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 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.

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.

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 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.