London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - INTERLUDE

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919

INTERLUDE

The period which filled the interval between the Battle of Cambrai and the German attack on March 21st, 1918, marked a change in the general outlook which had its influence on the character of the training and daily routine. The High Command issued in December orders " having for their object immediate preparation to meet a strong and sustained hostile offensive. In other words a defensive policy was adopted. . . . "*
* Despatch.

In any case the winter imposed a truce on the armies, though it was impossible, in the earlier part of the period, to rule out the possibility of further operations on the Italian front, and several British divisions were sent thither. Included in this force were the 41st Division with their two Fusilier battalions.

But the lines were never quite at rest. Raids and counter-raids took place intermittently even on the quiet sectors. One incident that deserves mention is the German raid on the extreme left of the 17th Battalion's front. They were stationed on July 24th, 1917, in the canal sector, the training ground of numerous units, when a German patrol of about nine men suddenly fell upon three men holding a post in East Surrey Crater. A desperate struggle took place. One of the men contrived to make his escape and warned the front line. The other two were wounded, and the Germans dragged them back towards their front line. But the wounded men, finding the prospect uncongenial, kept their wits about them, and one of them suddenly broke away, and although wounded in five or six places, braved our own Lewis guns, which had opened fire, and regained our lines. One German was left dead in the crater, and in this way both sides secured identifications at equal cost.

WINTER RAIDS, 1917— 18

Another raid upon the same battalion, but in the Cambrai sector, had also a slightly paradoxical result. On December 21st some 30 Germans suddenly raided the battalion front at 10 o'clock in the morning. They were beaten off with ease by D Company, as the enemy obligingly forgot to pull the strings of their bombs before throwing them. A prisoner was taken and an interesting trophy secured. This was one of the new automatic pistols, which held 32 rounds in its magazine. The 17th determined to return the compliment, and on the following day a fighting patrol went out. But suddenly the fog lifted, and modesty suggested a prompt retirement.

A more important and useful raid took place almost on the eve of the German offensive. Second Lieutenant Fish and 17 other ranks entered the German lines on the night of March 18th, 1918. The previous day much movement had been observed in the opposite lines, and it was desirable to know the state of the trench garrisons and to secure identifications. Entering the German trenches opposite Anchor Sap, the small patrol killed 8 or 10 Germans, brought back three shoulder straps, secured useful information as to the defence system and returned with only one casualty. For this excellent little action the battalion received the congratulations of all the brigades and of the 2nd Division.

Both the 13th and the 10th Battalions figured in a more serious operation which took place on March 8th, 1918. On this day the 13th Battalion were in the front line astride the Menin road, with the 13th King's Royal Rifle Corps on their left, when they were warned by the brigade that the enemy intended to attack during the night to capture the high ground north-west of Gheluvelt, which had been won by a great outpouring of blood in the summer and autumn offensive of 1917. The companies were warned, and a preparatory bombardment was fired at dawn, but without provoking a reply. At 6.30 a.m. the Germans opened a bombardment, which grew fiercer after 9.30 a.m. and continued with a short break at 1 o'clock until about 5 p.m. North of the Menin road the shelling was very severe, and the S.O.S. was sent up by the battalion on the left. The counter-barrage came down on the whole sector within two minutes. On the front of the 13th Battalion no attack developed ; but the bombardment had caused heavy casualties in No. 3 Company, north of the road, and at 6.30 p.m. Sergeant A. Clark sent back a message, " Please send as many stretcher-bearers as possible. Only few men left to carry on. Two officers killed, two wounded. Please send reinforcements as soon as possible. ' ' Clark, in the meantime, took over the command of the company, re-disposed the men under heavy shell and trench-mortar fire, until such time as reinforcements could be sent, thereby denying to the enemy an attempted lodgment in our front line posts. Clark received the Military Medal for his behaviour on this occasion. A platoon of No. 2 Company was at once sent forward, and platoons of No. 4 followed afterwards under Second Lieutenant H. J. Rowland, and the line was held intact. Captain F. W. Bower and Second Lieutenant W. Henderson were killed on this occasion ; five officers were wounded, and there were 140 other ranks casualties.

Meanwhile, on the left, the 10th Battalion had become involved. They were in support at the beginning of the battle, but at 2 p.m., after a heavy bombardment, the Germans attacked the 13th King's Royal Rifle Corps, and D Company were sent up as reinforcements. The Germans attacked in great force, and, after a severe struggle, penetrated the British positions. The desperate situation which resulted provided Lance-Corporal Charles Graham Robertson, M.M., of D Company, with an opportunity for an action calling as much on his skill as his heroism. He was in charge of a machine gun, and, rinding the Germans had almost cut him off, he sent back two men for reinforcements. Meanwhile, with one man, he remained at his post, and inflicted heavy loss with his gun until he was completely cut off. No help arrived, and he withdrew about 10 yards, and there stood again, pouring a sustained fire into the enemy. The two men were at length compelled to evacuate the position, and they fell back upon a defended post. The Germans continued to press forward in great numbers, and Robertson mounted the parapet with his comrade, and, fixing his gun in a shell-hole, resumed his task of shooting down the Germans who were pouring down and across the top of an adjoining trench. The value of Robertson's resolute and skilful defence can hardly be exaggerated. His comrade was killed ; he himself was severely wounded. But he worked his gun until his ammunition was exhausted, and then he managed to crawl back, bringing the gun with him. He was awarded the V.C.

ACTION OF MARCH 8th, 1918

At 7.15 the Germans had broken into the line, and B Company were sent up. Lieut. -Colonel Waters now took over the command of the brigade sector. Communications with brigade headquarters had been cut. The 13th Rifles had lost heavily, and the Germans had established themselves, with machine guns, in our lines. Second Lieutenants Dexter and Scott, of the Fusiliers, made several journeys to the front under a most severe fire with 20 men from 13th K.R.R.C. headquarters and carried up 2,360 bombs. When darkness fell the Germans had secured a small part of the British positions, but were firmly established there. During the night three counter-attacks were launched. B Company attacked first and failed through lack of bombs. A and B Companies then advanced and succeeded in establishing a strong point, but were unable to press the attack further. On the third attack a complete success was achieved, the enemy were driven back and the position was re-established. The 10th had lost heavily in the operations, but not so heavily as the 13th Battalion. Second Lieutenants H. C. B. Sandall and W. G. Crook were killed, five officers were wounded, and there were 61 other ranks casualties. Later in the day (March 9th) a divisional wire was received : " The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate the division, and especially the two battalions concerned, for their successful defence in last night's attack." Lieut .-Colonel Waters and Captain Bainbridge received the D.S.O., Captain Tanner and Second Lieutenant Edington the M.C., and Captain Penfold a bar to the M.C., for these operations, with the congratulations of the Corps, Divisional and Brigade Commanders.

* * * *

The 7th Battalion on December 21st performed an exploit which seems almost incredible. They were resting and refitting in the north when Lieut. -Colonel C. Playfair succumbed to the stress and strain of the Ypres operations and had to go to hospital. Major A. E. Gallagher, D.S.O., took over command on the 2nd until two days later, when Major E. G. L'Estrange Malone rejoined from divisional headquarters. On December 9th they left the area and a week later relieved the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers on Welsh Ridge, in the salient south of Marcoing. On the 21st a message was received from brigade head-quarters asking that every endeavour should be made to secure a prisoner for identification purposes. It was a bright moonlight night ; there was a white frost on the ground, and for 300 yards one could see clearly. It was therefore the very last kind of night for patrol activity. But Lance-Corporal T. Norris took out a patrol, and, discovering that the enemy were also desirous of securing a prisoner, decoyed them into the hands of a standing patrol under Corporal G. Collins. A prisoner was thus captured within three and a half hours of the request being received from the brigade. The Divisional and Brigade Commanders congratulated the battalion on their promptitude, which was surely unique, and Lance-Corporal Norris secured the Military Medal.

The battalion spent Christmas out of the trenches, but on December 27th they went back to the front line in time to receive a heavy Germanfattack. The position was almost untenable. The trench was the former Hindenburg support trench, and the wire was still standing westward. There were no communication trenches leading back to the support line, and the right of the line formed a sharp salient with a sap at one point to the German trench blocked by a pile of sandbags. At 8 a.m. on the morning of December 30th the Germans opened a furious barrage, chiefly enfilade, and then attacked over the snow in white suits. B, C and D Companies suffered heavily. D in the salient lost all their officers and most of the men either killed or captured. The men could not retire, even if they had wished to do so, because of the lack of communication trenches. The wire precluded a retirement over the open. Captain Davidson, the medical officer, and the whole of the aid post in D Company headquarters were captured. A counter-attack was delivered, and, though it failed, the Germans were held and the position was consolidated. On the following day the enemy put down a heavy barrage, and between twenty and thirty Germans were seen approaching the line. A sharp burst of Lewis-gun fire dispersed them, and the battalion were relieved later in the day. They had lost 9 officers (6 missing) and 244 other ranks. The bulk of the latter were missing. The 7th were now reduced to a trench strength of 11 officers and 167 other ranks, and when Lieut .-Colonel Malone returned from leave on January 13th he found his battalion amalgamated, temporarily, with the Artists Rifles.

GERMAN ATTACK ON SEVENTH BATTALION
The 1st and 12th Royal Fusiliers had left the Ypres area in the third week of September ; and on the 25th found themselves at Vadencourt, near the Omignon River. On October 28th — 29th both battalions were in the front line when a patrol of the 1st were caught by a much heavier German patrol who attempted to surround them. But the Fusiliers retired behind their wire and inflicted heavy casualties. It was apparently the same German patrol which, a few hours later, ran into the " Day Posts ' of the 1 2th Battalion in Somerville Wood. They were driven off, leaving behind a German officer who provided a useful identification. Second Lieutenant Burch and Lance-Corporal J. Thompson were officially commended for their services on this occasion. The 12th Battalion were very active in patrolling at this time, and a letter from Major-General A. C. Daly, G.O.C. 24th Division, congratulated the battalion in striking terms : " Second Lieutenant Hills, of the 12th Royal Fusiliers, spends most of his time in No Man's Land, and has been doing exceptionally good reconnaissance and patrol work ever since the division came into this bit of the line. He has gained valuable information several times. Another officer who always accompanies Second Lieutenant Hills is Second Lieutenant Mears-Devenish, also of the 12th Royal Fusiliers." It was but natural that after this the patrols should be more active and venturesome than ever ; and on November 27th Lieutenant A. H. Lee, M.C., proceeded along the Omignon River in daylight reconnoitring. Congratulations were received for this piece of work from the Brigade and Divisional Commanders.

The 1st Battalion, while in divisional reserve at Vendelles on December 16th, had the honour of being inspected by Major-General W. B. Hickie, C.B. They had returned to the line on the Hervilly left subsector, with Major Hebden in command, when they were called upon to assist a raid of the Rifle Brigade. Their role consisted of making a demonstration to deceive the Germans as to where the raid was taking place. On the night of January 19th, 1918, dummy figures were erected in front of the barbed wire, and at 6.45 the following morning the Rifle Brigade, on the right of the Fusiliers, raided the enemy trenches. The 1st Battalion assisted at the same time with intense Lewis-gun fire, and no doubt the three groups of dummy figures looked sufficiently impressive. The German artillery retaliated, but there were no casualties, and the episode seemed only an amusing interlude.

SERVICE IN ITALY
On December nth the 4th Battalion relieved the 8th East Yorks in the Noreuil right subsector, very near the place where they had been engaged at the time of the battle of Cambrai. The Pudsey support trench was lost the following day, and it was arranged that the 4th Royal Fusiliers should retake it and London support trench. But the Germans heavily bombarded the line immediately before the attack, and the venture proved a failure. W and Y Companies relieved the 12th West Yorks and 1st Northumberland Fusiliers in the front line and London support. Y and Z were placed under the orders of the 13th King's Liverpools, and the latter company, holding a block in Pudsey support, succeeded in advancing it 150 yards up the trench. But this useful little success proved to be a dubious advantage, for Second Lieutenant Goddard was killed on December 15th owing to our own artillery falling short into this support. In addition to this, there were 65 casualties among other ranks.

Italy. — For two of the Fusilier Battalions the winter held a very pleasant experience. The 26th and 32nd Royal Fusiliers entrained in the second week of November for Italy. At Ventimiglia, where they crossed the Franco-Italian frontier, C and D Companies of the 26th Battalion marched through the town amid scenes which recall the reception of the British troops in France in August, 1914. The march became a sort of triumphal progress, and showers of carnations fell upon the men. Italy had recently suffered a very heavy defeat, and the troops had not yet shown that they could check the apparently irresistible advance of the enemy. It was this that made the appearance of the British troops so welcome to the Italians ; and the two Fusilier battalions, to the end of their stay in Italy, received the most cordial reception from the people. At Genoa the officers of C and D Companies of the 26th Battalion were welcomed in the waiting-room of the main station, though it was near midnight and they were in easy stages of undress. Barrels of wine were broached on the platform, and the companies departed flushed and happy.

On November 19th the 26th Battalion began a series of forced marches from Cerlongo to the front. They marched in battle order with advance guards, and at night outposts were placed. During the seven days November 19th — 25th inclusive, the battalion covered 141 kilometres with only one day's rest. On the 24th they made 32 kilometres over rough mountain roads. The billets were almost invariably poor on this march ; and it says much for the battalion that few men dropped out, though many were of short service. On December 1st the battalion reached Bavaria, south of the Montello, on the right rear of the brigade.

Service in Italy was not very strenuous for either battalion. The Montello is a hog's-back hill which lies in the angle of the Piave where it turns south towards the coast. It falls sharply to the river with a shallow foreshore.

The river in winter was rough and icy cold, with a swift current that constantly changed the landmarks in the shallows, and made cross river patrols precarious and well nigh impossible. Cover was plentiful on the Montello Caves and dug-outs in the sides of the numerous hollows of the hill gave ample protection, with the river as a guard against surprise. But movement during the day was forbidden, and the night was turned into the normal day with its routine of meals, beginning at 6 p.m. A series of parallel roads cut the hill ; and the 26th held the left series between roads 3 and 5, with the 32nd on the right, guarding the Nervesa bridgehead.

There were many patrols during the second tour of the front line trenches after the Christmas interlude, but the success was not proportioned to the amount of energy and willingness expended. The river proved too great a handicap. On January 18th the battalion were relieved, and a few days later moved by march route to the G.H.Q. training area at Padua, where life was easy and pleasant. Athletics formed part of the training, and a routine feature was a run, in the afternoon, uphill to the Monastery and back. The battalion had only left Galzignano a few days when the news came that they were to return to France. At the beginning of March they left Italy, and after a long train journey and a march arrived at Sous St. Leger, where the division was reorganised.

DISBANDMENT OF BATTALIONS
The brigades lost one of their battalions ; and the 32nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers was disbanded, the personnel being amalgamated with that of the 26th Battalion. It was a fate which befell several other battalions of the Royal Fusiliers about this time. The 8th, who had fought so magnificently throughout the campaign, ceased to be in February. They had been closely and intimately associated with the 9th during their service in France, and their stand at Cambrai had been memorable. The 12th Battalion, who had been linked with the 1st for over two years in the 17th Brigade, also disappeared the same month. Parties of this battalion went to swell other Fusilier battalions : the 1st, 10th and nth. The 20th, the one remaining Public School battalion, received orders for disbandment on February 1st, and the personnel were divided between the 2nd, 4th and 13th Battalions. The 22nd (Kensington) Battalion were disbanded by the Brigadier who had been the most popular and inspiring of their commanding officers, and the 23rd and 24th Battalions were strengthened accordingly.

At the outbreak of the great German offensive in March, 1918, there were only fifteen battalions of Royal Fusiliers apart from the battalions of the London Regiment.