limit of the field artillery barrage, was reached and consolidated by 8 a.m. But when the advanced posts were pushed forward towards the village of Drie Masten, the troops were caught by machine-gun fire and were compelled to retire to the ridge, where they were shelled by field guns firing over open sights. In spite of this, the battalion stood firm until support reached them, and at length the Dublins and Lancashires advanced from the ridge. The battalion took 150 prisoners, and captured twenty machine guns and ten field guns.
The 26th Battalion, attacking in the same action, fought a confused action north-east of Menin. With the 124th Brigade they were to pass through the 122nd Brigade, but when the advance began the fog and smoke made it almost impossible to maintain formation. In such circumstances the German Army of 1916 would have taken a terrible toll of the assailants. Fortunately, the Germans were too weak and too badly shaken at this stage of the offensive to take full advantage. But in the obscurity small isolated encounters occurred, and the men, being full of confidence, profited by the chances as they offered. Second Lieutenant J. Layfield with two men rushed a field gun, killing the gunner with his revolver. A battery of guns suddenly emerged from the fog at full gallop. But they were brought up by Lewis-gun and rifle fire and captured. At length, after several hours of this over-stimulating experience, the battalion reached Wijnberg and were able to reorganise. A smart counter-attack pushed the men out of the village, but they were rallied by Captain Spottiswoode, of B Company, and the village was retaken. The position was consolidated, and on the following day patrols were sent forward from A and D Companies to the river Lys. Second Lieutenant J. Layfield penetrated to Wevelghem, but his patrol suffered heavy casualties. Posts were, however, established some 500 yards ahead, and that evening the battalion were relieved. In the day's fighting they had captured about 200 prisoners, fifteen field guns, a number of machine guns and several horses, while their total casualties were only 78.
NINTH BATTALION REACH THE SCHELDT
To the Scheldt. — The advances in Flanders and on the front of the Third and Fourth Armies threatened to turn the Lille-Douai area into a dangerous salient ; and while the troops operating on these fronts frequently had to make their way forward against the most bitter resistance, those engaged about Lens found the obstacles to their advance suddenly smoothed away. The 3rd Londons and 2/2 Londons and the 9th Royal Fusiliers had been brought up to this sector of the front before the beginning of the general offensive, and though the first two were lightly engaged at Loison, east of Lens, on October 9th, for the most part their advance eastwards to the Scheldt was a triumphal progress. The 9th Royal Fusiliers had taken up positions east of Vimy on October 7th, and finding during the night that the German front line had been evacuated, pushed forward B and C Companies to occupy the enemy positions. Acheville was cleared on the 9th, and the trenches on the north up to the railway were occupied. A rearguard counter-attacked at this point, but it was crushed and a machine gun taken. The next few days saw an almost uninterrupted advance. There was a certain amount of resistance in Noyelle-Godault, but by October 13th the battalion had penetrated to the west bank of the Canal de la Haute Deule. The battalion rested for a few days at this stage, and on October 18th began to move eastwards again. It was not until they reached Rumegies that the battalion came within sight of the heels of the enemy. At the St. Amand-Maulde road, which they reached on the same day, October 21st, they came under heavy machine-gun fire. Two platoons of D Company who attempted to move up the railway to the Scarpe were held up by machine-gun fire from Flagnies. The battalion were now in touch with the 58th Division on the left and the 37th Brigade on the right ; and they were near the Scheldt, where the enemy had the advantage of position and where also they must perforce make some attempt to stand.
But what an extraordinary change had come over the situation on the Western front ! The Belgian coast was now in the hands of the Allies, Lille had been evacuated, and the Allies were now thinking not so much of the redemption of their territory as of the chances of a decision.
The Selle. — In the centre of the British front the enemy lay upon the Selle on October 17th, and on this day the 3rd Royal Fusiliers co-operated in the battle which opened upon a front of ten miles by an attack aross the river between Benin and St. Souplet, and after hard fighting established themselves near the Le Cateau-Arbre Guernon road, but were beaten back in a counter-attack in the afternoon. The battalion, now commanded by Major Trasenster, were only 11 officers and 308 other ranks strong, and during the day they lost 98 officers and men.
Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal. — The 2nd Royal Fusiliers once more attacked on October 20th, north of Courtrai. About midday they moved off in column of route behind the Dublins until they were within a few hundred yards of Esscher, when they deployed in diamond formation of platoons. They now began to advance almost due south, Z and X being directed towards the west to fill the open flank to the Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal. By 5 p.m. these two companies had taken up a line covering Kappaart and Krote after suffering some casualties from farms on the western and steeper slopes of Banhout Bosch. W Company lay at St. Louis, in support to the Dublins on their left rear. On the following day the advance was resumed through Banhout Bosch ; but, about half-way through, the companies were held up by the fire from a machine gun installed in a farm. About 500 yards south of the edge of the wood Second Lieutenant H. H. Shields managed to get forward with three Lewis guns into some houses a few hundred yards to the north-west of the farm, and under cover of their fire the farm was rushed. In their advance the men had fired from the hip with good results. A position was taken up for the night in liaison with the neighbouring units. There had been very few casualties in this advance, the resistance being due to a few energetic men acting as rearguards to the Army. This was the last appearance of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers in action. They heard the news of the Armistice at St. Genois.
24TH BATTALION ENTER VERTAIN
While the 2nd Royal Fusiliers were advancing on the eastern side of the Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal on October 21st, the 26th Battalion were operating west of the canal. The brigade moved forward about 11 a.m. towards the Laatse Oortie-Hoogstraatje Ridge. On reaching this point the left battalion, the 10th Queen's, were to turn half left and seize the canal crossing and the tunnel beneath. The 26th Royal Fusiliers were to move forward from support to the position vacated by the Queen's and then move forward to the Scheldt. Under the most favourable conditions this involved a considerable advance, and unfortunately the troops had only reached the ridge when heavy artillery and machine-gun fire caught them from the east of the canal. The 26th Battalion could not advance, despite repeated efforts ; and an attempt by D Company at night was also checked by unbroken wire and machine guns. A line was consolidated, and patrols were sent out ; but the latter found the enemy very vigilant, and, indeed, the defence on this sector was well maintained for the next few days. The battalion were relieved on the night of the 23rd, and when they next attacked towards the Scheldt, on the 25th, it was in the area east of the canal. But the battalion had no better luck on this occasion. The German barrage was very heavy, and the machine-gun fire so intense that the whole line was held up on the west of Ooteghem. Lieutenant A. E. Chambers and Second Lieutenant H. M. Tuck with their platoons attempted to enter the village from the right, but were driven back, both officers being mortally wounded. An attempt was made to rush the windmill on the ridge south-west of Ooteghem. Lieutenant T. Robinson, of A Company, was killed in a first gallant dash ; but it was eventually captured. After further heavy losses, including Lieut. - Colonel H. A. Robinson, D.S.O., the battalion dug in for the night. Fighting patrols were pushed forward next day, but the battalion were relieved before they had reached the Scheldt, and the battle line saw them no more. To Mormal Forest. — Meanwhile the Selle positions had been taken, and the army now opened an attack having for its objective the general line Valenciennes — western edge of Mormal Forest-Sambre-Oise Canal. With this advance the junction of Aulnoye, which links up the Mezieres and Hirson main line with the Maubeuge, Charleroi and main lines to Germany, would be brought under effective fire. The 24th Royal Fusiliers took up positions west of Vertain on the night of October 22nd, and at 3.30 a.m. D Company attacked the village, C advancing against the road running eastward from it an hour later. Both objectives were gained by 5.10 a.m., though the task of reducing the village was by no means easy. They captured 250 prisoners and between fifty and sixty machine guns and much other booty. They were billeted in the village that night, and on the next morning the 23rd Royal Fusiliers carried the line still further forward by the capture of Ruesnes. With comparatively few casualties they cleared and consolidated the village, and sent outposts forward to the railway.
They were assisted in their operations by the 4th Royal Fusiliers. On the ridge below Ruesnes were numerous field guns, and when the 4th Battalion crossed the river Ecaillon at 4.24 on the morning of the 24th, and began their advance up the slopes of this ridge, they came under point-blank fire from these guns. Many prisoners, with light and heavy machine guns, had already been captured ; and with a concerted Lewis-gun fire the German gunners were put to flight, and three field guns were taken. The battalion then continued their advance to the final objective, the western end of the Ruesnes- Le Quesnoy road. Their left flank lay just off the road from the north-eastern corner of Ruesnes to the railway. The battalion were very weak, and all four companies were in the line. The 4th Battalion with their brigade thereafter held the main line of resistance until relief, the 8th Brigade pushing on to gain touch with the retreating enemy.
The 11th Battalion attacked in the moonlight at 1.20 a.m. from the railway embankment north-east of Le Cateau ; and, being the second wave, came under a very heavy bombardment as they advanced after the Bedfords. At the outset they had to move in single file across a narrow footbridge ; and, as a heavy barrage was playing upon it, there was a certain amount of nervousness. Captain Horn feck at once pushed forward and stood calmly at this danger spot until all the men were across. In the half-light, the Bedfords halted about 500 yards short of their objective, and on this line the nth Royal Fusiliers passed through, Captain Hornfeck's company reaching their objective near the Epinette Farm road. But in this position they were isolated and were under fire from both flanks. After two hours of this ordeal they were compelled to fall back to the ridge above the road, where they found the other companies ; and the 55th Brigade passed through their line at 7.30 a.m. The battalion were about two companies strong by this time, but they had alone captured eleven field guns and a considerable number of prisoners.
THE ECAILLON CROSSED
The attack was resumed on the next morning, and again there was some confusion in the darkness, as a consequence of which the Royal Fusiliers became involved in the fighting before they reached the line on which they were to pass through the Northants. They had to beat off a German counter-attack at Bousies Wood Farm, and when they were able to advance they found the ridge in front of them swept with machine-gun fire. A pause was made in order that the position might be further treated by artillery ; but the barrage, when it came down, caused a number of casualties in our own ranks. Lieutenant E. L. Moody had become the commanding officer of three companies. He reorganised them when held up ; and, freely exposing himself under machine-gun fire, he was more than a little responsible for the battalion's final advance. Lieutenant P. E. Tyler also showed outstanding courage, and although shot through the lungs, continued in the direction of his company for some three hours until he collapsed. At night the troops held a position near the Robersart-Englefontaine road.
On the second day (24th) of the battle the 13th Royal Fusiliers attacked from the north of Salesches, the way having been cleared up to this point in a spirited attack of the 10th Battalion on the preceding day. Some casualties were caused by the enemy bombardment as the troops were assembling, and, in the darkness, there was a certain amount of confusion and lack of direction ; but at length the battalion advanced, No. 3 Company and two platoons of No. 2 forming a defensive flank on the right against the enemy, who were still holding the high ground south-west of Salesches station. Shortly after 5.30 a.m. the left company (No. 4) were held up by wire. The advance was resumed at seven o'clock, and the Ecaillon was crossed, the two platoons on the left wading across some 500 yards from the western edge of Ghissignies. In the village a few prisoners were captured and added to the collection, which had been steadily growing from the beginning of the advance. East of Ghissignies heavy fire was experienced from a chapel, and the leading platoon of No. i Company were wiped out. The left company were also held up by machine guns, and when they were reduced to a strength of 40, they were withdrawn and moved north-east to the orchard beyond the road. No. 1 Company retired to the main line in front of the village, and at 6 p.m. the line was consolidated. On the following day the battalion attempted to push forward once more, but were held up near the De Beart Farm. The battalion were relieved at 9 p.m. on this day, and received the congratulations of the divisional commander for their " fine work." With 120 prisoners and numerous guns and trench mortars and an advance of about 5,000 yards to their credit, they deserved congratulations ; but they had lost 108 officers and men and were now reduced to 11 officers and 269 other ranks.
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The war was now ringing to a close. The Royal Fusilier battalions who had been engaged in constant battles since the opening of the offensive on August 8th were many of them worn to the shadow of their former selves. The wastage in officers had been terribly high ; and yet, filled out with drafts, frequently young men of little training, they appeared in the fighting line once again. The astonishing thing is that they entered battle with the flair of the expert and were prepared for all risks. The last battle was now to be fought. Germany's allies had all forsaken her, and she had herself abandoned every fiction and requested an armistice.
STRUGGLE ON THE HONNELLE
The Battle of the Sambre. — At dawn on November 4th the First, Third and Fourth Armies struck from the Sambre, north of Oisy, to Valenciennes. On the left flank of the attack the 4th Londons crossed the river Aunelle at Sebourg and then turned northward to Sebourquiaux and cleared it of machine guns. A Company, on the left, were unable to secure touch with the Canadians, and came under heavy machine-gun fire from Rombies ; but when Sebourquiaux was cleared they were able to advance to the Aunelle. The main bridge had been destroyed, but they crossed by a footbridge and formed a defensive flank across the river. On the right the battalion were in touch with the Queen's Westminsters, but on the left their flank was still in the air. They were relieved the next morning on these positions, and other battalions of the division carried the line forward. At midnight on the 5th the 2nd Londons relieved the London Rifle Brigade, and suffered heavy casualties in moving into position. On the following morning they advanced after the barrage across a deep ravine, covered with thick undergrowth, to the Honnelle. The river was at this time swollen with the recent rains, and its steep wooded sides formed admirable cover for the German machine guns. C and D Companies reached and crossed the river, but, both flanks being in the air, were almost surrounded, and had to fall back to the western side. A and B also forced their way across and advanced to the railway at the edge of the Bois de Beaufort. But beyond this the ground was swept by machine guns, and the flanking battalions could not be located. The Germans pressed round their left flank, but were put to flight by a bayonet charge. Another party of the enemy got through the wood to the rear of the detachment, and the officer in charge called out, " Hands up ! " Half of the small detachment delivered another bayonet charge in reply. It was obvious that to recross such a river under such pressure was an extremely difficult operation ; yet, under the direction of Captain Rowlands, M.C., the detachments retired, taking their wounded with them. The battalion reorganised along their assembly positions and were relieved in the evening, after a total loss of 5 officers and 107 other ranks, sustained in attempting an operation that no troops in the world of equal strength could have carried out.
The 1st Royal Fusiliers attacked on November 5th, advancing from Jenlain, and on the high ground east of Wargnies le Grand, passing through the 73rd Brigade. After an advance of about 5,000 yards the troops came into contact with the enemy about 1,000 yards west of the Hogneau stream, which casts a wide loop about Bavai, to the east. At this point there was considerable machine-gun fire, and the barrage put down did not affect the position. The battalion therefore held their ground for the night. At dawn on November 6th the battalion advanced, but were held up on the east bank of the river, as all attempts to carry the high ground to the east proved unsuccessful. The German rearguards were very stubborn on this part of the front. The next day the 3rd Rifle Brigade passed through the battalion, who on the 8th went into billets at Bavai, where they still lay on November 11th.
On the 37th Division front both the 13th and the 10th Royal Fusiliers were engaged. The latter were to pass through the 13th King's Royal Rifles, who were to mop up the village of Louvignies and advance to a line about 500 yards to the east. At this point the 10th Royal Fusiliers were to pass through and advance about 1,000 yards. At five o'clock in the morning all companies were in position on the railway, on which shells had been falling throughout the night. Lieutenant A. N. Usher, M.C., commanding A Company, was killed at this point. Half an hour later the companies, advancing under the barrage, encountered several machine-gun posts, which they reduced. D Company went through the village, killing or taking prisoner all the Germans met with, and the battalion reached their objective in schedule time. About 8 p.m. that night they went back to Beaurain after a finished little engagement in which, for a total loss of 52 officers and men, they had captured 300 prisoners, three field guns, a motor lorry and a large number of machine guns.
THROUGH MORMAL FOREST
The 13th Battalion were to pass through the Essex on the Red Line, nearly 3,000 yards further east, on the edge of the forest. In Ghissignies at 7.35 a.m. they came under heavy fire, and machine-gun bullets were whistling across the road. The companies were halted outside Louvignies for the Essex to come up, and at 9.40 this battalion had passed through. After crossing the Louvignies-Le Quesnoy road under fire at 10.45 a.m., they lost touch with both flanks owing to the enclosed nature of the ground. About noon B Company was moving after the Essex through Jolimetz and helping to mop it up ; and A Company, after helping the Essex to reduce a machine-gun pocket south-west of the village, was moving forward towards the Red Line. At 3.45 p.m., after surmounting the difficulties of assembling owing to the thick undergrowth, the companies began to enter the forest. It was already growing dark. There was a spasmodic machine-gun fire down the railway and the laies, and the battalion made but slow progress. They were only about the strength of a full company, and the German Army a year before would have made a jest of dealing with such a force in the forest. At 6 p.m. four platoons had reached the cross-roads about the railway, where a machine gun was captured and the team killed ; and had formed a strong point there. Posts were thrown out to the cross-roads about 500 yards to the south-west, where contact was made with the 8th Somerset Light Infantry. Platoon No. 9 of B Company was out of touch. This platoon, under Sergeant W. Green, M.M., had with great daring pushed on through the wood in complete darkness to the point where the Villereau-Berlaimont road is crossed by two other roads. At this point on November 4th the continuous area of standing trees ended, though there were other considerable patches of standing trees about 4,000 yards to the east. The platoon, completely isolated, dug in, patrolling for 1,000 yards to the east, and held on until morning, when the 5th Division passed through. The rest of the battalion, nearly 1,000 yards distant on the right rear, could find no troops on their left. Sergeant Green's platoon, in fact, was the only unit for at least 1,000 yards north and south which reached the dotted Red Line.* By 5.30 a.m. on November 5th the battalion were on this line, and when they were passed by the 5th Division they went back to Le Rond Quesne.
* So far as I can discover, it was the most easterly post held that night on the British front. Sergeant Green was awarded the D.C.M.
At 6.15 in the morning of the 4th the nth Royal Fusiliers attacked Preux au Bois. A composite company with the Bedfords and a company of the 6th Northants moved from a position north of the village already taken by the rest of the Northants, while the rest of the 11th Battalion demonstrated from the west. By eight o'clock the composite company (C and D) were in position to clear the village from the north. Captain Hope, commanding this company, although held up by machine-gun nests and the breakdown of the tank which was to deal with them at the beginning of the attack, eventually " succeeded in breaking through with some 20 men. Without waiting for the remainder, he at once pushed on with such effect that he succeeded in clearing up the whole area, capturing over twenty machine guns and some 200 prisoners, including 5 officers. The success of the attack in this area was entirely due to his leadership and determination, while the example of coolness and courage he gave was beyond all praise."* By 11 a.m. other battalions were pushing ahead, and the 11th Royal Fusiliers' work was done.
On the morning of November 4th the 3rd Royal Fusiliers took up assembly positions astride the Fontaine au Bois-Landrecies road, about 1,000 yards south-east of the village of Fontaine. The weather was damp and misty, and when the battalion advanced about 500 yards the leading companies were out of touch, and the support company went up to rill the gap. It was about this point that the 13th Royal Highlanders were held up on the Englefontaine road. The German machine-gun defence was very elaborate on this sector of the front, and without the co-operation of the tanks it is difficult to see how it could have been crushed by such light forces. About 8 a.m. the Scottish Horse were across the road,
* Official account. He was awarded the D.S.O
ADVANCE OF THE THIRD BATTALION
and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, who had been mopping up a few houses on their front, resumed the advance. The village of Les Etoquies was reached and cleared, and by about 11.30 the Red Line was reached and the objective consolidated. The Red Line lay some 3,000 yards from the starting point and about 1,500 yards from the Sambre. The outposts of the battalion extended to about half the distance to the river. The total casualties for the day were 120 officers and men, including Captain Murray Large, who was killed on the tape line. Field guns, machine guns, wagons and horses were among the captures.
The troops reached Hachette Farm, north of the railway near the Maroilles road, at 5 p.m. on November 5th, and spent the night there. On the following day the battalion began to follow up the retreating Germans, crossing the Sambre below Hachette Farm and advancing through Laval. Little opposition was encountered, and when in the evening two Germans, fully equipped, were met with on the road, they were so surprised that they screamed with fright. At 8.30 p.m. on the 7th the 3rd Battalion were in billets at St. Remy Chauss6e when an order was received that deserves record : " If German officer bearing a flag of truce presents himself at any point of British front, he will be conducted to the nearest divisional headquarters and detained there pending instructions from G.H.Q."
This was welcome news. Weariness was almost the chief handicap of the time. The transport animals were in poor condition owing to overwork, and still there was not enough transport. Blankets and great-coats had been dumped at Fontaine for this reason, and on November 7th wagons were sent for them. The roads were very heavy and much damaged by mines.
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On November 8th the 7th Battalion were heavily engaged. On the preceding day they had moved through Sebourquiaux, taken on November 4th by the Londons, and at noon on the 8th they moved along the Andregnies-Witheries road without opposition, but met heavy machine-gun and trench-mortar fire before Offignies. After a brisk fight the enemy fell back, after inflicting five casualties. The battalion advanced again on November 9th, carried the Montroeul wood and the Eugies-Sars La Bruyere road, and reached a position on the road from Quevy le Petit to the Mons-Maubeuge road.
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The 3rd Royal Fusiliers advanced to Mont Dourlers on the 8th under heavy machine-gun fire, and amid the sounds of exploding mines which told their tale of continued retirement. Patrols on this evening were sent to the western edge of the forest of Beugnies. Before dawn on the following day the patrols began to push through the forest. On the left they came under machine-gun fire, but the centre company were through the wood by 5 a.m. A few hours later the battalion were withdrawn to Mont Dourlers to billets, thoroughly exhausted, but pleased with having seen the last of the enemy in the war.
On November 10th the 7th Battalion reached the Nouvelles-Harveng road with little difficulty at 8.30 a.m. The 188th Brigade went through them at this post, and in the afternoon the battalion proceeded to Harveng and billeted there for the night. They were still in this village, a few miles south of Mons, when the Armistice took effect the next morning. On November 15th 5 officers and 180 other ranks embussed to Mons and took part in the formal entry of the First Army commander.
The 4th, 17th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th Battalions went into Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. The long-drawn-out war had come to an end. The individual share of any regiment in the final victory it were unwise to estimate. But at least it may be said in a final survey of the achievement of the Royal Fusiliers in Egypt, in Africa, in the Balkans, and on the main Western front, that everywhere they showed themselves worthy of the traditions they inherited, in fine, a very gallant company.