4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919
THE 1/4TH BATTALION IN THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI, 1917
The 30th August 1917 found the l/4th Battalion much reduced in strength moving from Arques to Bapaume, to the great satisfaction of all ranks, for all had been expecting a return to the unhealthy conditions of the Ypres Salient. On detrainment at Bapaume an evening march was made to Beaulencourt, where quarters were allotted in a concentration camp. This march was not without interest as it was the Battalion's first introduction to the " devastated area," the appalling lifeless and ruined belt of country left behind him by the Bosche in his retirement from the Ancre-Scarpe salient to the Hindenburg line. Beaulencourt lies between Bapaume and Le Transloy, and is thus on the ridge which lay beyond the old Lesbceufs lines and which had proved the final check to the Battalion's advances in the Somme battles of 1916. From the village the Lesbceufs-Morval Ridge was visible, though of those two ill-fated villages no ruins Avere discernible. The whole area was a vast waste of rank vegetation which was rapidly covering the scars of the previous year's battles without healing them. Shell fire had contributed comparatively little to the desolation, but villages had been completely demolished and trees felled, and the British troops themselves provided the only relief to the awful silence of this strange land from which the life of the fields had vanished.
The Battalion was now attached to the IV Corps (Woollcombe), and the first few days were spent in very necessary reorganisation of its slender resources in personnel. The casualties of the Ypres action were not replaced by drafts, and each company was reduced to two platoons. That such work as was possible was done to good purpose was shown on the 4th September, when the Corps commander inspected the Battalion and expressed himself gratified at the completeness and good order of its clothing and equipment in view of its recent withdrawal from the Flanders battlefield. This day was the third anniversary of the Battalion's departure from England.
Between the 5th and 8th September the 56th Division took over from the 3rd the left sector of the IV Corps front. The new sector was held with all three Brigades in line, each Brigade area being occupied with two battalions in front trenches, one in Brigade support and one in Divisional reserve, in positions facing the Hindenburg line from the neighbourhood of Lagnicourt on the left to south of the Bapaume-Cambrai Road in the vicinity of Demicourt on the right. Activity on the enemy's part was evidently not anticipated in this area, for by this relief the 56th Division became responsible for a front of approximately 10,500 yards.
Of this front the 168th Brigade took over the left or Lagnicourt sector, with Headquarters in dugouts about half a mile in rear of Lagnicourt, the Headquarters of the Division being in Fremicourt. This sector faced the village of Queant, which was within the defences of the Hindenburg line. The front line of the left subsector consisted of a series of platoon posts which were not yet connected up, numbered respectively C 18/5, C 18/6, C 12/1, C 12/2, C 12/3 and C 12/4. These posts were the original battle outpost positions which had been constructed earlier in the year during the advance towards the Hindenburg line. No Man's Land here avertiged 1000 yards wide, and though from most of these posts the enemy front line was invisible owing to the lie of the ground, they were all, except on the left, unapproachable from our side, except under cover of darkness. Some 500 yards in rear of this chain of defences ran a continuous trench known as the intermediate line, well constructed, with deep dugouts, moderately strong wire and a good field of fire. Battalion Headquarters were in dugouts in the sunken road on the left of Lagnicourt, and were connected with the intermediate line by a communication trench called Dunelm Avenue. Forward of the intermediate line there was but one trench leading to the advanced positions and this, Wakefield Avenue, connected with Post C 18/6.
In this area the Battalion settled down very comfortably to a period of two months' routine work in and out of the trenches, unbroken by operations of any interest, and happily almost entirely free from casualties. In order to avoid the tedium of following closely the common round of duty we propose to deal with these months by means of a few general remarks on the life of the Battalion.
During this period the Battalion was joined by the following officers :
Capt. E. E. Spicer, Lieuts. A. Bath and A. M. Duthie, and 2/Lieut. E. L. Mills. and by the following attached officers :
2/Lieuts. W. Shand, E. Petrie, C. W. Rowlands, and E. A. Ratclitfe (1st Londons).
2/Lieut. A. Franks (6th Londons).
2/Lieut. W. H. Eastoe (7th Londons).
2/Lieuts. E. L. Stuckey, C. S. Richards and A, B. Creighton (17th Londons).
2/Lieuts. F. Barnes, F. S. C. Taylor, R. S. B. Simmonds, J. L. Backhouse and E. D. Buckland (20th Londons).
Tours of duty were six-day periods as follows :
6 days in Lagnicourt "i 2 companies in posts.
left subsector i 2 ,, intermediate line.
6 days in Brigade support— either side of Lagnicourt village.
6 days in Lagnicourt 1 Dispositions as before but companies left subsector / changed over.
6 days in Divisional reserve — at Framicourt, and so on.
The transport lines and Quartermaster's stores were at Fremicourt, where permanent horse standings, kitchens, butcher's shop and stores were erected on an elaborate scale, which appeared to suggest that all ranks were quite prepared to settle down permanently in this unusually pleasant sector.
In the line a very considerable amount of work was got through during September and October. The front line posts were linked up by a continuous traversed trench, about 7 feet deep and 3 feet wide at the bottom, and provided with " baby elephant " shelters for the garrison. Two embryo trenches in which forward company head-quarters were situate — Whitley and York supports — were extended and strengthened and the intermediate line was maintained. In addition a large amount of additional wire was put out.
While in Brigade support the Battalion always occupied shelters in the sunken roads which ran parallel to the lines each side of Lagnicourt village, B and D Companies being on the north side and A and C Companies and Battalion Headquarters on the south. The dwellings here were much improved, and fresh ones were constructed, of which the best were one built under the supervision of Lieut. Bath and " Twin Villa " by Headquarters. Not all the Battalion's time, however, was devoted to the adornment of its own homes, for the support battalion was invariably called upon to supply heavy working parties, the largest of which were digging under the R.E.'s, while others were attached to tunnelling companies for the construction of additional deep dugouts at trench head-quarters and in the intermediate line.
Training was not overlooked, and a great deal of valuable work was effected. In particular mention should be made of the signallers, who attained a very high pitch of proficiency under Lieut. Gray, while Sergt. Randall achieved much success with the Lewis gunners, and Sergts. Oakely and Taylor did very good work with bombers and rifle grenadiers.
In the line the enemy's activity on the Battalion's front was slight and confined to occasioned shelling and trench mortaring, of which tlie bulk occurred at night. The sectors right and left of the Battalion came in for a rather greater share of the enemy's hatred. The London Scottish on the right were immediately opposed to a network of trenches sapped out from the Hindenburg front line, known as the Queant Birdcage, and in this vicinity a certain degree of bickering was always in progress, in the course of which IV Corps developed a pleasing habit of discharging gas projectors — about 600 at a time — against the Birdcage. The Bosche, however, did not retaliate. It should not, however, be supposed that the Division had settled down for a prolonged rest in this quiet sector. Day and night our excellent artillery were searching for — and finding — the enemy's " weak spots," and up and down the sector No Man's Land was every night the scene of very great patrolling activity. In this direction really useful work was effected by the Battalion Scouts under Lieut. O. D. Garratt, M.C., and Sergts. Housden and Hayes.
The great width of No Man's Land facilitated the operation of a novel method of supplying the Battalion when in trenches with rations and stores. The limbers came up nightly as usual from transport lines at Fremi-court to trench headquarters at Lagnicourt, and from this point the rations were sent up to company head-quarters in half limbers and on pack mules ; whereby a considerable saving of troops for work elsewhere was effected. On one of these nightly journeys a bridge over Wakefield Avenue broke and precipitated an elderly transport horse, named Tommy, on to his back in the trench. It was two hours' hard work to dig room round him to get him up and make a ramp for him to walk out of the trench ! Tommy's mishap was commemorated in the new bridge which was named Horsefall Bridge.
A nasty accident in the line was averted by the coolness of Pte. Bunker, A Company. While a section was cleaning some Mills bombs one of the pins fell out and the bomb, with the fuse burning, fell among the men. Bunker picked it up and threw it out of the trench, when it at once exploded. For this action Bunker was awarded the M.S.M.
In the first week of October, while the Battalion was in line, a series of heavy explosions was heard behind the enemy line in the vicinity of Queant and Pronville and these, combined with the sudden disappearance one night of Baralle chimney— a well-known observation point in the enemy's country — conduced to the belief, which held sway for a few days, that a further Bosche retirement was imminent. This, of course, did not materialise.
Although we are not recording the actions of the Divisional Artillery we may, perhaps, be pardoned for quoting the following crisp little record from the Divisional Intelligence Summary as illustrating how well the infantry was served by its guns. The incident occurred on the 10th October :
Movement was seen at an O.P. or sentry post about D.7.d.4.6. An 18-pr. opened fire, but the first shot fell a few yards wide, whereupon the German observer waved a " washout " signal with a piece of white paper. The second shot, however, altered his opinion of our artillery.
His amended opinion has, unfortunately, not been recorded.
The losses of the Battalion in personnel up to the end of October were practically nil, this being accounted for by the vastness of the terrain and the fact that about 450 men were occupying some 5000 yards of firing and communication trench. On the 28th October, however, the Battalion had the misfortune to lose two promising young officers, 2/Lieuts. Elders and Barnes, both of whom were killed by shells during an enemy shoot on Posts C 12/3 and C 12/4.
During this period also the Battalion sustained a great loss in Regimental Sergt.-Major M. Harris, who took his discharge after nearly twenty-three years of soldiering in the Royal Fusiliers and the 4th Londons. Sergt.-Major Harris had served continuously with the l/4th Battalion since mobilisation, and had filled the position of Senior Warrant Officer with conspicuous success since March 1915. The last member of the pre-war permanent staff to remain on active service with the Battalion, Harris' imperturbable geniality was the means of adding enormous force to his disciplinary strictness. His share in achieving the Battalion's efficiency can hardly be over-rated, while his kindly personality was ever a factor in the social life of the Battalion. Harris was gazetted Lieutenant and Quartermaster to the Battalion in the reconstituted Territorial Army in July 1921. The duties of R.S.M. in the l/4th Battalion were taken by C.S.M. Jacques.
At the end of October information was circulated among commanding officers that active operations were imminent. The secrets of the operations were jealously-guarded, and only a vague idea was given as to what would be the opening day. On the 10th November, however, orders were issued for a feint attack to be delivered by the 56th Division, which would be on the left of the main operation. This feint was to be accompanied by a heavy bombardment by all available batteries, by a smoke screen and the display of dummy figures over the parapet. Dummy tanks were also to be erected in No Man's Land, and the illusion completed — or anyway increased — by running motor cycle engines in the front line trenches. Arrangements for this demonstration were pushed on with vigour, and it was understood that Z day would fall during the Battalion's occupancy of the line.
On the evening of the 18th, however, the 167th Brigade extended to its left, taking over the 168th sector, and thus holding a two-brigade front. The 168th Brigade was concentrated in close billets in Fremicourt and Bcugny, the Battalion being in the former village.
The preparations for the offensive were conducted with the greatest possible secrecy, and in order to secure the maximum surprise effect it was arranged for the attack to be delivered without any preliminary bombardment or even registration of batteries, the road into the enemy's defences being cleared instead by a vast number of tanks.
The attack was delivered by the IV (Woolleombe)
III (Pulteney) and VII (Snow) Corps, on a six-mile front, between Hermies and Gonnelieu, a subsidiary operation being conducted north of Bulleeourt by the VI Corps (Haldane). The 56th Division was thus outside the actual area of advance, but was to co-operate on the opening day by means of the feint attack, for which it had already made preparations, and its further action was to depend on the success gained in the main operation. The left flank of the area of advance was intersected by the Canal du Nord, running between Bourlon and Moeuvres.
The frontage in this region was taken up by the 3Gth (Ulster) Division, which adjoined the right flank of the 56th and was the left of the whole attack. The 36th was to attack with two brigades east of the Canal and one brigade west, the Division moving northwards along the Hindenburg system towards Moeuvres. The role of the 56th Division was to depend on the degree of success attained by the 36th. If the latter's attack succeeded in forcing the retirement of the enemy west of the Canal, this area would be occupied by the brigade of the 36th Division which was on the west bank ; if, however, this success was not achieved the 56th Division was to attack over the open with tanks, the 169th Brigade advancing on a front between Moeuvres and Tadpole Copse, and the 167th forming a defensive flank from the Copse to our present front line.
The enormous success which attended the initial stages of the Cambrai battle needs no elaboration here. At 6.30 a.m. on 30th November the dead silence was suddenly broken by the roar of a very great concentration of batteries of all calibres up to 15-inch, and preceded by 380 tanks the assaulting divisions swept over the first and second systems of the Hindenburg line.
With the exception of a check due to the destruction of the Canal de I'Escaut Bridge at Masnieres, and of another at Flesquieres (where a most gallant resistance to the 51st Division was put up by a single German officer, who continued to serve his gun after all the team were killed and succeeded in knocking out several tanks), the success of the day was considerable. The villages of Havrincourt, Graincourt, Ribecourt, Marcoing and La Vacqucrie were added to the British territory, and it was obvious that the surprise effect had been complete.
On the left the 36th Division established itself north of the Cambrai Road, astride the Hindenburg line, and the 169th Brigade swung its right flank northward to conform to its neighbours' movements.
The following day at an early hour the Flesquieres obstacle was overcome and the British line swept forward, the villages of Masnieres, Noyclles, Cantaing and Anneux being added to the bag, while on the left Fontainc-Notre-Dame was entered and the line pushed up to the southern edge of Bourlon Wood. On the left of the 36th the 169th Brigade kept pace, one of their battalions occupying the first Hindenburg trench about one of the roads forming the south-west exit of Moeuvres, and beginning to bomb northwards.
The 21st November witnessed a further deep inroad into the Hindenburg system. The 36th Division succeeded during the morning in penetrating into Moeuvres but were not able to maintain their position. On tlte extreme left the 169th Brigade continued their bombing attacks along the enemy trenches, and were reported in the late afternoon as having captured Tadpole Copse and the first and second Hindenburg trenches beyond it as far as the Inchy Road.
In the Battalion at Fremicourt the 20th November passed without incident, but all ranks awaited anxiously news of the battle, and for the expected orders to move forward and join in the success. No movement was made, however, and the day passed slowly, as such days of keen expectancy always do.
The hour for general action by the 56th Division was approaching, and the l/4th Londons received orders at 3.30 p.m. on the 21st to move forward with transport and stores to Lebucquiere, which was reached at 8.15 p.m., accommodation being provided in Cinema Camp. The Battalion was now prepared for action, and the nucleus personnel under Major Phillips, the second in command (attached from Montgomery Yeomanry), remained at Fremicourt.
Next morning the Battalion made all preparations for an early participation in the fight and, in order to save fatigue to the men, all battle impedimenta such as Lewis guns and magazines, bombs, tools and wire cutters were sent on limbers to an open space near Doignies.
Shortly after midday the Battalion followed, arriving at Doignies at 4 p.m., picking up its stores and bivouacking. In the meantime Lieut. -Col. Marchment, M.C., accompanied by Capt. Maloney, the doctor, rode forward to ascertain the situation from the London Scottish, who were holding the old British front line opposite Tadpole Copse.
The rain, which had started early in the day, was still falling when the Battalion arrived at Doignies. The village was a good deal knocked about, but shelter of a sort was found, and the Battalion was just well off to sleep when it was turned out again to move nearer the line for the purpose of taking over the British front line from the London Scottish early next day. About midnight the Battalion got under way in pitch darkness, and moving through Louverval reached its assembly area near Piccadilly and about 500 yards in rear of the line by 4.10 a.m. on the 23rd November. As soon as the growing daylight permitted, companies resumed their advance and took over Rook, Rabbit and Herring Trenches from the London Scottish, Headquarters occupying a sunken road north of the wood surrounding Louverval Chateau. On relief the assaulting companies of the London Scottish moved forward to continue the bombing attack started by the 169th Brigade.
News of the operation was slow in coming through, but by 10.17 a.m. a report reached Brigade that the attackers had been checked on endeavouring to emerge from Tadpole Copse. This check was due to a peculiar omission in the British trench maps, which had shown Tadpole Copse on the crest of a spur, and dominating all the ground in its immediate vicinity. It was found that between the Copse and the Inchy Road was a narrow and sharply marked depression bordered by the declivitous banks which abound in this undulating countryside. Beyond this unsuspected valley the Inchy Road was on an eminence just as prominent as the Tadpole Copse hill ; and this position, held by the enemy in great strength, enabled them to overlook completely all the northern exits from the Copse. This valley, which played an important part in the course of the battle, was found subsequently to be correctly marked on German maps which were captured
during the action.
After a stubborn fight the London Scottish overcame this obstacle and pushed home their attack in the Hindenbui'ff front trench ahnost as far as Adelaide Street and in the support 100 yards beyond the Inchy Road ; while a subsidiary attempt was made, without success, to capture the Factory between this point and Inchy. At these points the enemy had constructed blocks which he held strongly against all attempts to dislodge him. In the meantime the 169th Brigade had been bombing up the communications leading back to the second system of the Hindenburg lines, with the object of isolating Moeuvrcs, but the resistance met with here was exceedingly stubborn.
About 8 o'clock that night the enemy launched a heavy attack against the London Scottish barricades, and in the support trench they succeeded in forcing the Scottish back to the Inchy Road, though the position in the front trench was held. The Scottish had now been fighting for over twelve hours and had suffered rather serious losses, and the German counter-attack caused two companies of the l/4th Londons to be drawn into the fight, A Company (Franks) and C (Barkworth) moving forward to reinforce the Scottish at about 8.30 p.m.
A Company, which advanced first, took up a position, acting under the orders of Lieut. -Col. Jackson of the London Scottish, in the old German outpost line outside Tadpole Copse, while No. 1 Platoon (Ballance) went forward to reinforce the Scottish company in the front Hindenburg trench. Affairs having quieted down the services of this platoon were not immediately necessary, and it shortly afterwards rejoined the company. In the meantime No. 2 Platoon (Creighton) was sent to reinforce the Scottish at the bombing block in the support trench, and while here Corpl. Johnson and Pte. Bendelow succeeded in beating off an enemy attack.
C Company, which also took up a preliminary position in the old German outpost line, was first told off to replenish the supply of bombs from the brigade dump in Houndsditch. The fresh supplies were carried to London Scottish Headquarters ; and this task completed, the company occupied the rectangular work in the support trench to the east of Tadpole Copse, a portion of the second Hindenburg trench in rear of the Copse, and the communication trench connecting it with the Hindenburg third hne, 2/Lieut. Mills being responsible for this communication trench and the advanced block about 250 yards along it. 2/Lieut. Stuckey occupied the main trench. These latter trenches were taken over from the 2nd Londons early on the 24th.
B and D Companies meanwhile had not been idle but had passed the night providing a covering party to a company of the Cheshire Pioneers, by whom a chain of redoubts had been dug in the line selected for the defensive flank.
At 5.30 a.m. on the 24th B Company (Beeby) moved forward, also coming under the orders of the London Scottish, and at first took up a position in support in the old outpost line outside the Hindenburg system. Almost immediately the company was ordered forward to relieve the 2nd Londons in the communication trench leading to the rear from the Quadrilateral held by C Company.
The morning passed comparatively quietly though the duty of keeping wicket behind the bombing blocks was a trying one, which entailed the constant alertness of all ranks in readiness to meet a sudden emergency. At noon, however, the enemy put down a heavy barrage on the captured portions of the Hindenburg trenches, and this was followed at 2 p.m. by a most determined attack on the advanced blocks held by the London Scottish. This met with considerable success, and though the Scottish fought with gallantry they were overcome by the weight of the enemy's onslaught, and by 2.45 p.m. the German bombers had reached the block held by Mills (C Company), Avho put up a stout resistance, under orders from his company commander to hold his post failing further orders. In this he was helped by the company's Lewis guns, which gave covering fire to Mills' platoon and the London Scottish, and also engaged the enemy at the Inchy Road Factory. Three of the guns were destroyed by the enemy's shell fire.
The trench was already uncomfortably filled with casualties in addition to the men who were keeping up the fight, but in a few moments the congestion was greatly increased by the numbers of Scottish troops who began to come back and file along the trench. At about 3 p.m. about 50 of the London Scottish were seen to leave the Hindenburg support trench in the hidden valley referred to, with the object of making their way over the open towards the front trench. Realising that this vacation of the trench might enable the enemy to surge forward along it and so cut off Mills, who was still holding his own up the communication trench, Barkworth promptly ordered Stuckey to advance and form a block beyond the side trench held by Mills. Stuckey's losses, however, had been severe, and with only five men at his disposal he was unable to cope with the task in view of the great congestion of the trench. Rather than risk the sudden cutting off of his remaining slender resources in men and the laying open to the enemy of the whole Tadpole Copse position, which would inevitably result, Barkworth now decided to withdraw his advanced positions and concentrate his company, and accordingly Stuckey was ordered to block the support trench at the west entrance to the Quadrilateral, Mills gradually withdrawing and holding the enemy off till the new block was completed. In this retired position the remnants of C Company were in touch with B Company and also with the 2nd Londons, and here the enemy was finally held up.
This gallant little defence in which C Company put up a really good fight and inflicted considerable loss on the enemy, cost it about 40 per cent, of its strength in casualties and, as already stated, three of its Lewis guns.
At the same time B Company had been heavily engaged in its communication trench, of which it held a length of some 250 yards back from the second trench. Here the enemy, who had a bombing block about 50 yards from B Company's forward block, began to attack at about 2.30 p.m., but after a struggle his first attempt was thrown back. A little later the Bosche returned to the charge, and this time was successful in forcing B Company back for a short distance, but a determined counter-attack re-established the position, which, after a third and also abortive enemy assault, remained intact in the Company's hands.
While the l/4th Londons had been thus heavily engaged the London Scottish had made a successful resistance in the front Hindenburg trench which defied all the enemy's attempts. Towards the evening the enemy's activity both in shell fire and bombing somewhat lessened, and at 8.30 p.m. D Company (Duthie) was also sent forward relieving C Company in the trenches. At the same time the Rangers took over from the Scottish in the front trench.
As the fighting on the 24th was somewhat involved, it seems desirable to restate the positions now held by the companies of the Battalion in the Hindenburg system :
Front Line — D Company — Quadrilateral in support trench, and communication leading up to front trench. B Company — Communication trench leading from the Quadrilateral back to third trench.
Support Line — A and C Companies and Headquarters — Front trench from west edge of Tadpole Copse to communication trench east of it and old German outpost line in front of the Copse.
The 25th November also witnessed very severe fighting in which the l/4th Londons bore an important part and achieved considerable success. The fighting this day fell to D Company who had not yet been engaged, and the objective allotted to them was the recapture of the lost portion of the Hindenburg support trench as far as its junction with the communication trench, which had been defended by Mills the previous day. At the same time the Rangers were to make good the two communication trenches leading back from the front trench to the support on the east side of the Inchy Road, and also the support trench in prolongation of Duthie's attack.
We propose to narrate this gallant little action of D Company in the words of Duthie's report on the operation :
Artillery preparation began at 12.30 p.m. It was reported to be very short on our right. Our two blocks were removed at 12.45 p.m. At Zero (1 p.m.) the attack commenced. The Company was disposed as follows :
14 Platoon, 2/Lieut. E. Petrie, Bombers, Rifle Grenadiers, Riflemen (carrying) ; 13 Platoon, 2/Lieut. C. W, Rowlands, with sections in same order. Lewis gun sections took up a position near our blocks so as to fire along the trench and to prevent any movement in the open. Company Headquarters moved with the leading platoon. For about 50 yards very little opposition was met with but the leading bombing section was then held up by stick bombs and suffered eight casualties, which included the leading bombers. To overcome this check fire was opened for several minutes with No. 23 and No. 24 Rifle Grenades, and the trench was searched forward for about 100 yards. The shooting was very accurate and the enemy were driven back with the loss of about 5 men killed. The advance was continued by bounds of from 20 to 40 yards under cover of salvoes of rifle grenades. The first two deep dugouts were unoccupied. The third and fourth were not immediately searched but sentries were posted. It was thought that some of the C Company men who had been wounded the previous day might still be down there. The small C.T. (about 100 yards from the Quadrilateral) was blocked about 120 yards up. At the entrance a good deal of bombing was overcome. This is a shallow trench and the far end under water. Further delay was caused by the third and fourth dugouts which were found to contain 21 of the enemy. These were finally cleared. Several were killed and the remainder badly wounded and captured. The company then pushed forward to trench junction at E 13 c. 15,75 (objective) and reached it about 2.45 p.m. The Lewis gun sections were brought up and placed in suitable positions to protect a further advance and also the blocking party in the small C.T. None of the Rangers were encountered and the trench appeared unoccupied, but bombing was thought to be heard about 300 yards further along.
* Companies were still organised in two platoons owing to their reduced strength, which had not been made good since the third battle of Ypres.
A small block was made in this trench about 30 yards from the junction. The enemy was now observed leaving the trench and crawling over the open towards the bank at D 18 d. 90.98 (in the unsuspected valley). Heavy rifle fire was opened and at least 30 of the enemy killed. Few, if any, got over the bank. As the trench beyond the objective appeared to be unoccupied a party of 12 including O.C. Company, 2/Lieut. Rowlands, Sergts. Norris and Arklay, moved on up the trench. No fire was opened and silence was maintained. In the next bay past the trench at E 13 c. 00.85 (50 yards beyond the objective) two men were seen firing a machine-gun which was mounted on the parapet and aimed down the bank (in the valley). This was rushed. . . . The gun was dismounted and brought in. Other guns were heard firing and two more were seen (at points farther along the trench in the valley described in the report by map reference). Two parties under Sergts. Norris and Arklay moved round to a point from which fire could be brought to bear. The crews of two men to each gun were killed and the guns brought in. O.C. Company and Sergt. Norris continued to advance along the trench and up to the top of the bank. Heavy bombing could be seen in Tadpole Lane and in the front line towards the Inchy Road. Further advance was prevented by the fire of our own guns firing on the trench in response to S.O.S. signal which had been sent up from the front line. The trench was very full of dead, both of the London Scottish and of the enemy. It was impossible to walk without treading on them. As our barrage continued the party moved back to our original objective and blocks were made at this trench junction. The remainder of the party carried back four wounded London Scottish, who were found in the open near the bank. Later in the evening when our barrage was discontinued an attack was made on our block. The enemy was quickly silenced. At 11 p.m. D Company were relieved by A Company.
A very successful operation, and a modest account of it by Duthie, whose personality and leadership was an important factor in the result achieved. The two men in charge of the first gun captured v/ere shot by Duthie with his revolver. The resistance offered to the Rangers was stubborn, and but for their inability to advance it is possible a considerable success might have been achieved, since the barrage put down by our guns, in response to the Rangers' S.O.S., had the effect of shelling Duthie out of part of his gains.
The remainder of the day was inactive, no further fighting taking place till about 11.30 a.m. on the 26th, when once more the enemy attempted to force B Company's position in the communication trench. The company, however, repeated its gallantry of the former occasion, and the enemy retired later without having gained any success.
At 11.30 p.m. on the 26th the Battalion was relieved by the Kensingtons, withdrawing on relief to its former position in the Brigade support area behind the old British front line. This relief brought to a close the Battalion's active participation in the British offensive, which was now practically spent. During the very trying three days spent behind the bombing blocks in circumstances which required particular vigilance and fortitude, all ranks had behaved splendidly, and it is difficult to mention individuals when all had rendered such excellent service. A few names, however, call for outstanding mention, among these being Capt. S. J. Barkworth, M.C., M.M., and Capt. A. M. Duthie, the commanders of C and D Companies, on whom the brunt of the work had fallen, and their subalterns Rowlands and Mills. The Padre, the Rev. S. F. Leighton Green, did splendid service throughout, being always about the Hindenburg lines and going up to the advanced blocks. At night he was constantly visiting and helping with casualties and administering the last rites to those who had fallen.
The whole action as far as the Division was concerned had developed on lines completely opposed to the original plans ; for whereas it had been proposed to employ the Division in the open with tanks, its fighting through-out had been hand-to-hand fighting in trenches. The regularity and sufficiency with which bomb supplies found their way to the front indicated excellent organisation. At no time did supplies fall short of the demand.
It was a surprise to a good many to find the much vaunted Hindenburg line inferior to our own defences. The outpost line which the companies first occupied was a gross delusion, for it was only six inches deep, while the main line was poor and not over well maintained, and the Bosche ideas of sanitation could only be described as a scandal.
342 WAR HISTORY OF 4th LONDON REGIMENT
The casualties sustained during the three days' fighting were Hght in view of the close contact with the enemy. Two officers, 2/Lieuts. R. S. B. Simmonds and E. Petrie, were wounded, and the total losses in other ranks amounted to about 60, including two valuable N.C.O.'s killed, viz. : Sergts. Barker and Gooch, and one, Sergt. Lintott, M.M., wounded and captured.
At midnight on the 24th November the 56th Division had passed from the IV to the VI Corps. Its position at the conclusion of the offensive operations was one of almost dangerous extension. It had captured and was holding over a mile of the Hindenburg line. Its right flank was not secure so long as Moeuvres remained in the enemy's hands ; its left flank on the Tadpole Copse spur was exposed and subject to constant counter-attacks. Two of its brigades were involved in this fighting and in holding a defensive flank of 2000 yards, while the remaining brigade, the 167th, was responsible for a frontage in the old British line of 5500 yards, and had in addition to supply a battalion each night for consolidation of the captured position. It was thus unable to provide relief for the troops who had been fighting, and was without any reserve for use in case of emergency. Representations made by General Dudgeon to the Corps Commander as to the weakness of his position resulted in a battalion of the 3rd Division being at once placed at the disposal of the 167th Brigade for counter-attack purposes. This temporary relief was extended a few days later, and by the 29th the whole of the 167th Brigade had been relieved by troops of the 3rd Division and was withdrawn at Fremi-court in Divisional reserve, with two of its battalions lent temporarily to the 168th Brigade.
The three days following relief were spent by the Battalion in support in providing carrying and working parties in the front line and burying parties for the fallen. On the 29th a slight side step to the left was made so that the Battalion's right flank rested on Piccadilly and it became responsible for the defensive flank. A considerable amount of work had been done in this quarter, and the flank was now provided with a continuous belt of wire and a chain of inter-supporting posts. A communication trench had been dug from the old hne across No Man's Land to the Hindenburg line parallel to Piccadilly, a distance of some 1300 yards, and from this T-head trenches had been sapped forward facing north. The defensive flank positions were only occupied at night, the trench garrison taking two companies, A and B, while C and D Companies provided patrols along the wire to prevent any attempts of the enemy to turn the position.
The 29th November passed quietly though a good deal of movement was observable in rear of the enemy's lines, so that his serious attack of the following day was not entirely unexpected.
From the Battalion's position an extensive view was obtainable over the whole terrain as far as Bourlon Wood, and early on the 30th a strong concentration of the enemy's forces was clearly visible north and east of Moeuvres.
At 10.45 a.m. the S.O.S. signal went up all along the line and the enemy attacked in dense formation under a heavy barrage. The Battalion stood to arms all day but was not required, for the gallant defence of the units in the line this day was one of the greatest achievements of the 56th Division. The enemy's attack was pressed with vigour and at one time he had driven a wedge into the Hindenburg lines and divided the London Scottish, who were still in the line, from the 2nd Londons. The position, however, was defended tenaciously and at the end of the day the whole of the Division's gains in the Hindenburg front line were maintained, while the heaps of enemy dead outside the trenches testified to the severity of the check which he had suffered.
That night the Battalion was called on for particularly active patrolling as it was anticipated that the enemy would renew his attempt on the Divisional front. The whole resources of the Division were drawn upon to meet any renewed enemy action, and Lieut. -Col. Marchment had under him for defensive purposes, in addition to the Battalion, a company of the 5th Cheshires, a company of the 7th Middlesex, the 512th Field Company, R.E., and two sections of the 41Gth Field Company, R.E. The Engineers were employed in digging fresh redoubts in dead ground to the rear of the defensive flank line, while the infantry companies were kept as a reserve at Battalion Head-quarters. No further action occurred until the afternoon of the 1st December when a fresh concentration of enemy forces about 3.30 p.m. was crushed by our guns.
The Division had now well earned a rest, and warning was received on the 1st December that it would be relieved by the 51st Division immediately. The relief began at 7 p.m. that evening, the Battalion handing over its lines to the 6th Black Watch. It was evident that the incoming troops had been pushed forward hurriedly, for the relieving battalion arrived without Lewis guns or shrapnel helmets, and with the officers wearing slacks, just as they had risen from dinner. The relief took a long while to effect, and it was not until 4 a.m. on the 2nd that Lieut.-Col. Marchment handed over command of the sector. On relief the Battalion withdrew to billets in Beugny, but at 11 a.m. the rearward march was continued to Beaulencourt which was reached by 4 p.m., quarters being allotted in the camp that the Battalion had occupied on the 30th August.
While at Beaulencourt the Battalion received congratulatory messages which had been issued to Brigade by the Corps and Divisional commanders on the part played in the battle.
The following day the Battalion entrained at Fremi-court for the Arras area, reaching Beaumetz-les-Loges at 12.30 p.m., whence it marched to billets in Simencourt.
The honours awarded for services rendered in the Battle of Cambrai were as follows :
D.S.O.— Oapt. A. M. Duthie.
M.C.— 2/Lieuts. C. W, Rowlands and E. L. Mills.
D.C.M.— Sergt. G. Norris and L.-Coi-pls. E. S. Brown and T. H. Sankey.
Bar to M.M.— Pte. C. S. Ruel.
M.M.— Sergls. F. Arklay, A. E. Haynes and G. J. Grant, Corpls. T. J. Court, J. W. Johnson and H. W. Wallder. L.-Corpl. T. Hodgkins and Ptes. B. M. J. Barnett, H. Evans, W. J. Hutchin, F. G. Senyard, G. Tyrell, J. Wickeus and W. A, Willmott.