4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919
THE 2/4TH BATTALION IN THE BATTLES FOR BULLECOURT, 1917
We must now follow the battles which had been fought during the latter part of the German retirement south of the area covered by the battles of Arras.
All along the line the German retreat had been conducted steadily and with marked success on to the Hindenburg line. Although on the whole the retreat in the south had not been accompanied by heavy fighting, the attempts of our troops to push forward and define rigidly the Hindenburg system had met with resistance which had developed here and there into fighting of the most desperate character. Nowhere had these local conflagrations been more fierce than in the line of retreat to Bullecourt. In this sector the retiring enemy was opposed by Australian troops, who together with the 7th and 62nd (and later the 58th) Divisions composed Gough's Fifth Army.
A successful advance on 2nd April in this region was followed by an attempt by the Australians on the 12th to carry the line Bullecourt-Lagnicourt, but without success owing to the inadequacy of the supporting artillery fire. Severe fighting ensued, and a counter-attack of a serious nature by the Germans on the 15th was ultimately held.
On the 3rd May the Australians' efforts met with more success, and they were able to penetrate the Hindenburg system on the immediate right of Bullecourt. The 62nd Division on their left, however, were unable to progress in the village itself, with the result that the ground held by the Australians formed a salient badly enfiladed both from the village and from the direction of Queant.
The position of Bullecourt in the Hindenburg system was peculiar. From Hcninel the line ran in a generally south-easterly direction towards Bullecourt in front of the Fontaine-lez-Croisilles-Bullecourt Road. At Bullecourt the line turned due east, passing some 500 yards in front of Riencourt. Bullecourt itself was between the front and support trenches of the first system, so that the front line formed a very pronounced salient. East of Riencourt the line once more took an abrupt turn, this time almost due south, passing in front (or to the west) of Queant.
Bullecourt lies on a spur which falls northward into the Hendecourt valley, and its exits on all sides form a network of sunken roads. At the period under review the majority of the houses were already in ruins, and these, together with numerous fences enclosing orchards and gardens, converted the space between the front and support Hindenburg lines into a serious obstacle, of which the strength was increased by an intermediate trench half-way through the village. The Germans had, moreover, tunnelled the village in such a way that they could bring reinforcements rapidly and safely to bear on any threatened point. The small salient gained by the Australians straddling the Hindenburg trenches on the immediate east of the village, uncomfortable as it was for the occupants, was a serious menace to the enemy position ; and it was reasonable to anticipate that the Germans would not easily acquiesce in this partial envelopment of their flank.
During the early days of May the Australians in the salient were subjected to numerous counter-attacks, while by dint of hand-to-hand fighting the 62nd Division had gained a firm footing in the village. On the 12th May the assault was renewed by the 7th Division, and fighting of a desperately severe character developed in the village in which our troops met with varying fortunes. In the eastern half of the village the 2nd Queen's made some progress, but at the western end no advance was possible. The situation at the sunken cross-roads at the north-east corner of the village was obscure, and north of this point no part of the enemy's support line was gained. Such was the position in " Bloody Bullecourt " when the 58th Division began to take over the line.
On the afternoon of the 12th May the Company Commanders and Intelligence Officer of the 2/4th Battalion, together with their Platoon Sergeants, were sent forward to reconnoitre the positions held by the 15th Australian Infantry Brigade with a view to. taking them over. From Vaulx-Vraiicourt to Noreuil the party followed the dried-up bed of the Hirondclle River, the scene of many a desperate struggle during the preceding month. The air was oppressive with the heat of a premature burst of summer weather ; the stench from hundreds of unburied bodies and the ominous silence of the guns prior to the attack which was to be renewed the following day caused the whole atmosphere to be heavy with the presage of hard fighting to come. On arrival at the Australian Headquarters the party was informed of the attack organised for the following morning, so that further reconnaissance that day was useless. After the barrage had died down, however, on the 13th a fresh start was made up the communication trench, which was really the Noreuil -Ricncourt Road, a bank on the east side preventing observation from Queant.
The Australian attack was successful, although the position was not entirely cleared up, and they were now holding the first two lines of the Hindenburg system, the support line being our front line, and the former front line now forming our support. The intense artillery fire to which this ground had many times been subjected had resulted in the almost total obliteration of the trench lines as such, and the position was really held in a line of shell craters.
The arrangements for relief being completed, the 2/4th Battalion moved up on the night of the 13th/14th May to take over the left sector of the Brigade front, from the sunken cross-roads at the north-east corner of Bullccourt to a small communication trench about 500 yards to the east, C Company (Leake) and D Company (Parker) being in the front line with A (Cotton) and B (Bottomley) in support. Battalion Headquarters occupied a central position in the support line. A detached post under 2/Lieut. S. A. Seys was established in a shell hole west of the sunken cross-roads in order to secure touch with the 7th Division in the village. From the right of the 2/4th Battalion the Brigade sector as far as the Noreuil-Rien-court Road was taken up by the 2/3rd Londons.
The actual process of the relief, which was not completed until 1.30 a.m. on the 14th May, was exceedingly trying owing to the heavy shelling of the communication trench. Amongst the casualties caused by this were 2/Lieut. F. Stickney (wounded) and Capt. P. H. Burton, R.A.M.C. (killed).
The Germans, having been ejected from their trench system in this sector, were holding on in a system of unconnected shell holes on the lower slopes of the spur, and their main line of resistance appeared to be a sunken road running laterally across our front, and distant about 300 yards. A new and evidently unfinished trench line crossed the opposite hillside in front of Hendecourt.
The heavy shelling which had interfered with the relief continued throughout the night, our front and support lines being heavily bombarded, while the back areas were subjected to incessant searching with high explosive and shrapnel.
Shortly after the Battalion had taken up its position a party of some 12 Germans with a machine-gun attempted to attack C Company's line. The attack completely failed owing principally to the great gallantry of Capt. Leake. 2/Lieut. S. G. Askham, who was in the trench with Leake at the time, writes :
We were inspecting the sentry posts and our attention was drawn to considerable movement near our front line. Without a moment's hesitation Capt. Leake leapt over the parapet and in a few seconds we heard revolver shots being fired. He had single-handed attacked a German machine-gun team who were on the point of establishing a post in a position overlooking the whole of our front Hne. He killed four of the team and the remainder were wounded by our rifle fire. Leake returned with three prisoners and their machine-gun, which he also secured. . . . Leake was a tower of strength to both officers and men in the Company and we all felt that he richly deserved the V.C, for which he was afterwards recommended.
The continued bombardment now began to cause difficulty in controlling the situation, for early in the morning a direct hit on the Brigade signal depot completely wrecked all the instruments and killed the occupants of the dugout. Later, communication by power buzzer was also cut, and for the remainder of the day all communication between the Brigade and the battalions in the line had to be effected by runners.
This intermittent shelling continued until shortly after midday on the 14th, when the enemy was observed from our lines to be massing for attack in the neighbourhood of a ruined factory some 500 yards to our front. A call was made on our artillery, which immediately put down a heavy barrage under which the enemy's troops melted away. The hostile bombardment now increased in intensity and a terrific barrage came down on our lines, continuing with unabated violence all through the night. This barrage was for the greater part in enfilade from the direction of Queant, and was therefore particularly accurate and deadly ; under the rain of shells our trenches, or what little remained of them, were completely obliterated, the greater part of our front line supplies of rifle ammunition and bombs were blown up and several Lewis guns with their teams were buried. Through this appalling ordeal the Battalion stuck to their posts grimly, though suffering severe losses. Shortly before midnight the enemy launched an attack on the 7th Division in Bullecourt village, in which by dint of fierce hand-to-hand conflicts they wrested from the 7th Division some of its gains of the previous two days.
We have already pointed to the importance of the salient now occupied by the 2/4th Londons, and, fully alive to the position, the Battalion was not surprised by the attack which broke upon it at dawn the next day. The importance to the Germans of the possession of this part of the line may be gauged by the fact that the troops employed by them were the 3rd Prussian Guard.
At 4 a.m. on the 15th the enemy were seen to be massing for the attack. Our artillery once more responded magnificently to the call made on them, and their barrage caused severe disorganisation in the enemy's ranks. The attack was stubbornly pushed home by the Germans, but their barrage being lifted prematurely from our front line an opportunity was afforded to our leading companies to prepare for the shock. Advantage of this momentary respite was taken to reinforce the front line, three platoons of B Company filling the gaps of D Company, and C Company being strengthened by a party of A Company. These precautions cost the enemy dearly, and his assaulting columns were met by a deadly rifle and Lewis gun fire from the whole of our line, which completed the work of the artillery. The German attack was broken and not a single enemy reached our line. The remnants of the assaulting battalions turned and fled down the hill, leaving an appalling number of dead and wounded.
Beyond the right of the Brigade front a small party succeeded in effecting a lodgment in a portion of the front line held by the Australians, but these were shortly afterwards ejected with the assistance of a platoon of the 2/2nd Londons.
By six o'clock the enemy counter-attack was definitely and finally broken and small parties could be seen doubling away from before Bullecourt ; and a further attempt to launch an attack on the Australians about half an hour later was effectively stopped by our artillery.
After the attack had failed the enemy settled down to a slow but steady shelling of our line for the remainder of the 15th, which was spent in endeavouring to reorganise the battered remnants of the Battalion and to put the lines once more in a defensible condition. Under cover of darkness the 2/lst Londons took over the left subsector from the 2/4th Londons, which withdrew to reserve dugouts in the sunken road in front of Noreuil.
The Battalion had found itself. In its first serious action it had stood up to a frightful bombardment which had lasted without abatement for nineteen hours, and at the end of it had seen the backs of the Prussian Guard. It had paid, however, a severe price. The total casualties during the two days in the line were, in officers, in addition to the two already mentioned, 2/Lieuts. E. C. Pratt and T. Stealing (killed) ; Capts. G. E. A. Leake and H. C. Long (wounded) ; and in N.C.O.'s and men 68 killed, 196 wounded and 2 missing.
Capt. Leake had behaved with the utmost gallantry throughout the attack. He was hit after the attack itself was over by a shell which fell on his Company Head-quarters, wounding also his second in command, Capt. Long, and several of his Company staff. While being conveyed on a stretcher to the Aid Post, Leake was again severely hit by a shell which burst almost under the stretcher, killing two of the bearers. After the shelling had subsided he was evacuated, but died in hospital a fortnight later. For his magnificent behaviour he was recommended by Lieut. -Col. Dann for the Victoria Cross, and eventually was awarded the D.S.O. a few days before his death. This was conferred on him by Gen. Gough, who visited for the express purpose the CCS. in which Leake was lying. Lieut. -Col. Dann was awarded the D.S.O. for his excellent work in this action. Awards of the Military Medal were made to L./Corpls. Spencer and Selby, and Ptes. Grierson, Olinski and Spence.
For three days the Battalion remained in the sunken road supplying carrying parties to the front line. The destruction caused by the hostile bombardment was such that all the necessary trench supplies in munitions and material had to be completely renewed, and, moreover, the battalion in the line was dependent on its supporting troops for their water supply. This imposed a very heavy strain on the 2/4th Battalion for the back areas were still continuously shelled, largely with gas shell, and particularly during the hours of darkness when the carrying parties were at work ; and the relief of the 173rd Brigade by the 175th which ensued on the night of the 18th/19th May was welcome.
That night at 11 p.m. the Battalion handed over to the 2/12th Londons (175th Brigade) and marched to rest billets in Bihucourt, where it remained until the 29th, engaged in reorganisation and refitting and training. During this period the gaps in the Battalion were partly filled by reinforcements of two officers, 2/Lieuts. J. H. L. Wheatley and E. P. Higgs, and a large draft of N.C.O.'s and men. The 2/4th Londons were visited on the 20th May by Lieut.-Gen. Birdwood, commanding the Australians, who congratulated Lieut. -Col. Dann on the Battalion's achievement.
During the latter half of May the 58th Division extended its left flank, taking over in succession from the 7th and 62nd Divisions both of which had suffered severely. By the end of the month the Division was occupying a front of 4000 yards with two brigades in line. The 173rd Brigade took over the left subsector with the 2/lst and 2/2nd Londons in line, and the 2/3rd Londons in close support, while the 2/4th Londons moved on the 31st May in Brigade reserve to Mory, where they continued training.
Map No. 11 shows the position at this date. It will be seen that north-west of Bullecourt the Hindenburg line on the Divisional front was still not captured, though on its left the 21st Division was in possession of the front trench as far as the Croisilles-Fontaine Road. The 58th Division sector consisted for the greater part of isolated shell hole defences.
There thus remained in this area a length of about 2500 yards of Hindenburg front and about 3500 yards of Hindenburg support trench still to be captured from the enemy in order to complete the allotted task.
The first two days in the new sector passed without incident beyond the usual artillery activit3\ Early on the morning of the 3rd June a gas attack was carried out on the enemy's lines opposite our left by a discharge of 197 gas projectors. The gas cloud formed appeared highly satisfactory, and evidently caused the enemy some perturbation as his artillery j^romptly put a barrage on our forward posts. This, however, inflicted but little loss owing to the previous withdrawal of the garrisons as a precautionary measure.
Various signs of nervousness exhibited by the enemy about this time suggested that lie expected the continuance of our offensive, and indeed in view of the successes already gained he might with reason anticipate that he would not be left in unmolested possession of the remaining sectors of the Hindcnburg system.
On the night of the 3rd/4th June the 2/4th Londons relieved the 2/2nd Londons in the left subsector, A and B Companies (Cotton and Bottomley) occupying the forward posts with C and D Companies (Hewlett and Parker) in support. The line opposed to the Battalion was entirely in front of the Heninel-Bullecourt Road, with a support line about 200 yards in rear of it. For the greater part the line ran straight, but two small salients, the Knuckle and the Hump, had been developed into strong points of no mean order. The wliole line was heavily wired, and although the entanglements had suffered from our shell fire they still presented a formidable obstacle, while the patrols sent forward nightly from our posts obtained clear evidence that the line was held in unusual strength.
The most urgent work in this sector was the linking up of our scattered shell hole posts to form a connected line, and this was pushed on with all possible speed and completed by the night of the 10th. Throughout this tour of duty the enemy continued a fairly vigorous bombardment of our trenches and back areas, which was returned with interest by our artillery. :, On the night of the llth/12th June the 2/lst Londons took over from A, B and D Companies, while C Company was relieved by the 2/7th Londons (174th Brigade). On relief the Battalion withdrew in support to St Lcger, where Headquarters opened at the Chateau.
During the days spent in support the Battalion was reinforced by a large draft of N.C.O.'s and men, and by two officers, 2/Lieuts. C. Potter and V. R. 01 drey. The latter officer was most unfortunately hit by a stray bullet on the following day.
The principal duty of the three days following relief was the organisation and special training of A, B and D Companies to take part in an assault of the Hindcnburg system opposite the Brigade front.
The front of attack extended from the sharp corner just south of the Knuckle on the right to a point about 150 yards north of the Hump on the left. As the proposed operation included the capture of two lines of trench it was decided by Corps to divide it into two days' work in order to simplify the question of the co-operation of the 21st Division on the left. Accordingly the plan was that the first day the 173rd Brigade should capture the allotted portion of the front line, while the second day the area of operations should be extended and the 21st Division on the left should join with the 173rd Brigade in the assault of the support line.
The troops detailed for the attack were in order from right to left, 1 company 2/3rd, 1 company 2/lst, 1| companies 2/2nd and 1 company 2/4th Londons. For the purposes of the operation the companies of the 2/3rd and 2/4th Londons were respectively under command of the officers commanding 2/lst and 2 /2nd Londons. The attack was to be delivered under a heavy barrage from a strong concentration of guns of the 7th, 58th and 62nd Divisions and the Corps Heavy Artillery, together with the massed guns of the three Brigade Machine-Gun Companies. Arrangements were also made for the provision of supporting rifle, Lewis gun and machine-gun fire by the 21st Division.
The 174th Brigade was to arrange for the establishment of a line of posts along the sunken road in prolongation to the right of the 173rd Brigade's objective.
A Company (Cotton) was detailed for the first day's attack, and the special task allotted to it by Lieut. -Col. Richardson, commanding the 2/2nd Battalion, was the capture of the sunken cross-roads to the left of the Hump and of a German strong point in the front line about 100 yards north of them.
The assembly was successfully carried out during the night of 14th/15th June, and completed by about 2.15 a.m. At 2.50 a.m. our barrage opened and the assaulting waves moved forward to the attack in good order, keeping well up to the barrage and suffering very little loss.
The attack proved successful though it led to some hard fighting. The actual advance was entrusted to two platoons under 2/Lieut. Wheatley (right) and 2/Lieut. Bell (left). The objective at this point was strengthened by two " pillbox " machine-gun posts and was in line with the trench already held on our left by the 21st Division, from which it was divided by a double barricade ; and Lieut.-Col. Richardson took up his Battle Headquarters in a dugout in their line, as did also Capt. Cotton. A third platoon of A Company under 2/Lieut. Boorman assembled in the 21st Division trench, and was formed as a bombing party with others to rush the double barricade at zero hour and to bomb the enemy out of their two pillboxes before our barrage had lifted off the enemy trench in order to clear it before the arrival of Bell and Wheatley with their platoons. A good many casualties were therefore inevitably caused to Boorman's platoon by our own shell fire, and he reached the traverse next to the first pillbox with only two corporals, Sherwood and Whitworth. Here the two N.C.O.'s threw bombs, which landed neatly outside the two doors of the pillbox, and directly they exploded Boorman dashed round the traverse with a bomb in each hand. Sheltering himself against the wall, he threw his bombs into each door of the pillbox before the Germans inside had recovered from the effects of Sherwood and Whitworth's attack. This neat piece of work secured the pillbox to us, but before Boorman could reorganise his party for the further advance to the second pillbox Bell's platoon had occupied the trench. A few men of Wheatley's platoon were also found to be in line. The greater number, including Wheatley himself, apparently overshot the objective, not recognising it in its battered condition, and must all have been killed or captured.
According to the prearranged scheme, Bell's platoon was withdrawn shortly before dawn, and Boorman was left in charge of the captured position with the remains of his own and Wheatley's platoons. The 2/2nd Londons were now in touch on our right, and by arrangement with them the trench was divided between the two Battalions, the 2/4th Londons being responsible from the 21st Division on the left as far as the communication trench running back from the Hump to the German support line. The shelling now resumed more moderate proportions, although it continued sporadically all day, and casualties were continually being caused in our ranks. The Battalion suffered a severe loss early in the day in Sergt. Riley, who was acting C.S.M. for the attack. He had done very good work indeed ever since the Battalion had been in France, and had throughout shown complete indifference to danger. He was shot through the chest while accompanying Boorman on a reconnaissance to endeavour to trace Wheatley's missing platoon.
In the meantime arrangements had been made for the further attack on the support Hindenburg line on the following morning, and detailed orders had been issued which provided for the assembly of the assaulting troops in the front line — the first day's objective — by 2.10 a.m. on the 16th June. This intention could not, however, be carried out, for at about 10.30 p.m. on the 15th a heavy counter-attack was launched against our new positions which caused severe fighting, in the course of which the enemy once more gained a hold on the centre of his old front line and also at two other points.
On the front held by the 2/4th Londons the counter-offensive took the form of a bombing attack, the approach of which along the communication trench opposite the right of our sector was disclosed by the enemy's own star shells, which rendered plainly visible the forms of the attackers waist high above the battered sides of the trench. A shower of Very lights was at once put up, and with the assistance of these the attack was driven off by Lewis gun and rifle grenade fire, arrangements for which had been made most skilfully by Boorman earlier in the day. None of the enemy succeeded in penetrating our position, but many of his dead were left on the ground.
It was, however, so essential to our purpose that the enemy should not have the advantage of a day's respite before the attack on the support line, that immediate arrangements were made for a counter-attack to eject him once more from his old front line in order to leave this clear as our jumping-off point. The recapture of the line was entrusted to the 2/lst and 2/3rd Londons, who succeeded by surprise in completely recovering the whole of the front line at the point of the bayonet by 2.45 a.m. on the 16th.
At 3.10 a.m. the second day's attack opened. The order of battle was the same as for the first day, but the forces employed were larger, the 2/3rd Londons supplying three companies, the 2/lst Londons three companies, the 2/2nd Londons two companies and the 2/4th Londons two companies (B under Bottomley and D under Parker).
The attack, as for the first day, was made under a creeping barrage supplied by the Divisional artillery and the Brigade machine-gun companies, and the assault was made in one wave with a " mopping-up " wave in rear accompanied by a detachment of Royal Engineers for consolidation work.
This day again a good deal of difficulty seems to have been experienced by the advancing troops in identifying their objectives, which had become almost entirely obliterated by our long-continued bombardments, while the dust raised by the barrage rendered the recognition of surrounding physical features almost impossible. The resistance of the enemy all along the line was most stubborn, and the unusual strength in which he was holding the attacked position clearly indicated that the attack was expected. The earliest reports which were received by runner led to the belief that the objective on the two flanks had been captured. No information from the centre was forthcoming, and it gradually became evident that the direction of the flank companies was at fault, with the result that they had swung outwards leaving in the centre a gap still occupied by the Germans, who promptly began to bomb along the line against our unprotected flanks. The attack of the 21st Division on the left, moreover, failed throughout, and although a few isolated parties succeeded in reaching a line of shell holes in front of Tunnel Trench they were eventually forced to withdraw.
The orders issued to the assaulting wave were to capture the Hindenburg support line and hold on to it until supports should reach them, but all the attempts of Lieut. -Col. Richardson to push forward his supporting troops were frustrated by the intense rifle and machine-gun fire with which the ground was continuously swept, and similar efforts along the remainder of the front were stopped for the same reason.
At 11 a.m. the obscurity of the position induced the Brigadier to make a personal reconnaissance in order, if possible, to clear up the situation, but he found it impossible to get along the captured German front line, and therefore proceeded to the Battle Headquarters of the 2/2nd Londons. The information obtained there led to the belief that the 2/2nd and 2/4th Londons had carried their objectives without difficulty and at comparatively little loss, but that their flanks were in the air and in danger of being turned by the bombing attacks of the enemy. The support line was now entirely cut off as rimner communication was utterly impossible under the enemy's devastating fire, and it was clear that our isolated parties who w^re in the objective must be suffering heavy losses.
It has been difficult to establish what happened to the two companies of the 2/4th Battalion owing to the heavy casualties sustained, but it is evident that they also mistook the objective and pushed on some 200 yards ahead of it, where they came under intense fire from front and flanks.
The most advanced party appears to have been a platoon of B Company under McDowell, who although completely out of touch with the remainder of their company held on most gallantly to the position they had gained for some two hours, at the end of which time their ammunition Avas exhausted and they were using a captured German machine-gun. No sign of the promised supports being visible, and the enemy evidently being about to surround his little party, now reduced to a mere half-dozen, McDowell determined to fight his way back to his comrades, and began to withdraw steadily. During his withdrawal he was hit, and on regaining consciousness found himself alone. He continued his way back to our lines, crawling from shell hole to shell hole, and managed to collect four privates, all resolved to sell their lives dearly. By this time he was completely surrounded, and his little band was destroyed by rifle grenade fire ; McDowell himself was hit again and captured. To the eternal shame of the enemy let it be recorded that he lay for three days in the enemy trench before being sent to their dressing-station, and not until six days after his wounds were received were they dressed at all.
A similar fate appears to have overtaken the remainder of B and D Companies, and the probability is that having overshot their objective they were outflanked and cut off by parties of the enemy coming down the sunken road from Fontaine-lez-Croisilles. Their mistake having become evident to them, they endeavoured, like McDowell, to fight their way back, but after making a gallant stand were eventually killed or taken prisoners almost to a man. It is believed from aeroplane reports subsequently received that this gallant little body actually succeeded in maintaining themselves against all attacks for nearly two days. But all efforts to relieve them meeting with failure, they at last fell gloriously rather than surrender.
A similar lack of success attended the efforts of the other battalions, and as a result of the two days' fighting the Brigade held the front Hindenburg line and the sunken road in rear of it, from the junction with the 21st Division on the left to a point some 300 yards west of the Crucifix cross-roads at Bullecourt.
The casualties of the Brigade amounted to 48 officers and 955 other ranks, those of the 2/4th Battalion for the two days' fighting being :
Capts. E. W. Bottomley and W. H. Parker, 2/Lieuts. S. M. Williams and J. H. L. Wheatley, killed ; Capt. E. N. Cotton and 2/Lieut. T. J. Bell, wounded ; 2/Lieuts. E. A. Monkman and R. McDowell, wounded and missing, and 2/Lieut. E. A. Stevenson, missing.
In N.C.O.'s and men the losses totalled 7 killed, 53 wounded and 139 missing, the majority being in B and D Companies.
It became evident during the afternoon that the 173rd Brigade, who were weak before they went into action, would need relief that night, and arrangements were therefore made for the 174th Brigade to take over the line. In accordance with this arrangement the whole Brigade front was taken over on the night 16th/17th June by the 2/5th Londons, who pushed forward strong patrols towards the Hindenburg support line. This, however, was found to be held in strength by the enemy.
With this somewhat disastrous day the idea of immediate further offensive operations was postponed, and the 174th Brigade settled down to consolidate itself in the Hindenburg front line.
The fighting spirit displayed throughout the operation was splendid, and it is only to be regretted that the two days' work had not been arranged for a one day battle. As the event showed, the capture of the Hindenburg front line on the 15th prepared the enemy for our attempt to take the support line on the 16th, with the result that on the second day severe casualties were inflicted on our troops to no purpose.
During the second action at Bullccourt an incident occurred which is surely one of the most remarkable of the whole War. We recount it in the words of the official record, which appeared in the Battalion War Diary on the 8th August :
No. 282496 Pte. Taylor J., of A Company, admitted to 29th CCS. This man had been missing since Bulle-court on the 15th June 1917, had been wounded and crawled into a shell hole. He sustained a compound fracture of the left thigh, and aided by Pte. Peters, B Company, had lived on bully beef found on the bodies of dead men. After being in the shell hole for over six weeks Pte. Peters apparently was captured, for the following day three Germans visited the shell hole and shook Pte. Taylor's leg, but he feigned death. The following day, not being able to obtain any food, he decided to crawl back to our lines. His position was some distance behind the German line. He dragged himself to the paraj^et of the trench, threw himself over, crawled through the wire across No Man's Land into the sector held by the S. Staffords. Altogether he sjjent seven weeks and four days behind the German lines.
Pte. Taylor's story was subjected to severe scrutiny by Lieut. -Col. Dann and by the Brigadier, and their opinion of its truth is witnessed by the fact that he was awarded the D.C. Medal. Pte. Peters' fate is unknown, and it is regrettable that after his devotion to his comrade it was not possible to make him a posthumous award for his gallantry.
On relief by the 2/5th Londons the 2/4th Battalion marched to Divisional reserve camp in Mory Copse, where it remained for four days in reorganising and training. The month at Bullecourt had cost the Battalion 597 casualties in all ranks, and a rest after the prolonged operations was urgently needed.
B and D Companies were for the moment practically effaced, and the few remaining details were therefore attached respectively to A and C Companies, these two composite companies being placed under command of Capts. E. N. Cotton and H. A. T. Hewlett.
On the 24th June the 58th Division was finally withdrawn from Bullecourt, its place being taken by the 7th Division, and Divisional Headquarters opened at Courcelles on that day.
The 2/4th Londons with the remainder of the 173rd Brigade had moved on the 21st to Camp at Logeast Wood, where a welcome fifteen days' rest was spent in training and reorganising, working parties being supplied daily to the R.E. dump at Achiet-le-Grand.
During this period awards were made of the Military Cross to 2/Lieut. D. S. Boorman, and of the Military Medal to L.-Corpl. Coates, for their gallant conduct on the 15th/16th June. The Battalion was joined on the 24th June by Capt. W. A. Stark and 2/Lieut. S. Davis, and by drafts of 107 other ranks on the 21st June and of 28 N.C.O.'s on the 4th July. This welcome accession of strength, especially in N.C.O.'s, who had become very few, rendered it possible once more to reorganise the Battalion in four companies under Capts. E. N. Cotton (A), G. H. Hetley (B), H. A. T. Hewlett (C), and A. G. Croll (D). The duties of Intelligence Officer were taken over from Capt. Croll by 2/Lieut. S. A. Seys, and on the 12th July, Cotton having been evacuated to hospital, command of A Company was assumed by Capt. D. S. Boorman, M.C. The period of rest at Logeast Wood was brought to a close by a Battalion sports meeting, one of those quite informal but very keenly followed affairs which always have proved such an invaluable means of recuperation for tired troops. The following day the reorganised Battalion was inspected by the Colonel, and on the 8th July the Battalion marched through the devastated region and the ruins of Courcelles, Sapignies and Bapaume to Bancourt. Its route continued the following day to Ytres, where six days in billets were occupied in parading for inspection successively by the Divisional General (Fanshawe), the Brigadier (Freyberg) and the IV Corps Commander.
The Brigade was now in Divisional reserve, the Division having taken over a sector of line in front of Gouzeaucourt and Havrincourt Wood. The British trenches here were opposed once more to the Hindenburg system, which had not been penetrated in this region. After severe fighting in April round Epehy our troops had established themselves on high ground on the line VOlers Plouich-Beaucamp-Trescault, whence a series of spurs descend gradually in a north-easterly direction towards Ribe-mont, Marcoing and the Scheldt Canal — all destined to witness bitter fighting in the Cambrai battle five months later.
The Gouzeaucourt -Havrincourt Wood sector was now exceedingly quiet. This, to an extent, was of great advantage to the Battalion, since nearly 40 per cent, of its strength at the moment consisted of drafts newly arrived who had not yet been under fire. It was possible, therefore, for the new mPtterial to become properly assimilated into the Battalion before further casualties created deficiencies in the ranks.
On the night 16th/17th July the 173rd Brigade took over from the 174th Brigade the right of the Divisional front from the neighbourhood of Villers Plouich to Queens Lane, a communication trench 500 yards west of the Beaucamp-Ribemont Road.
The 2/4th Battalion remained in Brigade reserve for a few days, Battalion Headquarters and A Company being in huts in Dessart Wood, C and D Companies in Gouzeaucourt Wood, and B Company attached to the 2/lst Battalion in a support trench south of Beaucamp. Daily working parties were supplied by the Battalion for trench repair and improvement work, but very little incident worthy of record occurred. The principal excitement was provided by the intelligence that a German spy disguised as an officer of the R.F.A. was in hiding in one of the numerous woods with which the countryside is dotted, but the Battalion was not successful in tracking him down.
The only portion of the line in which there was any degree of activity was in front of the left of the Brigade sector, where an isolated spinney in the middle of No Man's Land — here some 600 to 700 yards wide — was always a target for the enemy's artillery. This spinney, known as Boar Copse, was occupied by tPie Battalion in the line as an advanced post, and it was decided to wire round the edge of the Copse and connect it to our front line by a communication trench. The duty of executing the work fell to the 2/4th Londons, and a working party of 4 officers and 180 N.C.O.'s and men was supplied under Capt. A. G. Croll on the night 20th/21st July. As ill luck would have it, the Germans selected this same evening to endeavour to raid the outpost line occupied by the 2/9th Londons farther to the left. The raid was carried out under an intense barrage, but our artillery answered promptly to the call made on it and the raiders were beaten off, leaving a prisoner in our hands. Unfortunately the raid caused a certain amount of shelling on the Boar Copse front resulting in a few casualties, among whom was Capt. Croll. This was exceedingly bad luck and a loss to the Battalion. Croll had done excellent work since the arrival in France of the 2/4th Battalion and had just received his company. His wound, though not dangerous, was sufficiently severe to keep him in England for almost a year. His company was taken over by Capt. C. A. Clarke.
The following night the Battalion relieved the 2/3rd Battalion in the right subsector on a front of about 1500 yards, all the companies being in line and each providing its own supports.
The trenches were well sited and well dug, being very deep and heavily traversed. Throughout this area the communication trenches were of exceptional length,. Lincoln Lane in particular, which ran from Gouzeaucourt Wood to Beaucamp, being over two miles long.
Very little incident occurred during this tour of duty. No Man's Land was patrolled nightly and appeared to belong to us as no enemy were encountered.
On the evening of the 30th July the Battalion was relieved by the 11th Royal Scots and marched to the light railway at Dessart Wood, whence it entrained to Neuville-Borjonval, camping there for the night.
The following day the Battalion moved by bus from Neuville to Izel-les-Hameau, in the Arras area, the transport under Major Nunneley moving by train from Bapaume to Saulty and then by march route to Hameau.
The whole Division was now put through a regular course of re-equipment and training in preparation for the heavy work it was to be called upon to do in the offensive at Ypres. In this training particular attention was paid to musketry, the necessity for this having been clearly demonstrated in all recent actions, in which troops had shown a tendency to use bombs or rifle grenades to the exclusion of their rifles.
During this period drafts of officers were received as follows :
6th July— 2/Lieut. F. A. Carlisle.
20th July— Lieut. F. S. Marsh (7th Londons) ; 2/Lieuts. R. Michell (6th Londons) ; and H. N. Bundle, W, F. Vines, E. R. Seabury and C. C. H, Clifford (13th Londons).
25th July— Lieut. D. C. Cooke ; 2/Lieuts. F. B. Burd and A. J. Angel (13th Londons).
1st August— 2/Lieuts. J. McDonald and F. W. Walker ; 2/Lieut. C. S. Pike (7th Londons).
9th August — 2/Lieut. A. S. Cook (7th Londons).
The Battalion changed its quarters on the 13th August, leaving Izel for Denier, where it proceeded with its training. Not all the time was devoted to work, but some excellent sports meetings were held — and at the Brigade Sports on the 20th the Battalion was successful in winning the Cup presented by Brig.-Gen. B. C. Freyberg, V.C., D.S.O. The importance of achievements of this nature cannot be over-rated. The longer the War continued the more obvious it became that if " rest " periods were to do any good to the men at all they must be periods of mental as well as physical rest, and games of all sorts provide the required relaxation more than anything else. On coming out of the trenches, weary, muddy, possibly hungry, and almost certainly wet through, the men's first moments of freedom were spent in a game of football.
This was an aspect of the mentality of the British soldier which we believe was never fathomed by the French villagers. Their hospitality and devotion to " les braves Tommys " was unfailing and genuine ; but we feel there was a lingering notion among our kind hosts that this remarkable devotion to football was really a confirmation of the time-honoured tradition that the English are all at least a little mad.
Reinforcements of N.C.O.'s and men were also being fed into the Battalion during this period, and by the end of August the strength in N.C.O.'s and men had increased by about 240.