London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories
The First Seven Divisions - Troyon in 1914
Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres
Author: Ernest W. Hamilton
The 14th of September probably saw more real fighting in the old-fashioned sense
than any other day in which the British troops had been engaged. The whole line
covering a frontage of twenty miles was involved, but the fiercest conflict was
always on the right with the 1st Army Corp This day's fighting is sometimes
referred to as the battle of the Aisne, and sometimes as the battle of Troyon.
The former is too indefinite, in view of the protracted fighting on the river of
that name; the latter is too parochial. In real truth there were four distinct
but synchronous battles taking place that day along our front, viz., at Troyon,
Verneuil, Soupir and Chivres. The most sanguinary, and undoubtedly the most
important as far as results go, was the first of these. It may fairly be said
that the British victory at Troyon on September 14th was one of the most
brilliant achievements of the War. The generalship displayed was of a high
order, and the troops engaged behaved with the greatest steadiness and courage.
Proceedings commenced at the very first streak of dawn. General Bulfin's 2nd
Brigade, which had got as far as Moulins on the 13th, set out at four o'clock on
the following morning along the road to Vendresse. This road runs between the
wooded downs on either side, and the idea was to bring the rest of the 1st
Division along it as soon as the heights to right and left had been cleared.
Half a mile short of Vendresse the R. Sussex, the 60th and the Northamptons
scaled the downs to the right of the road, and deployed in the order named, the
Sussex on the left, the 60th in the middle, and the Northamptons on the right,
just east of Troyon. Beyond the Northamptons were the 1st Coldstream, who had
been detached from the 1st Brigade. The Loyal N. Lancashire Regiment remained in
reserve down at Vendresse, and about six o'clock the other three battalions of
the 1st Brigade came marching through them, along the road towards Cerny. About
half a mile further on, these three battalions scaled the heights on the left of
the road, so as to continue the line of the 2nd Brigade, which was on the right
of the road. Here they deployed and remained till the 3rd Brigade came up on
their left some three hours later.
The day was a particularly unpleasant one. There was a cold and persistent rain
from the north-west right in the faces of the British, and accompanied by a kind
of fog which made it impossible to see clearly for more than a couple of hundred
yards ahead, and which was responsible for a good deal of unfortunate confusion
through the day as to the identity of friend and foe. It also, as may be
supposed, greatly increased the difficulty of our Gunners, who found it
impossible to locate the enemy accurately, or to get exact information as to the
correctness of their range.
Having dealt with the disposition of the three brigades of the 1st Division, we
can now turn to the actual fight at Troyon. The main objective of our attack
here was the Sugar Factory which stands near the five cross-roads on the Chemin
des Dames. The Factory itself was very strongly held with machine-guns, and was
flanked by two batteries of artillery. For a quarter of a mile on each side of
it were the German trenches, on the one side running along the Chivy road, and
on the other along the Chemin des Dames, the two forming an obtuse angle with
the apex at the Factory itself. In addition, the enemy had four big eleven-inch
guns behind their line, the fire from which greatly harassed our troops all
through these operations as they completely outranged our batteries. The
approach to this position was over turnip and beet fields, very wet and sticky
with clay, and sloping gently upwards towards the Factory. As long as the 2nd
Brigade was on the steep sides of the downs it was comparatively sheltered from
the enemy's fire, but the moment this sloping plateau was reached, a tremendous
fire burst upon it at close range from rifles, machine-guns, and from two
batteries of artillery, which were in position behind the trenches along the
Chemin des Dames.
It is difficult to conceive of conditions more unfavourable for attack: a
driving rain in the faces of the assailants, an entrenched enemy, and an uphill
approach across clay fields saturated with wet and two feet deep in beet plants.
However, the order was to advance, so undeterred by the gaps ploughed in their
ranks, the brigade pressed steadily on. The objective of the R. Sussex on the
left was the enemy's trenches along the Chivy road. Towards this they pushed on
at the slow plodding tramp which was the best pace which could be raised in the
circumstances, till they reached the comparative shelter of a sunken lane. In
this lane the R. Sussex machine-gun section was able to get a position from
which it could partially enfilade the Chivy road trenches, and so effective was
its fire from this angle, that after a time a white flag was raised, and several
hundred Germans were seen running forward with their hands up. Col. Montresor
and many other officers and men of the Sussex left the lane to accept this
surrender, whereupon the enemy, from the Factory itself and from the trenches to
right and left of it, poured a deadly fire into the confused mass of Germans and
British, mowing them down in scores. In this indiscriminate massacre the R.
Sussex lost very heavily, Col. Montresor, Maj. Cookson, and Lieuts. Daun and
Hughes being killed, and Captain Cameron wounded. The Germans too suffered
severely, but about 200 of them were got safely into the lane and sent off to
the rear with a platoon as escort.
The R. Sussex being now very considerably reduced in numbers, the Loyal N.
Lancashires were brought up from reserve, one company being sent to support the
Sussex, while two and a half companies came up on the right of the 60th, i.e.,
between the 60th and the Northamptons. These two and a half companies being
fresh troops were now ordered to attack the Sugar Factory. The position of the
Factory and the lie of the ground has already been described. The Loyal N.
Lancashires, in order to carry out the attack as ordered, had to advance over a
quarter of a mile of open ground under fire, not only from their front, but from
both flanks as well, on account of the angle formed by the German trenches to
right and left of the Factory. Their casualties during this advance were
terrible. The C.O., Maj. Lloyd, and his Adjutant, Captain Howard-Vyse, were
killed in the first rush. Fifty per cent. of the men fell in crossing that
fire-swept zone, but the remainder carried steadily on and, at the point of the
bayonet, drove out the enemy and captured the Factory, an achievement which must
undoubtedly rank as one of the finest of the War.
The R. Sussex now pushed forward again, and Lieut. Dashwood, the machine-gun
officer, got his maxims into the Factory, and from there enfiladed the two
German batteries along the Chemin des Dames. At the same time some of the R.
Sussex and the 6oth crept up along the road leading from Vendresse to the
Factory, till they were in a position to enfilade the German trenches to the
east of it. This manœuvre produced an immediate surrender, the Germans leaving
their trenches and hoisting the white flag. Warned, however, by their experience
earlier in the day, the British remained prudently under cover of the road, and
it was as well they did, for the two German batteries in rear of the trenches at
once began bombarding this new situation at point-blank range, with the result
that, while the British in the road took no harm, the unfortunate Germans who
had tried to surrender were practically wiped out by their own people.
This patriotic act was destined to be the last that these particular batteries
performed, for Lieut. Dashwood with the Sussex machine-guns got on to them from
the Factory and rendered them incapable of further damage. The horses were all
killed, and such gunners as survived made off, abandoning the guns.
The Factory itself was not held, being of no military value and presenting a
first-class target for the German artillery. Lieut. Dashwood withdrew his
machine-guns to a farm-house some 200 yards down the road, and from this point
was able to do considerable execution on the retreating enemy. He was soon,
however, located, and Lieut. Pelham, who was assisting him, was killed. The
section, however, ultimately managed to get away safely and rejoin its
battalion. The vacated Factory was at once heavily bombarded by the enemy, and
our troops derived no little satisfaction from seeing shell after shell drop
where they were not.
The victory of Troyon was now complete, and it was one of which the troops
engaged had every reason to be proud. The results, too, were very far-reaching,
the position thus gained being never afterwards wrested from the British troops
during their stay at the Aisne.
The casualty list in this sanguinary little fight was a heavy one. The Loyal N.
Lancashires lost 15 officers, including their C.O. and Adjutant, and over 500
rank and file. The value of their gallant performance was, however, officially
recognized, and Captain Spread, who displayed great courage throughout the day,
received the Military Cross. The R. Sussex lost 250 rank and file and 9
officers, also including their Colonel, while in the 60th, Major Foljambe,
Captain Cathcart, Lieut. Bond and 2nd Lieuts.
, Thompson and Davison were
Whilst the 2nd Brigade plus the 1st Coldstream had been engaged with the Factory
and the German entrenchments along the Chemin des Dames side of it, the Black
Watch and Camerons were busy dislodging the other German wing from their
trenches along the Chivy road. This again was a costly affair. The Camerons were
enfiladed at close range by the German artillery on the other side of the
Factory, and had lanes torn through their ranks. Col. Grant-Duff was killed
while heading a bayonet charge of the Black Watch, side by side with his
Adjutant, Captain Rowan Hamilton. The 1st Scots Guards, who were on the hill
between Vendresse and Troyon, also lost their C.O. as well as their second in
command, Col. Lowther being wounded and Major Garnier killed, as were also
Lieuts. Inigo Jones and Thornhill. Sir V. Mackenzie and Lieut. Stirling-Stuart
were wounded at the same time. The Scotsmen, however, did not mean stopping that
day, and in spite of desperate losses the Chivy road trenches were finally
carried at the point of the bayonet and a number of prisoners taken. But it cost
the 1st Brigade 49 officers and 1,100 rank and file.
Much of the success during this day was due to the gallant behaviour of the
116th Battery R.F.A. attached to the 1st Brigade. At an early period in the day
this battery, for fear of misdirection in the mist, had worked its guns up into
a dangerously exposed position close to the firing line. From here they were
able to work great damage to the German defences, but, as a natural consequence,
themselves suffered severely in the process. Major Nicholson, in command of the
battery, had been wounded early in the morning while reconnoitring for this
position, the command then devolving upon Captain Oliver, who took the battery
into action. Some 1,200 rounds were fired during the day, and replenishment of
ammunition had to be done entirely by hand, all spare men and drivers being led
up in relays by Lieut. Gardiner. The battery remained exposed to a very galling
fire till after nightfall, when it was withdrawn by order of Col. Geddes,
commanding the 25th Brigade R.F.A., as its position was in front of the infantry
line actually occupied. Lieut. Simson, well known as a Rugby International, was
killed during the operation. Great courage and devotion to duty was shown by
Bombardier Collins, the battery telephonist, who, though painfully wounded early
in the proceedings, continued at his post throughout the day. The battery was
warmly thanked and praised by General Maxse, commanding the 1st Brigade, for the
assistance it had given him.
By noon the 1st and 2nd Brigades were extended in a straight line running east
and west through the Factory. Eventually, however, the line which was actually
occupied and entrenched and maintained throughout the Aisne period against
incessant counter-attacks had its right resting on the Chemin des Dames half a
mile east of the Factory, and from there inclined gradually backwards till it
reached the river east of Soissons. When we consider that the position won this
day on the Chemin des Dames was four miles north of the river, the oblique line
thereafter held by the British troops was a lasting monument to the remarkable
achievement of the 1st Division on September 14th.
There can be no shadow of doubt that the Germans were completely taken by
surprise by the unexpected rapidity of the 1st Division's advance. It was a fine
piece of generalship, and had Sir Douglas Haig only had fresh troops to bring up
from reserve, it is probable that the Germans would have been swept back another
mile or two.
Fresh reserve troops, however, were too great a luxury for our small force. The
Loyal N. Lancashires had in the morning been the reserve battalion to the 2nd
Brigade, and of these fifty per cent. had fallen. Some of the R. Sussex and 1st
Coldstream, as a matter of fact, did penetrate as far as Cerny, following the
road from Troyon which cuts through the high ground beyond in a narrow defile.
This road was literally choked with the enemy's dead. At Cerny they found every
symptom of confusion and surprise, abandoned kits, baggage and munitions, and no
sign of organized resistance. The detachment, however, was small, and as it was
unsupported on either flank it was deemed wise to retire.
We can now move across on to the next range of heights to the left, and see how
it there fared with the 3rd and 5th Brigades. Here matters were neither so
eventful nor so decisive as on the Troyon ridge. It was ten o'clock before the
3rd Brigade came up into line, and was ordered to extend to the left and join up
with the right of the 2nd Division, which was in the neighbourhood of Braye.
While carrying out this order and when within a mile or so of Verneuil, they
suddenly came up against two strong German columns which were advancing with
some unknown object. The rest of the day's proceedings in this quarter may be
briefly described as a series of attacks and counter-attacks, which lasted all
through the day, between these two German columns and our 3rd, 5th and 6th
Brigades. In the fiercely contested combat between these two forces honours were
during the earlier part of the day fairly easy, but towards dusk the Germans
sensibly weakened, both in attack and defence, and the British troops
undoubtedly had the last word.
The most conspicuous episode in this section of the fighting was a really great
performance on the part of an Edinburgh man named Wilson, in the Highland Light
Infantry. That battalion had just made a most successful and dramatic charge,
led by Sir Archibald Gibson-Craig and Lieut. Powell (both killed), and had
established itself in a forward position with its left on a small wood. From
this wood a German machine-gun began playing on the ranks of the battalion with
such disastrous accuracy that it soon became clear that either the machine-gun
must be silenced or the position evacuated. Pte. Wilson thought the former
alternative preferable, and, getting a King's Royal Rifles (60th) man to go with him, crept out
towards the wood. The King's Royal Rifles (60th) man was shot almost at once, but, quite undeterred,
Wilson went on alone, killed the German officer and six men, and single-handed
captured the machine-gun and two and a half cases of ammunition. It need
scarcely be said that he got the Victoria Cross.
Another Victoria Cross earned this day by another Scotsman was little less
remarkable, though of an entirely different order.
Pte. Tollerton, a fine, powerful man in the Scottish Rifles, noticed an officer
fall badly wounded in the firing line. Though himself wounded both in the head
and hand, Tollerton carried the officer to a place of safety, after which he
himself returned to the firing line and there remained fighting, in spite of his
wounds, throughout the day. At dusk he returned to the wounded officer. In the
meanwhile the firing line had fallen back, with the result that Tollerton and
the officer were left behind. The latter was quite incapable of moving, and
Tollerton remained with him for three days and nights, till eventually both were
Once more it is necessary to shift our scene still more to the left and nearer
again to the Aisne, where the Cour de Soupir farm stands on the crest of the
The capture of this position was the work of the Guards' Brigade. At 8 a.m., at
the time when the 1st and 2nd Brigades were in the very thick of their fight at
Troyon, the 2nd Division, which was still on the south side of the river, began
to cross by the new pontoon bridge at Pont d'Arcy, the 6th Brigade moving up the
valley to Braye, while the 5th Brigade fought its way up the wooded slopes above
Soupir. These last two brigades, as we have seen, linked up with the 3rd Brigade
in the neighbourhood of Verneuil.
The 4th Brigade went down the right bank of the river as far as Chavonne, where
it remained till midday, when it got the order to scale the heights in support
of the 5th Brigade, which was reported in difficulties. Accordingly the 3rd
Coldstream and Irish Guards forced their way up through the woods north of
Soupir, while the 2nd Grenadiers and two companies of the 2nd Coldstream made
for the hamlet of Les Grouins on the left, where the idea was that they were to
get in touch with the 1st Cavalry Division, which was also reported in
difficulties. The other two companies 2nd Coldstream stayed in reserve, in a
wood clearing on the bluff, half a mile south of La Cour de Soupir farm.
The track from Chavonne to the farm zigzags steeply up the bluff above the river
through thick woods. Up this track, now ankle-deep in mud, the Guards scrambled
in column of fours till they reached the flatter ground above, where they at
once came under very heavy fire from the neighbourhood of the farm. Col.
Feilding, who was acting Brigadier, thereupon deployed the two battalions to the
left, and, as soon as the Grenadiers had come up into line on their left flank,
the three battalions charged through the mist and rain in the direction of La
Cour de Soupir farm. As had been the case with the 2nd Brigade, they were met by
a very severe machine-gun and rifle fire at close range, the moment they emerged
on to the flatter ground above, and their casualties were very considerable;
but, notwithstanding, they kept going, captured the farm and trenches and drove
out the enemy with heavy loss.
An unfortunate incident, very similar in many respects to that which had
befallen the R. Sussex at Troyon, occurred during the capture of these trenches,
and was responsible for the deaths of many good men.
Just to the left of the farm a number of Germans were seen advancing with hands
up and white flags. Some of the 3rd Coldstream went out to accept the surrender,
whereupon a second line of Germans sprang up, and, firing on friend and foe
alike, mowed them down indiscriminately.
There can be little doubt that both this and the Troyon incident on the same day
were not acts of deliberate treachery on the part of the Germans, but were
purely "no surrender" demonstrations, and were probably aimed more at their
compatriots than at the British.
In this engagement the 3rd Coldstream lost Captain Banbury, Lieut. Ives, Lieut.
Bingham, Lieut. P. Wyndham, Captain Vaughan and Lieut. Fane, of whom the first
four were killed, and 160 rank and file. The position gained, however, was never
afterwards lost, but, from September 14th on, was held by the Guards' Brigade
for twenty-nine consecutive days, in the face of a rapid succession of
counter-attacks of the fiercest description, this position being singled out by
the Germans for their most determined efforts at recapture.