London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - FLANDERS — LA BASSEE, ARMENTIERES, YPRES

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919


By the end of the second week in October the 1st and 4th Battalions were both in Flanders, moving among places which saw more of the British troops during the war than any others. But the condition of the two battalions was very different. The 1st Battalion was one over strength in officers on the Aisne ; the 4th required a draft of 11 officers to bring it within sight of full strength. Junior officers who had attained exalted rank returned to their platoons, and the battalion marched, with little interval, into the thick of a hot battle. The atmosphere of the struggle had changed, and the troops got their first experience of village fighting.

On October 12th the 4th Battalion moved towards Vieille Chapelle along roads almost blocked by French cavalry. They were in divisional reserve, and remained so until the 15th, when they moved forward towards the Estaires-Neuve Chapelle road. The battalion attacked through Pont du Hem, W and X Companies being in the front line ; and easily brushed aside the cavalry screen in front of them. The advance was resumed on the following day to the Rue d'Enfer, where the enemy were found holding houses, and at dusk a halt was made on a line extending from Trivolet (W, Captain Swifte), along Rue d'Enfer, to Moulin du Pietre (X, Carey). There had been little resistance, and the few casualties suffered were due to snipers.

Herlies. — Aubers had been evacuated during the night, and the battalion entered it unopposed on the morning of the 17th ; but there some German cavalry were encountered advancing from Fromelles. The battalion was on the left of the division, with its flank supposed to be covered by French cavalry. The advance of the German cavalry delayed the march upon Herlies, which was found to be held in some strength. Captain Swift, with W Company, marched direct upon it by the Aubers-Herlies road, while Colonel McMahon took the other three companies through Le Plouich and Le Riez. The Lincolns, on the right of the Fusiliers, moved due eastwards ; and under this converging attack the Germans were forced out of the village. At about 6.30 p.m. Colonel McMahon entered from the north as Swift, with the Lincolns, was pushing the enemy out at the point of the bayonet. W Company lost Lieutenant Hodges, killed, and about 10 other casualties. An outpost line was taken up from Le Petit Riez to the southern outskirts of Herlies. The houses were searched, and a few Germans were discovered.

The division had now reached an uneasy equilibrium with the German forces on their front, and no further advance was possible. The 18th was spent in strengthening the positions, all of which came under a heavy bombardment from field and heavy guns. About 5 p.m. the battalions on the right and left of the Royal Fusiliers, the Scots Fusiliers and the Royal Irish, attacked after a preliminary bombardment. The Germans at once replied. Captain Waller, Lieutenants Cooper, Gorst and Longman, all of Z Company, were at this time having tea in a farm at Petit Riez, near their trenches. The three first ran out to see what was happening. Longman stayed behind ; and a shell fell upon the farm, burst in the room and killed him as he sat at table, a tragic end to a life of much promise.

During the morning of the following day the 8th Brigade took over Le Grand Riez, thus enabling the battalion to contract their front. The Fusiliers supported by their fire an attack on Le Pilly made in the afternoon by the 18th Royal Irish. The latter reached the station with heavy loss, but were counter-attacked after an intense bombardment and suffered more casualties. During the night Lieutenant Moxon's platoon was sent to the support of the Royal Irish in Le Pilly — it was all the help that could be given — and the Northumberland Fusiliers took over the position south of Herlies. The 4th Middlesex also relieved Z Company in Le Petit Riez. The Royal Fusiliers now held the west side of Herlies from the Le Pilly road. About 7 a.m. on the 20th a violent bombardment of Herlies with heavy guns began, and the town was speedily reduced to ruins. The only building left intact was the convent behind the church. The German infantry followed this up by repeated attempts to penetrate the village, which now lay at the angle of a narrow salient. About 9 a.m. the Northumberland Fusiliers reported determined attempts to outflank them on the southern boundaries of Herlies, and Captain Carey was sent up with a company to attempt to relieve the pressure by initiating an outflanking movement towards Moxon's position. They had to advance over the open, which was now covered by shell fire, and they lost very heavily. Carey was severely wounded by a shell splinter. Moxon had sustained a serious wound in the head. But a platoon reached his position. Ashburner was wounded by a shell splinter in Herlies.

About 1 p.m. Z Company was sent back to prepare a second position. The struggle grew more bitter, and about 4 p.m. half a battalion of Royal Scots was sent to Colonel McMahon to reinforce Herlies. During the night the Northumberland Fusiliers were relieved by the Scots Fusiliers. W and Y Companies still held their positions on the west of Herlies, but the French had evacuated Fromelles ; and in the afternoon the battalion was ordered to abandon Herlies. During the night the retirement was carried out to a position between Haut Pommereau and Le Plouich. The movement was unnoticed by the enemy, who continued to shell Herlies long after the battalion had left. The fighting in and about this village resulted in 5 officers and 150 other ranks being killed and wounded. The 22nd was spent in organising the new position, when orders were received to retire some four miles further back. No transport was available for much of the ammunition and rations, and they had to be abandoned. After a night march the battalion reached Pont du Hem at 4 a.m. on the 23rd and went into divisional reserve. They had been farther east than any British troops were destined to be for nearly four years ; but the enemy was too strong for the position to be maintained.

Armentieres. — Meanwhile the 1st Battalion had become involved in the battle of Armentieres, which embodied that series of encounters that took place on the left flank of the battle of La Bassee. They started to rejoin the brigade at Merris on the 14th and had to march single file because of the congestion on the road. The conditions of this march are sufficiently indicated by the fact that part of the platoon under Goodliffe had to be detached to rescue the car of General Keir (O.C. VI. Division), which had run into snipers holding a farm about 500 yards off the road. The car was restored with little trouble, though it was nervous work in the dark ; and the battalion were settling down into bivouacs when another platoon was ordered to capture a gun which had flung two shells into the middle of the square formation. It was thought to be 300 yards distant, but was eventually estimated to be about 1,000 yards farther off. On the next day they moved to Bac St. Maur. They were compelled to wait several hours in the road, and the men were constantly found swaying with sleep as they stood. Several horses even fell down in the road asleep. The battalion was near the limit of its endurance. If the crossing had been defended in force it is difficult to imagine what would have happened ; and the delay was due to the fact that on the first approach a number of shots had been fired across the river. At length some of the R.E. got across, swung back the central section, and the battalion crossed by the bridge.

They billeted at La Chapelle d'Armentieres on the following day, and on the 18th marched in support of the Rifle Brigade to test the strength of the enemy at Parenchies and Premesques, preparatory to the movement of the III. Corps up the Lys. At 2 p.m. the battalion went up on the left flank of the Rifle Brigade, who were held up at the Halt before Parenchies. The Fusiliers advanced on L'Epinette, where a hot fire was encountered. It was there that an attempt was made to rescue the people from a burning farm; but when an entry was at last forced through a window no one could be found. The Germans were pressed back slightly, but Captain Palairet and Lieutenant Cooper were wounded and 4 other ranks were killed, 27 wounded, and 4 missing. It was difficult to move without coming under fire, and the wonder is that more casualties were not sustained. The battalion settled at night in a deep dyke.

Two minor attacks, chiefly on the Rifle Brigade, took place during the night, and at 9 a.m. (20th) a rush was made for a gap between that regiment and the Fusiliers. During the rest of the day the positions were subjected to bombardment and sniping ; and Lieutenant Scholefield was wounded while crawling to obtain touch with the Rifle Brigade. The battalion were ordered to retire their positions slightly during the night, and the move was successfully carried out without molestation by the light of burning houses. Another feeble attack took place on the 21st after a desultory bombardment, and though this was easily beaten off, two officers, Fisher and Galsworthy, were wounded. The battalion were relieved on the 23rd after a short but costly German attack. The machine guns caught the Germans at a range of some 500 yards in the open. On relief the Fusiliers marched back to Armentieres, having to take cover from a heavy outburst of firing on the way, and thence south to the Rue Petillon, which lies about two and a half miles north-east of Fromelles, from which place the French had retired three days before, as we have seen. In this position they were on the zone connecting the battlefields of Armentieres
and La Bassee.

* * * *

The 4th Battalion had not long to rest. On the 24th they received an urgent order to fall in and to retake some trenches which had been lost by a battalion of the 8th Brigade. There was no staff officer to show which were the trenches, and Colonel McMahon was informed that the Germans were in a wood. A company was just forming up to take the wood at the point of the bayonet when an officer of the Royal Scots came up and said that his regiment had reoccupied the trenches and that no Germans were found. Nerves seemed to wear thin in these days.

The battalion returned to billets only to be summoned out once more — noon, October 25th — to retake lost trenches. The battalion moved to the Rue du Bacquerot, and Y Company was ordered to move thence to the Fleurbaix-Neuve Chapelle road. The remainder of the battalion moved south to Pont Logy, about 1,000 yards due west of Neuve Chapelle. Two companies attacked from this point in a north-easterly direction, thus presenting a flank to Neuve Chapelle. Y Company, on the north, advanced across the open under a heavy shrapnel fire. The two companies at Pont Logy also came under heavy fire, but suffered few casualties until they approached the outskirts of Neuve Chapelle, the northern houses of which the Germans had occupied. There was no artillery support, and Sir Francis Waller was mortally wounded in leading his company (Z) in a gallant charge against the enemy positions. After a severe struggle, in which many losses were sustained, the lost trenches were reoccupied. Neuve Chapelle was cleared, and two field guns, which had been abandoned, were recaptured. Colonel McMahon was ordered to leave two companies and to return the other two to billets. Y Company was left in the firing line, with two platoons of Z in close support and two platoons in reserve. Major Mallock was left in charge of these companies.

On the following day the Germans attacked ; and at about 2 p.m. the two companies were brought up from billets to support. Some of the trenches recaptured by the battalion had been taken in an overwhelming onslaught in which the Germans pressed up to the parapets ; and a determined attempt was made during the night to recapture them. This engagement was one of the fiercest in which the battalion had taken part, and the attack was not only unsuccessful, but resulted in many casualties, including 8 officers. Sergeant Osborne, who was sent back by Gorst, had the utmost difficulty in getting away. The Germans were then at the trench parapets, and the Fusiliers fought there till they fell. On the 27th another attempt was made to recapture the lost positions, in conjunction with the remains of six battalions. Two companies of Chausseurs Alpins co-operated with the Fusiliers, and, after very severe hand-to-hand fighting, the trenches were almost recovered, when the weight of the battalion was too light to retain the positions. They were compelled to fall back to a new line. Two officers were among the heavy casualties of this day, and the battalion was reduced to some 8 officers and 350 other ranks. Major Mallock, who was seriously wounded in this attack; was a heavy loss. Second in command, he had been to the fore in every action from Mons to this moment.

The battalion were relieved on the night of the 29th and marched to Merris via Vieille Chapelle and Doulieu. Several drafts were received, and on November 4th the battalion was inspected at Bailleul by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and warmly complimented. The terms of this speech deserve record. As remembered by Captain R. H. C. Routley, they were as follows : —

" I asked Colonel McMahon to bring you into this small yard because I wanted to express to you my admiration for the work that your regiment, under his leadership, has been doing.

" I have asked you to come in here because one can hear better, and I shall be very glad if you will let it be known to the men later on.

' I simply cannot find words enough to express my admiration for the way in which your regiment has behaved. All through the campaign up to now they have had the hardest work of any regiment in the brigade, and any work they have had to do they have carried out exceedingly well. In fact, I can safely say that there is no better regiment in the British Army than the Royal Fusiliers.

" I may add that I am the officer who writes the King's diary every day, and the work of your regiment has been specially mentioned in it ; and I can tell you that, when this war is over, you will have special mention made when you get home.

" Now I must say a few words about your colonel, who stands here with us. Of course you know quite well that he has recently been promoted to a brigade, but the work he has done with the regiment has been so valuable, and so well done, that we cannot spare him to take up the position he ought to be now occupying, and, therefore, I am here to tell you — and I'm afraid it will be a great disappointment to you — that, instead of the seven or eight days' rest you were looking forward to at Bailleul, I am very much afraid that in another twenty-four or forty-eight hours you will find yourselves back in the trenches again.

" You will remember a short time back General French came up and especially and personally thanked Colonel McMahon and your regiment for the work done, and it was the only regiment he thanked on that day in the whole division.

" So, when you get back, I will ask you to thank the men from me for all they have done."

Ypres. — General Smith-Dorrien's warning was soon fulfilled. On the night of November 6th the battalion took over the positions from the 6th Cavalry Brigade, east of Hooge, on the south side of the Ypres-Menin road. They had some difficulty in reaching their positions as the roads about Ypres were blocked with the traffic. But they settled down on the edge of Herenthage Wood with Zouaves on their left and the Northumberland Fusiliers on their right. Almost at once the battalion, now so weak, became merged in the great crisis of Ypres. On November 7th the Zouaves were blown out of their trenches. On the following day the shelling continued all day, and several minor attacks were beaten off. The most serious blow fell upon Y Company, but was dealt with summarily. But the Zouaves were forced back, and the Germans got into the wood, round the Fusiliers' open flank. Stapleton Bretherton and Jackson, with half of Y Company, delivered a violent counter-attack and penetrated to the German trenches. Very few of these gallant fellows came back. The two officers and 62 men were seen no more. But, thanks to this charge and the advance of the West Ridings, the line was restored.

On the nth came the last attempt of the Germans to cut through to the coast. The attack was expected ; the battalion order issued before it took place is notable. The order, which was to be read to companies, ran as follows : —

" It may be assumed that we are about to fight the decisive battle of the war. The German Emperor has arrived to command his troops in person, and Sir John French hopes that the British Army will prove to him that they are better men than the Germans. Both armies are composed of regiments more or less exhausted, and short of officers, and the result will depend very much on the prolonged energy of every soldier in the fight and the endurance shown during the next few days. Fire must be carefully controlled at night, men must assist to the last, be ready to cover every movement with fire, well aimed and well sustained, and there must be no straggling or straying from the platoons to which men belong. The CO. hopes that every man will sustain the great reputation that the Royal Fusiliers have already made during this war.

(Signed) " G. O'Donel, " Captain and Adjutant."

The morning dawned dull and misty, and about 6.30 a terrible shelling began, " much the most severe I (O'Donel) have ever seen." It continued for two and a half hours. The front trenches were knocked to pieces, and many of the men were killed or buried. Routley, in command, tried to send back a report of the plight of his men, but it was impossible to live in such a bombardment. Then followed the infantry attack by the twelve battalions of the Guard Division. The 4th (Queen Augusta's) Guard Grenadiers seem to have struck the Royal Fusiliers, and the little band of men received the first assault with the bayonet and hurled it back. Routley, about this time, was the only officer left, and he was wounded in the head. The Grenadiers delivered a second charge. Some of the men were driven from their trenches, and their appearance in the rear created a panic among the battalion supports, who appear to have been chiefly special reservists, a draft who arrived on the day before the battle and had not yet been organised into their platoons. Colonel McMahon went to them and tried to rally them. Suddenly he was seen to sink on one knee and begin to remove his legging as though hit in the leg. At that moment a shell burst close to him and killed him. He was a most gallant and distinguished officer, who impressed all who came into contact with him. " A Royal Fusilier," he said to the battalion on the eve of embarkation, " does not fear death. He is not afraid of wounds. He only fears disgrace ; and I look to you not to disgrace the name of the regiment." Not merely the battalion and the regiment, but the army as a whole, lost by his death.

Part of the West Ridings had also been driven from their trenches, but a determined counter-attack on both sides of the Ypres-Menin road by the Sussex and Scots Fusiliers drove the German Guard back with heavy loss and partly restored the line. At 1 p.m. the remainder of the Royal Fusiliers were very much disorganised and scattered. In the evening only O'Donel and Second Lieutenant Maclean, with 50 men, could be collected. The night was very wet, and the fighting died down but little. On the following day about 100 men were collected and withdrawn, but they were back again in the firing line during the evening in support of the Scots Fusiliers and Lincolns. On the 13th they were still in support with the two officers and 170 men. Next day under German pressure they were compelled to retire slightly. On the 15th, wet and tired out, they were still holding on in the rain and snow. But on the following day (November 16th) they went into divisional reserve at Hooge. The attack by the Imperial Guard had petered out without achieving its objective.

On the 20th they relieved the King's Own Scottish Borderers, south of Hooge, in heavy snow ; but on the following night they handed over to the French, marched to Westoutre through Ypres, and billeted. It was now freezing hard, and the men's feet were beginning to suffer.
At night on the 21st Major Hely Hutchinson arrived to take over command, with Captains Lee, Pipon and Magnay from the 1st Battalion. A draft of 300 special reservists arrived, and companies were reorganised and given some training. But on the 27th the battalion had to take over the trenches at Kemmel from the Norfolks. It was the last test to apply to men so little accustomed to warfare ; but the days were critical, and such risks had to be taken. Major Hely Hutchinson had to deal with some serious cases of nerves, but under his firm hand the unit settled down, and spent three days in the trenches. On the night of the 30th they were relieved by the Gordons, and marched to Westoutre to billets. The trenches had been wet, and many of the men had bad feet. Moreover, the shortage of N.C.O.'s made discipline a little slack. One can hardly wonder at this. The battalion had been wiped out twice since the opening of the war. In these four months they had lost 1.900 N.C.O.'s and men and over 50 officers, killed, wounded, sick, and missing. These figures must surely be unique ! At any rate, there were not sufficient troops available in these early months to allow more than a few units to renew themselves three times.

* * * *

The march southwards of the 1st Battalion on October 23rd had taken them once more to within a short distance of the 4th, who at that time were withdrawing from the advanced positions in the Aubers area. The 1st only arrived about Fleurbaix at 6 a.m. on the 23rd, very tired and sleepy, and on reaching Rue Petillon they were accommodated, some in houses and some in ditches. Their orders were to support the right of the Welsh Fusiliers ; but some Indian troops had arrived there first. The Sikhs lost their two British officers on the 25th, and the Fusiliers found them " jumpy " neighbours. A good deal of firing went on, especially during the night, and the ist Battalion, after being compelled to stand to night after night, at length took over the bulk of their trenches. There were heavy losses from the German bombardment. But the rhythm of the struggle had changed to that of trench warfare. On November 5th there were 20 casualties from the persistent shelling. Snipers, too, became obtrusive. On the 9th a German shell secured a direct hit on a trench. A gunner observer was killed and three men were wounded. Sergeant Tuersley was wounded in assisting Corporal Taimer, who had been hit, but continued to help him though the trench was still under fire. Three days later, at about 3.30 a.m., a dug-out in which Captain H. J. Shaw was sleeping was knocked in, and when the earth was removed he was dead.

The trenches now became ankle and even knee-deep in mud. The Germans were only about 150 yards away, and they won the approval of the Fusiliers by a rough attempt at sportsmanlike behaviour. Frequently they would call out, " Hullo, Cock Robin ! " and at night, " Look out, you English swine — we're coming ! ' Then a volley, followed by " Good-night " and silence. Both English and Germans put out targets to fire at, and the conventions were well observed. It was bitterly cold, and fires were lit along the trenches, each side ignoring the smoke. While on tour in the trenches on November 29th coke braziers were issued, and proved very acceptable. On the following day sheepskins were supplied. The next day saw Very pistols ; and, little by little, all the familiar accompaniments of trench warfare appeared.

The 4th Battalion on December 3rd were lined up on the road for the King's visit. After the terrible experiences of the first four months the year slowed down for them. But for the 1st Battalion the trench tours were not without incident. They were occupying a position with their right on the Rue du Bois, south-east of Armentieres, when they were ordered to co-operate with the attack of the 4th Division east of Ploegsteert on December 19th. They carried out this role by pinning the enemy to his trenches by means of bursts of intermittent fire. The Germans retorted with a bombardment, in which Captain G. E. Hepburn was wounded and one man killed. At about 1.30 p.m. on the 20th a number of shells were thrown upon a farm in which were battalion headquarters and one platoon. A few sick and some of the headquarters staff went into the cellar, while the remainder filed into a trench in the rear. It was an anxious moment, and a shell went through to the cellar, killing two men and wounding eight others.

Something akin to a truce fell over the armies on Christmas Day and the last days of the year. The trenches were worse than ever. Parapets fell in, and it was found easier to build new trenches than to drain the old. The Saxons opposite the 1st Battalion appeared to be engaged on the same tasks. In the old days armies went into winter quarters. On the Western Front in the winter of 1914 they at any rate ceased from major military operations.