London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories
Royal fusiliers in the Great War - BATTLE OF MESSINES
The Royal fusiliers in the Great War
1914 - 1919
THE BATTLE OF MESSINES
The Arras offensive gradually died down after May 3rd, though there were actions
on the Hindenburg line and about the Souchez River and Avion until almost the
end of June. But it was on May 4th or 5th * that it was agreed " to give
immediate effect to the British plan of a Northern Offensive." To this plan the
Battle of Messines formed a preliminary operation, and, after elaborate
preparation, it was launched on June 7th, 1917.
The objective was the Messines- Wytschaete ridge, which formed a most important
observation post in the British positions, and the chord across it running
slightly east of the hamlet of Oosttaverne. In the plan of battle the first
German defensive system and the second, following the crest of the ridge, were
to be carried in a first assault ; and the Oosttaverne line was to be captured
by a second distinct movement. Four battalions of Royal Fusiliers took part in
the battle, two of them being engaged in the opening attack. The 41st Division
lay near St. Eloi, toward the north-west face of the salient, and the 26th and
32nd Royal Fusiliers, who belonged to it, went forward with great dash and
secured their objectives.
At 3.10 a.m., zero hour, there was a terrific explosion caused by the mines
which had been driven under the German position, and at the same time the enemy
lines were deluged by a bombardment that seemed the heaviest of the war. Then,
in bright moonlight, the 26th Battalion advanced promptly and steadily, under
the direction of Lieutenant R. C. Brockworth, M.C., suffering very few
casualties. They were the first troops on the Damm-strasse, Lieutenant
Brockworth sending back the report of its occupation. So swiftly and
successfully had the advance gone that Brockworth was awarded a bar to his M.C.
Some 203 casualties were sustained before the day ended ; but up to this point
there had been little appearance of resistance and very little loss.
* Sir Douglas Kaig's Despatches, p. 100, Note.
The 32nd advanced in support of the 26th Battalion. They went forward in four
waves, keeping admirable order, and reached the first objective without
opposition. There, a pause was made for reorganisation ; and the battalion
passed through the 26th at Damm-strasse, and moved towards their final
objective. It is amazing that the units kept to their orders so well, for the
whole of the ground was beaten out of recognition and the objectives were
originally definite trenches. Near the final position most of the Germans fled.
About thirty were taken prisoner, the majority of them very eager to give
themselves up ; but a few were bombed out of dug-outs. But at the Black Line,
from Goudezoune Farm to a point on Obstacle Switch 250 yards to the north, there
was no opposition. The battalion dug themselves in about 100 yards beyond
Obstacle Trench and established advanced posts with seven Lewis guns. The
engagement was admirably carried out largely owing to the efficiency of the
signalling under Second Lieutenant Home Galle and Sergeant Scoble. After passing
the first objective, the Red Line, the companies were kept in constant touch
with headquarters by visual signalling. The battalion went into action 17
officers and 551 other ranks strong and came out with 11 officers and 384 ranks.
For an attack with important objectives which were secured in schedule time, the
losses were not excessive.
THE BATTLE OF MESSINES, JUNE 7th
At 8.10 a.m. the work of these two battalions was over, except for the
consolidation and organisation of the positions. It was 3.10 before the second
phase of the battle began with the advance upon the Oosttaverne Line. The 1st
Royal Fusiliers attacked in this part of the battle, forming the right
assaulting battalion of the 17th Brigade. The 12th Battalion were left in
dug-outs on the north and west edges of the Etang de Dickebusch in support ; but
as this position lay nearly three miles from Dammstrasse they were not engaged
during the battle. At 11.15 a.m., the Fusiliers learned that all the objectives
of the 41st and 19th Divisions had been taken ; and an hour later they were
ordered to move to the old front trench at 11.30 a.m. The battalion moved
forward five minutes afterwards in artillery formation. It had become a
swelteringly hot day, and the advance in such conditions was not over-enjoyable.
At 2.10 p.m. Damm-strasse was reached and the battalion moved through the 26th
preparatory to the attack.
The 1st Battalion had about a mile to go to their final objective. At 3.10 p.m.
the advance began and the men moved very close to the barrage. Although the
Germans had had a certain amount of time to recover there was still little
organised opposition. The wire had been well cut, the strong points were
battered, and the Germans were demoralised. But the swiftness and completeness
of the Fusiliers' success was due to their splendid dash. Second Lieutenant
Field, with a handful of D Company, rushed a strong point which was holding out
and captured 25 - prisoners and two machine guns. B Company crossed Odyssey
Trench and, despite a strong opposition, with the help of a platoon of A Company
under Second Lieutenant Douglas Crompton rushed the strong point which formed
part of the final objective. Crompton was unfortunately killed, as also was
Second Lieutenant Shoesmith, who had also shown great gallantry in attack. At
one point when B and D Companies had drawn apart and there was danger that the
Germans might profit by the gap between them, Second Lieutenant Mander ran
forward with his platoon and filled the gap. Sergeant Haldane's unselfishness in
attending to the wounded of his two sections is also worthy of record. The
sections being all casualties, he carried the wounded back, and bandaged them
before reporting himself, when he fainted from loss of blood and exhaustion. The
Rev. Studdert Kennedy also did excellent work for the wounded.
The final position was gained early, and at 4.30 p.m. the companies reported all
objectives attained and that they were in touch with the battalions on the
flanks. The line extended from the point where the Roozebeek cut Odyssey Trench
to within a few yards of the road running north-east of Oosttaverne. At this
point the position lay some 500 yards north-east of the hamlet. The 1st
Battalion in this battle took 130 men of the 150th Prussian Regiment prisoners,
with a machine and two field guns, for a loss of 5 officers and no other ranks.
When the 1st Battalion were consolidating the advanced positions, the 12th moved
up to the old front line and before midnight went forward to the Dammstrasse
near Hiele Farm. From this position they took rations and supplies to the 1st
Battalion and the 3rd Rifle Brigade in the front line. At 9.30 p.m. on June 9th
they moved forward to relieve the front line about the Roozebeek stream. The
battalion headquarters were established in Oosttaverne Wood, near the Wambeke
road ; and it was close to this place that the battalion suffered a very
searching blow. They were destined to take part in rounding off the battle and
yet at one stroke they lost four of their chief officers. A shell fell close to
headquarters, catching Lieut-Colonel Compton, Captain Gordon, Captain J. V.
Wilson and Captain Whittingham (R.A.M.C), and wounding them. Captains Gordon and
Whittingham died at midnight. Lieut.-Colonel Compton lingered till July 7th,
when he too succumbed. At 10 p.m., Captain Ventres assumed command of the
battalion, pending the arrival of Major Neynoc, who reached headquarters about
3.30 a.m. At 9.35 that night (June 10th) the battalion was relieved, and
suffered 52 casualties in the barrage during relief. It was an unfortunate tour.
ATTACK ON BATTLE WOOD, JUNE 14th
Major Hope Johnstone of the 1st Battalion took over command on the nth ; and at
11 p.m. on the 12th, the 12th Royal Fusiliers relieved the Durham Light Infantry
in Impartial Trench preparatory to attack. Their role was to round off the
battle by the capture of the dug-outs north of the railway, at Battle Wood, in
conjunction with the 8th Buffs. The battalion attacked at 7.30 p.m., June 14th,
on a two-company front, and a very stiff right ensued. The bombardment had left
the dug-outs * undamaged ; they were well garrisoned and a very strong
resistance was offered. The right leading company, No. 4, came under intense
machine-gun fire from the flank on reaching the line of dug-outs on the railway
embankment. The first dug-out contained 1 officer and 20 men and a machine gun,
and the platoon ordered to deal with it had a fierce hand-to-hand battle and had
to kill practically the whole garrison. Another dug-out had a garrison of 40 and
the men came out and fought it out in the open. The platoon ended the resistance
by a fierce bayonet charge in which 20 Germans were killed and 20 taken
prisoner. These encounters had so weakened the company that reinforcements had
to be sent for. Two platoons of No. 2 — the reserve — Company were sent up, and
had to go through a heavy barrage ; but with careful leading they came through
without too heavy a loss.
Meanwhile No. 1 — the left leading — Company had met with little opposition,
except at a post in the ravine in Impartial Trench. This ravine was the
objective of the right platoon of the company, but the platoon commander saw
that another ravine which ran along the road 100 yards farther south offered a
better site for a strong post, and accordingly this was made good under heavy
machine-gun fire. The battalion had orders to establish five strong posts, but
the conditions made this task extremely difficult. The pill-boxes were very hard
to cope with, and one of them kept up a consistent machine-gun fire during the
process of consolidation. The work, however, was pushed through in full view of
the enemy, and before darkness fell the posts were consolidated and an organised
defensive established. When it is remembered that the attack was only launched
at 7.30 p.m., it will be appreciated that the battalion had added a considerable
achievement to their record. The organisation was not only remarkably good ; it
was even remarkably successful in weathering the stresses and strains of battle.
Tapes were laid from the forward posts to battalion head- quarters and to the
dressing station. These tapes were of great assistance to the stretcher bearers.
Second Lieutenants W. S. Nathan and H. A. Bayly were killed, Second Lieutenant
Bescoby was mortally wounded and died four days later, four other officers were
wounded, and there were 92 other ranks casualties. Considering the nature of the
fighting, and that all objectives were gained, and 28 prisoners and a machine
gun captured, these casualties cannot be considered excessive.
* This was the first experience of the real formidableness of the " pill-boxes,"
as these concrete dug-outs came to be called. They had survived the attacks of
another division and had won a certain unfortunate notoriety already.
Appreciative messages followed speedily. The commander of the division
congratulated the battalion on their success. The Second Army Commander sent a
message congratulating " all concerned in the success of last night's operations
which have succeeded in substantially advancing our whole line. The operations
reflect much credit on all concerned."
In action the 12th appeared to have a fair share of luck. Out of it, they seemed
to suffer every sort of mishap. The loss of four officers by a chance shell has
already been recorded. A little later in the month they were in Hill 60 area.
Back areas came in for a heavy bombardment, preventing rations being brought up.
Four yards from battalion headquarters — the coincidence is remarkable — a shell
blocked up the gallery. Lieutenant Martin was partly buried by the explosion and
gassed. Captain Skene (R.A.M.C.) and Captain Simkins were also gassed, and Major
Hope Johnstone, Major Neyoc and Second Lieutenant Fonteyn suffered slightly, but
were able to remain at duty. Three days later when they relieved the 1st
Battalion, a shell caused 19 casualties in a working party.
THE BATTLE OF MESSINES
The Battle of Messines was a prelude to the Ypres battles of 1917. The Fusiliers
had a distinct hand in the launching stage, and also a very vivid and vital part
in rounding it off.