London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - FIRST SPRING CAMPAIGN — NEUVE CHAPELLE, YPRES

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919


Early in January of 1915 Lieut.-Colonel Campbell took over the command of the 4th Battalion, who suffered much both from the inclemency of the weather and from avoidable hardships. The trenches were almost intolerable through mud and water ; and in the rest area near Ouderdom, early in March, owing to the huts not being rainproof, the camp became a sea of mud, and afforded little or no rest to its victims. They also suffered from the enemy snipers, the battalion losing no less than 58 men within forty-eight hours from hostile rifle fire on February 23rd. They had, however, the distinction of being thanked in person by General Sir H. Smith-Dorrien on March 8th for saving the situation at Ypres.

Previous to this their brigade (the 9th) had been transferred to the 28th Division to replace the 85th Brigade, a considerable number of whom went sick after scarcely ten days in the firing line. Of these the 3rd Royal Fusiliers had been not a little affected by the vagaries of climate, having only arrived from India in December. They lost temporarily about 25 per cent, of their strength owing to acute bronchial and laryngeal catarrh on their arrival at Havre, and large numbers had to be evacuated to hospital with trench feet during February. But, with the number of those who returned to duty at the beginning of March and several large drafts, the battalion attained the fighting strength of 25 officers and 870 other ranks by March 10th.

Neuve Chapelle. — The 3rd Londons had reached France in January, and on February 17th found themselves with the Garhwal Brigade of the Meerut Division at Vieille Chapelle. They were the only Fusilier battalion to be engaged in the operations against and around Neuve Chapelle. On March 10th they supported the advance of the 2nd Leinsters in the Meerut Division's attack on the south of the village.

A deviation of 1/39th Garhwal Rifles to the right caused that regiment to encounter the enemy's line beyond the part where the wire had been destroyed by our artillery fire, and in this fashion a gap of some 200 yards was left unaccounted for, with the result that the Germans with the aid of machine guns maintained a steady resistance at this point, which was finally reduced about 6 o'clock in the evening.

The way in which that point was won will not easily be forgotten by the 3rd Londons. The battalion were in brigade reserve, and by 3.30 a.m. had taken up position behind a long breastwork, in the rear of the trenches along the Estaires-La Bassee road. The country still looked beautiful as the day broke. It was snowing a little, but the fearful din of the bombardment put every other thought out of the heads of these young soldiers as they lay huddled up behind their sandbags for their first battle experience. The roars and barks of the guns were accompanied by the easily distinguishable ping of the bullets. At 8.5 a.m. the infantry advanced and the 3rd Londons moved up to the forward trenches to take their place. Two companies went forward to support the left of the attack, and the other two proceeded to a circular breastwork, on the right of the trench line, known as " Port Arthur."

It was about 8.30 a.m. that the first two companies advanced with the 1st Seaforths and a company of the Garhwal Rifles to support the left flank. A Company was ordered to take a house at the corner of the village, which was reported to have a garrison of about twelve Germans. The order was given to charge and the men at once came under a terrible fire. There were, in fact, almost a complete company of Germans well provided with machine guns. Captain Pulman fell almost at once with about ten or a dozen men. There was a momentary hesitation in the rest of the company. Lieutenant Mathieson, one of the gayest and best beloved of their officers, then pushed forward, shouting, with his infectious smile, " Come on, boys ; don't be shy ! " Few, except those in his immediate neighbourhood could hear him. But they saw the gesture and sprang forward. In a few seconds he fell, shot through the head, and died almost immediately. They lost indeed terribly, but somehow they won through and helped on the battle a little.

The other two companies remained in " Port Arthur," the ruined part-skeleton of some farm building, buttressed with walls of earth and sandbags, with machine guns mounted upon them. At 2 p.m. only one officer had escaped in A Company ; and at 5 p.m. the order came that this obdurate German trench that made a gap in the line must be taken. The men climbed over the breastwork in full view of the enemy to cross some 200 yards of open country, pitted by shells and strewn with dead, in a frontal charge on the German position. With bayonets at the charge they rushed across the open, cheering as they went. Lieutenant Crichton was one of the first in the open and, stepping in front of his platoon, he cried, " Follow me." He fell after a few yards, shot in the leg. One or two men ran to help him, but he struggled to his feet and, shouting " Charge ! " went on again. He was wounded again, this time mortally. Half the men who went across that space became casualties. Men fell on all sides, but the charge continued, and at length they rushed the German trench and the gap was healed. " It was the finest charge I ever saw," said an Indian officer. After the charge the wounded trickled back to " Port Arthur," where the colonel and another officer attended to them. One of these wounded boys said to his officer with a smile, " They can't call us Saturday night soldiers now, can they, sir ? "

Captains Livingston and Moore remained in the captured position for four days, and had to repel a German counter-attack. It was during this period that Acting-Sergeant W. Allen won the D.C.M. He was out on a reconnoitring patrol on the night of March 13th and discovered three small bridges laid down by the enemy for their advance. These he removed, which caused the Germans to be held up in their counter-attack, when they were met by machine guns. This action was a splendid opening of the Londons' fighting. The 3rd Londons lost 8 officers and 340 other ranks, but they had won their spurs.

The 4th Londons went into the trenches at Rue des Berceaux for the first time on the night of March 12th/13th and their admirable conduct under most trying conditions in a totally novel experience won the appreciation of Major-General H. 0. N. Keary, commanding the Lahore Division, while visiting the battalion headquarters at Vieille Chapelle some four days later.

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It was about this time that the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were in the trenches east of Kemmel. Orders had been given that considerable activity had to be shown by the troops in the trenches. It is probable that no soldier ever welcomed this order. Attacks are intelligible, but " hates " merely meant counter-hates. The role of this activity was to occupy and preoccupy the Germans during the attack at Neuve Chapelle, but it resulted, as was foreseen, in the Fusiliers' positions being badly knocked about. On the night of March 9th battalion headquarters were shelled and burned. Official correspondence, a machine gun, rifles and eighty sets of equipment were destroyed. It was on this occasion that Lieut. -Colonel Guy du Maurier, D.S.O., was killed. Lance-Corporal Fovargue, who was at headquarters at the time, stated that they were asleep when a shell suddenly tore off part of the roof. The colonel rushed to the doorway, and just as he reached it a shell fell on the spot and killed him instantly. Colonel du Maurier was not only an experienced soldier, but also a dramatist who made a stir with the war play "An Englishman's Home." He was the elder son of Mr. George du Maurier, the famous black and white artist, and brother of Mr. Gerald du Maurier the artist. Lieut. -Colonel A. V. Johnson, D.S.O., took over the command of the battalion, who next saw service in the Ypres area. They took over trenches from the French with parapets not more than a foot thick at the top ; " death traps " as a Fusilier officer aptly termed them.

Second Battle of Ypres. — On April 20th they moved into the Gravenstafel trenches on the left of the 28th Division. It was not their first visit ; and on the last occasion they had suffered 72 casualties. On their left were the Canadians with the French prolonging the line to the north. The 3rd Battalion reached the trenches when it was obvious a German attack was pending. The bombardment of Ypres had begun. Its destruction could only mean that the enemy were blocking the avenues by which supports must reach the Ypres sector, and accordingly the command looked for an attack in the general direction from which, in fact, it came. But its onset was so unlike any previous assault that for some days the position was critical, and the Royal Fusiliers went through a period of unique strain. On the evening of April 22nd the Germans first released gas on the Western Front, and the poisonous green cloud swept away part of the French line on the Canadians' flank. As there was a four-mile gap in the line the Canadians refused their left. On the 23rd this flank was becoming more and more involved ; and a counter-attack was launched east of the Ypres Canal. Lieut. -Colonel Arthur Percival Birchall, an officer of the Fusiliers commanding the 4th Ontario Battalion, fell in this gallant attempt to redeem a lost position. The battalion came under a very heavy fire and appeared to waver. Birchall, carrying a light cane, with great calmness and cheerfulness rallied his men, but at the moment when he had succeeded he was shot dead. He had twice been wounded, but insisted on continuing with his command, and he died at the beginning of the last charge which captured the German shelter trenches and, at least for the moment, arrested the advance. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross.

The 3rd Canadian Brigade, on the left flank, was now bent back almost at right angles and they lay in this position when, after a violent bombardment on the morning of April 24th, the Germans delivered a second gas attack. It was about 3.30 a.m. ; and the 3rd Brigade, gassed for a second time, fell back to the south-west of St. Julien. The 2nd Brigade, on their right, swung round to conform, and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were now left almost at the angle of the line. Attempts were made to restore the position, but to little purpose ; and on April 25th the Germans attacked the 2nd East Surreys on the Fusiliers' right. The 3rd Battalion helped to repel this attack with their machine guns.*

On April 26th the 1st Hants came up to establish connection on the left of the Royal Fusiliers, and the 2nd Buffs carried out a partial relief ; but in spite of all the Germans penetrated to the left rear of the Royal Fusiliers. The battalion's position was almost intolerable. Even after the Germans were ejected they were " absolutely plastered with shell and every other kind of fire from three sides at once the whole time, with practically no assistance at all from our guns, and nothing could exist or move over the ground in rear, as every yard of it was plastered without ceasing by enormous shells." f

* " Great slaughter was caused by a machine gun of the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, under Lieutenant Mallandain " (Conan Doyle, " The British Campaign in France and Flanders," Vol. II., p. 64).

f An officer's statement.

Late on the afternoon of May 2nd strong bodies of the enemy had been observed moving from Passchendaele towards the left trenches, which from that time onwards suffered very severe bombardment, parts, indeed, being blown to pieces, necessitating their evacuation. Between April 22nd and May 3rd, when the line was ordered to retire, the 3rd Royal Fusiliers had had Lieutenant H. M. Legge, Second Lieutenants A. Hyam, G. Lambert, W. Grady, F. Franklin and W. Dunnington- Jefferson and 100 N.C.O.'s and men killed, 13 officers wounded, and 363 additional casualties among the other ranks. But they had clung to their position under the most desperate conditions and had not given a yard of ground until the whole line was ordered to fall back.

On the evening of May 3rd the battalion moved back to bivouac in the wood north of Vlamertinghe-Poperinghe road, where they were inspected by General Bulfin (the Divisional Commander) on May 4th. At noon on the 8th they were ordered to support an attack made by East Surreys and the 3rd Middlesex between Verlorenhoek road and Railway to regain some trenches lost in that vicinity. The battalion took no more active participation on this occasion than that of being the victim of perpetual sniping from their front and right.

However, on the 12th, reinforced by several large drafts, they were relieved by Leicester Yeomanry and moved back to bivouac in a wood east of Poperinghe, having lost Second Lieutenants W. Curwen and A. Ford, with 40 N.C.O.'s and men killed ; and there were 3 officers and 141 other ranks additional casualties during the four days of active support.

In the severe losses they suffered the 3rd Royal Fusiliers experienced this consolation, that they were highly complimented by the Commander-in-Chief and Brigade on May 20th, for their services and operations extending from April 22nd to May 13th.

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The 4th Londons had meanwhile made a forced march to Ouderdom on April 25th, and delivered an attack in support of the Connaught Rangers at St. Jean, an effort which was unsuccessful owing to the poisonous gas employed by the enemy. On the following day the 4th Londons made another gallant attempt, this time upon the right flank ; but also unsuccessfully. They sustained heavy losses, Lieutenant Coates and 32 other ranks being killed, 7 officers wounded and 165 additional casualties to N.C.O.'s and men.


Aubers Ridge and Festubert. — Meanwhile an attempt was being made by the First Army to engage the enemy in the locality adjoining the scene of the Neuve Chapelle operations. The first part of the operations began on May 9th and the main advance was made towards Fromelles.

On May 8th the 1st Londons had moved to assembly positions south of the Rue Petillon with A and B Companies on the right and C and D on the left. On the following day, after an artillery bombardment of the German wiring and trenches, the leading platoons of A and C Companies advanced from their assembly positions only to be recalled by the Brigadier. At 6.10 a.m., however, the battalion advance * was resumed, being carried out by platoon rushes during which the right half of the battalion alone lost 3 officers and 120 men, most of which casualties occurred before the river Layes was reached. At half-past seven information was received that Brig. -General Lowry Cole had been killed, and an hour and a half later the battalion was ordered to withdraw to the cross-roads at Rue du Quesnes, from which they were directed to return to billets at Bac St. Maur, having lost in the operations Captain G. M. D. Mouat and Lieutenant R. G. B. Bowen killed, Lieutenant J. Seaverns, died of wounds, Captain A. A. Lyle and Lieutenant H. J. Boyton wounded and 194 other ranks casualties.

The 3rd Londons took part in the second advance which was made, farther to the south, east of Festubert. The Londons co-operated with their former companions, the 2nd Leinsters and Garhwal Rifles, in an unsuccessful attack on May 16th on the enemy's trenches not far from the scene of their previous enterprises, and in consequence remained in trenches south of Neuve Chapelle, with their headquarters on the Rue du Bois.

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* " They advanced over 400 yards of open with the steadiness of veterans " (Conan Doyle, " The British Campaign in France and Flanders," Vol. II., p. 119).

Bellewarde Ridge. — Meanwhile, before Ypres there had been a ten days' lull in the fighting ; but on May 24th the enemy delivered a gas attack. This was the worst discharge of all. Five miles away, at Dickebusch, the 4th Battalion experienced its effects, many men suffering from sore eyes.

It was a perfect summer day and the light north-easterly breeze just after dawn carried the poisonous fumes across the British lines between Shell-trap Farm, north of the St. Julien road, and Bellewarde Lake. The surprise gained the enemy a considerable advantage, and, as the men were searching for their respirators there began a violent bombardment. It was a terrible experience, waking to this inferno ; and some of the troops left their trenches. The 3rd Battalion were at this time lying south of the Ypres-Roulers railway, and they at once found themselves not only obliged to cope with the poisonous fumes and the terrible bombardment, but also with the uncovering of their left flank, where the troops had left the trenches. Half of No. 2 Company, under Second Lieutenants Sealy and Holleny, were sent to occupy the abandoned trenches north of the railway. Both officers were killed later in the day. After 5 a.m. telephone communication with brigade headquarters ceased, and though constantly repaired it was as persistently broken again by shell fire. Nos. 1 and 4 Companies were also cut off from battalion headquarters, and the battle line appeared to fall to pieces with small islands of steadfast troops alone standing in the way of the German advance.

Major Johnson received a message from brigade head-quarters ordering him to counter-attack. Two companies of the Buffs were to support, and the East Surreys were to co-operate north of the railway. The remainder of No. 2 Company and certain stragglers at once prepared to advance against the ridge from the road 200 yards south of the railway crossing; and at the same time a half company of the Buffs moved up the sunken road south of the wood, close to the level crossing. Major Baker crossed the railway and sent forward the other half of No. 2 Company under Lieutenant Sealy with orders to make good the old trench line 350 yards to the east.

But now disaster began to crowd upon disaster. Major Johnson's attack had not been successful, and he was wounded and had to go to the dressing station. Major Baker collected Major Johnson's party in the wood south of the railway and placed them in the third line trenches. But before the Fusiliers had taken up position the Germans had worked round to the south of Ridge 44 and were enfilading the road south of the railway. Baker now got together some of his men and placed them in the ditch on this road, from which position they could return the German fire with less disadvantage. The Buffs' reinforcements sent up were so thinned out by shell fire that when the various small parties were collected they totalled only 200 ; but they were a useful reinforcement. The immediate danger was the Germans' turning movement on the right, and the Buffs extended the line south of the road as a counter manoeuvre.

The Germans had been in possession of our fire trenches since 8 a.m., but the surviving 150 (out of an original 880) Royal Fusiliers, with the assistance of the Buffs, succeeded in holding the third line to the end of the day. A party of Durham Light Infantry filled up the 300 yards' gap between the Royal Fusiliers, north of the railway, and the East Surreys. To complete the chronicle of disaster the 84th and 80th Brigades attacked that night, but, after a bitter and prolonged struggle, nothing further was achieved than a final checking of the German onslaught. A restoration of the original position had proved impossible, and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were relieved and left the line.

In the final summing up the Germans had only produced a surface abrasion on the positions for which the Fusiliers had so obstinately fought. Almost from the beginning their plight seemed hopeless. The gas, where it did no worse, made the men incapable of all effort ; and yet the time had come for a super-human effort. They had to make good the defection on the left and, thus weakened, bear a heavy onslaught from the Germans, and finally make a deliberate counter-attack. By 8 a.m. Major Baker was not only commanding officer ; he was the only officer left out of seventeen. At the end of the day the battalion casualties amounted to 536. This was probably the worst loss in a day's battle of any Fusilier battalion during the war.

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First attack on Bellewarde. — At the end of May

the Germans were left in possession of Bellewarde Lake, and they established positions which made an uncomfortable sag in the Ypres salient. The 3rd Division was given the task of effecting a local straightening of the line in this area, and the 9th Brigade was selected to storm the Bellewarde Farm Ridge.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were in position, east of Cambridge Road trench, at 1.30 a.m. on June 16th, on the right of the brigade front. Immediately in front of them lay the wood with a trench guarding its western edge. At 2.50 a.m. the artillery bombardment began, and two hours later two companies advanced in half-company column and captured the front German line without much resistance, the wire having been so effectually cut that no difficulty was experienced by our infantry in climbing through it and scaling the enemy parapet. In some places the wire was swept away as though it had never been. Dead and wounded were lying about ; and the unwounded appeared to have been demoralised by our shell fire — a welcome change — into surrender.

On the right the two supporting companies of the 4th Battalion pushed through the wood to the trench on the west bank of Bellewarde Lake. But they advanced too quickly for our artillery and suffered very heavily, despite every attempt to correct the range by coloured screens. At 10 a.m. the brigadier of the 7th Brigade had taken command ; and he ordered Major Hely Hutchinson to go into the wood which had been just captured by the battalion and organise the men who remained. This was immediately done.

But the bombardment by our own and the enemy's artillery was too much, and after considerable loss the 4th Battalion withdrew to a communication trench which had been turned into a fire trench by Captain de la Perrelle. This position was held against all counter-attacks until in the early part of the afternoon orders were received to retire.

All the day the battalion was under heavy artillery fire, and during the afternoon gas shells were used freely ; but the men's behaviour was very fine. Lance-Corporal Filter and Sergeant Jones were both wounded, but remained at their machine guns until sent to the dressing station. Sergeant H. T. Smith very bravely bandaged two wounded men and carried them to cover, all under heavy fire ; and Private A. Beckett was killed while assisting a wounded comrade along a trench. Private McGee was wounded in two places, but continued to carry messages through the shell-swept area until sent to the dressing station by his captain. Indeed, the battle was full of heroic deeds, but at the end of the day only a handful of ground remained in the hands of the battalion of all that had been taken in that first eager rush, and the losses had been all too heavy. Of the 22 officers and 820 men who entered battle some 15 officers and 376 men became casualties. Captain and Adjutant O'Donel, who had been with the battalion from their arrival in France, was killed. Lieutenants Thornton, Harter, Warde and Rogers, with Second Lieutenants Dudley and Banister, were also killed. Major Hely Hutchinson was badly wounded and Captain de la Peverelle took over the command of the battalion.

The day's fighting had been a very terrible experience, though the divisional commander congratulated the battalion, and General Allenby talked to the men in groups on the 18th and told them they had done the finest bit of work in the campaign.