London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - THE SUMMER OPERATIONS — LOOS

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919


As the spring wore on to summer a number of new Royal Fusilier battalions made their way to France, so that at the opening of the battle of Loos there were nine Regular and Service battalions on the Western Front. They settled down very easily, and showed every eagerness to get to grips with the enemy. At first many things had the charm of novelty. When, on July 29th, the 8th Battalion exploded a mine in front of Frelinghem and a trench mortar threw twenty 60 lb. bombs into the German trenches, this formed a wonderful episode. It was the first occasion on which a trench mortar had been used on the battalion front, and it excited great interest. The retaliation was even more engrossing, and a little disturbing, too. On August 9th the Germans exploded a mine and began a very heavy bombardment. Over 4,000 rounds from five batteries fell on the battalion front. The artillery were asked to reply, and 147 rounds were fired. The trench parapet was blown in, and Second Lieutenant Allen and C.S.M. Perkins gallantly dug out Lieutenant Chell, who had been buried by the mine explosion, though they were completely in the open and under heavy fire. The rest of the morning appears to have been occupied by answering indignant expostulations from the artillery about the reason for causing such a huge expenditure of ammunition ! But Brig. -General Borrowdale later congratulated the battalion on their soldierly bearing in this episode. It was all very characteristic of the period.

On August 18th another typical incident occurred. The 10th Battalion, who had only been in France some eighteen days, were attached to the 8th for instruction in the trenches. During the early autumn the 1st Battalion remained in the neighbourhood of Ypres, and the 4th was involved in the operations about Hooge, which seemed ever to be bubbling with activity. On September 29th the battalion exploded a mine under a German trench, and the night was occupied by a great bombing battle.

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Loos. — But in the meantime the army had launched the battle of Loos, which, waged with intensity for some days, set up ripples throughout the area for over a month. The attack was elaborately staged and, in order to conceal its exact dimensions, smoke clouds were released over an extensive sector of the British front. This led to an amusing incident. The 8th Battalion, still lying near Houplines, had been ordered to light smoke fires along their front at 4.30 a.m. on the morning of the attack. At 4.15 this order was cancelled, and directions were given to raise the smoke cloud at 5.30. The 40th Division, on the right of the 8th Battalion, kept to the original order, and about 5.0 a.m. voices from the German trenches inquired when the 8th Battalion were going to light their straw !

It was, however, the 12th Battalion, the last to arrive in France, who were the first to be involved in the battle of Loos. They formed part of the 73rd Brigade of the 24th Division, one of the two reserve units which Sir John French had kept in hand " to ensure the speedy and effective support of the I. and IV. Corps in case of their success." They had only arrived in France on September 1st, and they reached Beuvry on the 24th by a succession of tiring marches, with sick cases reported every day up to the 22nd. They had not yet become acclimatised to the realities of war. They had had no trench experience. Beuvry lies about four miles from Vermelles as the crow flies : but when it is remembered that at times a battalion took five hours to travel a mile, and that these roads were packed with traffic, this short distance will be appreciated as a considerable undertaking. The 73rd was the leading brigade, and on the approach march they were detached and led off by a staff officer to the neighbourhood of Fosse 8, perhaps the hottest corner of the Loos battle area.

This only skims the surface of the 12th Battalion's difficulties. Colonel C. J. Stanton was destined for a brigade, and he was summoned on September 25th to divisional headquarters. He handed over to Major R. D. Garnons-Williams, who was ordered to the front line to relieve the Black Watch, who had suffered heavily in the morning attack. There had been no time for preliminary reconnaissance. The troops were quite new to the area, and in the confusion of marching up the battalion became split up. Garnons-Williams, with a platoon of No. 1 and the whole of No. 2 Company, carried out the relief , and so came to a position where the advance had been most bitterly resisted and the gain was still not admitted to be final. From their entry into the trenches until they left them on the morning of the 28th, the battalion was continually under shell fire. In the mornings and evenings the trenches were attacked. The battalion, while subjected to this unique ordeal, had no rations, no water, no sleep. They had arrived without bombs, yet they beat off every enemy attack until the morning of the 28th, when, after a heavy bombardment, the flanking battalions were attacked and a footing was gained in the trench on the battalion's right and left. Their position was now hopeless, and, under an attack from both flanks, they were forced to retire. But they went back fighting. Lieutenant Neynor organised and led four bayonet charges as they retired, and the enemy was driven back.

Meanwhile the other part of the battalion, under Major H. W. Compton, endeavouring to regain touch, had halted in the dark. When the moon came out they were at once seen, and shelled in the open. They took cover in some trenches, and waited for the dawn. On the morning of the 26th they were placed by a staff officer in the old British firing line, where they remained until the 28th, when they were relieved. The battalion's losses had been very heavy. Major Garnons-Williams, Captains Waddell and Phillips, Second Lieutenant Newcombe were killed. Major Gibson and five other officers were wounded. Two officers fell into the hands of the Germans. Of other ranks 20 were killed, 27 wounded, 64 wounded and missing, and 142 missing. The test to which they were subjected one would say was too hard ; but, bearing in mind the manner in which they bore the ordeal, it is inevitable we should wonder if any test could be over-hard for such troops.

The 3rd Battalion entered the battle when the 12th were near the end of their ordeal. On the evening of September 25th Fosse 8 lay in our hands, and Hohen-zollern Redoubt lay behind our lines ; but on the morning of the 27th Fosse 8, which, with its slag heap, commanded Hohenzollern Redoubt, had reverted to the Germans, and the redoubt itself was mainly held by the enemy. On this day the 3rd Battalion were ordered to take over some 700 yards of the German line north of the redoubt, with the Buffs on their right. But as the line was at that moment again in German hands, verbal orders were given to company commanders at 2 a.m. to attack the redoubt at once. No. 2 Company was upon the right, and No. 3 on the left, with Nos. 1 and 4 supporting, and the machine gunners on the flanks. The battalion moved off, preceded by General Pereira (85th Brigade), who was hit during the afternoon, when the command of the brigade devolved upon Colonel Roberts. The trenches were congested with men wounded and men retiring, but Colonel Roberts succeeded in leading No. 2 Company and half No. 1 Company into the redoubt, when, having placed them on the south and south-east sides, he retired to brigade headquarters. Major Baker took command of the battalion, and between 6 p.m. and midnight he succeeded in placing the battalion on three sides of the redoubt, the East Surreys occupying the other. The operation was carried out with great difficulty. The units were mixed. There were no guides, and in the dark it was hard to recognise the positions.

During the morning of the 28th the enemy attacked the north face with bombs, but were repulsed by No. 3 Company. Another bombing attack followed an advance of the Buffs and Middlesex. On this occasion the Germans penetrated some distance up the south face, but were eventually driven back by three platoons of No. 2 Company. The following morning the enemy bombed down Little Willie, the trench leading north from the redoubt, and the north face of the redoubt itself. They were only forced back after a fierce struggle, in which No. 4 Company had reinforced the East Surreys. No. 2 Company, after attempting to straighten out the line by an advance along the southern face, was caught in the most violent attack of all. The Middlesex, who had been holding Big Willie, the eastern limb of the redoubt, evacuated it, and No. 2 Company found its flank in the air. The Germans bombed down the western face, and drove No. 2 Company back almost to the head of the communication trench. There a counter-attack was delivered by a company of the Yorks and Lanes, and finally, after heavy loss, Nos. 2 and 4 Companies drove the Germans out of the western face and Big Willie, and blocked the southern face. As far as the 3rd Battalion goes, this disposition survived attack. On the morning and afternoon of the 30th bombing attacks along the southern face were all repulsed. Captain Sutton arranged stores of bombs along the western face and relief bombers, to be despatched to any point as needed. At 4 a.m. the following morning the battalion was relieved. They marched to Beuvry much weaker than they set out. Captain R. S. Scholefield, Lieutenant G. Murray Smith, Second Lieutenants S. W. Bowes, J. E. Bull, G. H. L. Ohlmann and J. V. C. Batten had been killed, and 12 other officers wounded. Among other ranks the casualties totalled 337.

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On September 30th the 8th Battalion relieved the Irish Guards in trenches captured from the Germans on the 25th in front of Hulloch. The following day there was very heavy shelling by both sides. The British shelling made it impossible to carry out the order to dig a jumping-off trench in front of B Company's trench. For the latter, and the ground in front of it, were constantly under our own shrapnel, as the battery had had orders to prevent the Germans from wiring this ground ! The 9th Battalion had occupied neighbouring trenches on September 30th, and both battalions, after a few days out of the trenches, moved up again on October 13th. The 9th Battalion, on this occasion, arrived at the German old line at 10.30 p.m., after having taken nearly five hours to cover about a mile. The 35th Brigade had attacked that day, and the 8th at night had two companies carrying bombs for them, the other two being in trenches north of the Hulloch road in support of the 37th Brigade.

Another small attack was delivered by troops of the same division on October 18th. A German trench west of the Quarries was attacked by the Essex and the 9th Battalion supported with two squads of bombers under Second Lieutenant W. W. Smith. The detachment undoubtedly consumed a large supply of bombs, and the' attack was successful. The trench was captured and consolidated. A and B Companies were in the fire trenches, and the battalion were responsible for Pt. 54, with the support of the Berks. At night the 9th were pleased to receive a message from the Guards saying, " Well done, neighbours. Many thanks for splendid co-operation."

The Essex were not left in undisturbed possession of their gains. On the following day there was a sharp attack on the captured trench. The bombardment began at 7 a.m., and the new trench came under a concentrated fire about 3.30. Shortly afterwards an attack developed on the line of the 9th Battalion, and the 8th sent up 32 bombers under Second Lieutenants Oliver and Barrow. Oliver was killed and Barrow wounded, but they had assisted in beating off the attack. A more serious mishap was the wounding of Lieut. -Colonel Anneslcy while he was directing the 8th to " stand to."

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But the battle had by this time practically died down, and the battlefield sank into that uneasy state of rest which covered the whole line. Winter had come, and the new battalions had time to grow accustomed to the realities of the war. Many of them amused themselves by erecting notice-boards near the German trenches when any particularly heartening piece of news was available. Thus, on December 10th the 10th Battalion placed a large notice-board with a report of a peace demonstration in Berlin on the German wire. Three months later the enemy retaliated with a German cartoon showing a Highlander gathering the German harvest. On the back was written " Come on and let us have drink at Doberitz, the newest British colony." This was found, neatly wrapped in oilskin near the battalion's wire ; but, unfortunately, the postmen were shot.

The Chord. — By this time, however, local actions had begun, and in two of them the Royal Fusiliers were engaged. The first was the action on March 2nd, 1916, at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and was carried out by the 8th and 9th Battalions. The objective was The Chord, joining Big Willie and Little Willie. At 5.45 p.m. the 8th Battalion, on the left (or north), exploded three mines and the 9th four. The largest of the latter ("A") was intended to wreck the bulk of The Chord, but it only affected about one-third of its length. The trench mortars and artillery were to have begun simultaneously, but the former began half an hour and the latter a quarter of an hour earlier. Immediately after the explosion of the mines 50 men of A Company of the 8th Battalion, under Captain A. K. K. Mason and Second Lieutenant Wardrop, and 5o'men of B Company of the 9th, under Captain the Hon. R. E. Philipps, rushed across and seized the part of The Chord allotted to them. Twenty of Philipps' party were buried through the explosion of the mine blowing in part of the assembly trench, and Philipps was slightly wounded in the face. But the men went forward rapidly and either cut through the wire or went over it where it was covered by the earth cast up by the explosion. Of the party of the 8th Battalion, only Wardrop and one man reached The Chord, the rest being either killed or wounded. Captain Mason was killed, but reinforcements were sent out, and A Company, though bombed along The Chord to within thirty yards of "A," where they found contact with the 9th Battalion, held to the position. Major Cope * took 24 men up to Wardrop, and the position was held for the rest of the day. Meanwhile C Company, under Chard, had seized Crater " C," the northernmost, and A Company had taken "B" Crater, on the right of "C." Thus all the craters had been occupied according to plan, but there was still a body of Germans holding out in The Chord.

The 9th Battalion had, in the meantime, seized their objectives. They found many Germans in their sector of The Chord who, though dazed, did not surrender and consequently had to be killed. There followed a number of fierce grenade fights, the Germans rushing down from the north end of The Chord and along the trenches leading from the east into it. C Company, under Major N. B. Elliott-Cooper, rushed Craters Nos. 1, 2 and " A" ; and then seized the crater in the Triangle. The grenade attack on the right lost direction, and Sergeant Cronyn rushed down the south-east face of the Triangle into Big Willie, throwing grenades into the crowded dug-outs, until held up by a party of Germans. A fierce grenade encounter followed until the Triangle was consolidated. The 8th had to call on the supporting battalion before the day was over, but the craters were held against enemy bombing attacks during the night.

* Major Cope and Colonel Annesley were both granted the D.S.O.

Though both battalions lost heavily, the operation on the whole had been most successful. On the part of the 9th Battalion it had been particularly so, and Lieut. -Colonel Gubbins was awarded the D.S.O., Major Elliott-Cooper, Captain the Hon. R. E. Philipps and Lieutenant E. W. T. Beck the M.C. ; Sergeant Cronyn, Lance-Corporal A. Lowrey and Private Mcintosh received the D.C.M. The battalion also received warm congratulations from General Gough, G.O.C. I. Corps ; General Scott, G.O.C. 12th Division ; and from Brigadier-General Boyd Moss, G.O.C. 36th Brigade. Both battalions were mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's despatch of May 12th, 1916.

St. Eloi. — A more imposing operation was that carried out by the 4th Battalion with the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers on March 27th. This attack was described in the despatch of May 12th, and in the published edition of the despatches it is illustrated by a plan. The object was to straighten " out the line at St. Eloi," and cut " away the small German salient which encroached on the semi-circle of our line in the Ypres salient to a depth of about 100 yards over a front of some 600 yards. The operation was begun by the firing of six very large mines ; the charge was so heavy that the explosion was felt in towns several miles behind the lines, and large numbers of the enemy were killed. Half a minute after the explosion our infantry attack was launched, aiming at the German second line." * The right attack by the Northumberland Fusiliers met with little opposition ; but the 4th Royal Fusiliers fared very differently.

* Despatch.


The attackf was launched at 4.15 a.m., with W and X Companies on the left and Y and Z on the right. The men ran forward on the explosion of the mines, but they were met by intense rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. The Germans appear to have been fully on the alert, and the battalion at once lost heavily. They stormed the German wire, unbroken as it was, and took the first German trench. But they had been so weakened and the opposition was so heavy that they could get no further, and the ground was consolidated. The rest of the day was occupied by an artillery duel. The German fire was intense, and until midnight it was impossible to relieve the battalion. Small parties of the 2nd Royal Scots then began to get through, but the relief was not complete until 6 a.m. on March 28th. The casualties for the day were 10 officers and 255 other ranks. Captain Moxon, Second Lieutenants Tothill, Howard, Boddy and Perrier, were killed, and Lieutenant Hardman died of wounds on the 30th. It was on the 29th that the chaplain, the Rev. N. Mellish, went out repeatedly with a volunteer party to get in the wounded, and he was awarded the Victoria Cross, being the first chaplain to receive it during the war.

f There is little use in amplifying this account. The episode seems, on calm reflection, to have been the most tragic of any in which the Royal Fusiliers figured. There can be no possible doubt of the splendid gallantry of officers and men. There is as little doubt as to the skill of the command. No troops could have done better ; but a certain glamour surrounded the action of the Northumberland Fusiliers because of their greater success. It is one of the many instances in which the caprice of fate involved a grave injustice.

The action of March 27th was but the beginning of a long series of local attacks and counter-attacks in this area until May 19th, when the status quo ante was perforce accepted as the best compromise.