London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - GERMAN OFFENSIVE

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919

It is strange now, looking back on the past, how little people in England knew of the turn of events in the early part of the year 1918. Sir Douglas Haig had pointed out that the British Army definitely looked to the defensive ; but his despatches were not published until long afterwards, and the suggestions of a German offensive were almost as quickly denied in the English Press as they were expressed. At the front there was little ambiguity about the position. Towards the end of the second week in March the Germans apparently threw aside all attempts at concealment. Troop movements could be seen from the British lines, and German officers were observed a few days before the attack examining the British positions through their glasses. But, despite the knowledge of the staff and the open demonstration of the enemy, the attack burst over the line with remarkable suddenness and developed with unexpected speed.


The Germans struck between the Oise and the Scarpe. At the moment when the blow fell the extreme right of the line was held by the 58th Division with the second line Londons, with the 18th Division on their left. This division also included a Royal Fusilier unit (nth Battalion), and thus the regiment were represented in one of the critical sectors of the front by a number of battalions. Further north, almost in the centre of the Fifth Army front, lay the 24th Division, including the 1st Battalion. Within the Third Army area lay the 7th and 4th Battalions, the former being still in the Cambrai salient and the latter on the Cherisy-Fontaine sector. The 56th Division, with the first line Londons, lay north of the Scarpe, just beyond the main area of the German attack ; and there were other Fusilier battalions in reserve in the Third Army sector. The 2nd Division were near Rocquigny, and the 41st west of Albert. These two divisions included four Royal Fusilier units, all of whom became involved in the actions of the German offensive in Picardy.

Of the other battalions of Royal Fusiliers who were in France at this moment, the 2nd, 10th, and 13th were in the Ypres sector when the attack began ; but the two last were involved in the aftermath of the Picardy offensive. The last remaining Royal Fusilier battalion, the 9th, took up station on the Ancre at a critical moment in the attack and did excellent service.

To each of the battalions their own individual experience was of paramount importance, and these were days when almost every hour held an episode of thrilling interest. But much of the experience was characteristic and typical rather than unique, and it is possible to form some picture of this phase of the righting in France from the detailed record of one or two battalions.
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The 7th Battalion, in the front line on Highland Ridge, experienced a German gas barrage on March 11th. It began about 7 p.m. and continued until 4 a.m. the next day. During these hours there was a continuous whistle of shells which fell upon the support lines and battery positions, exploding with a very slight noise. The wind being towards the German lines, the gas was carried back to the British front line, and the men had to wear their gas helmets for xour or five hours. At the point of exhaustion, they removed the helmets only to fall a prey sooner or later to the fumes rising from the ground. The barrage was also put down on the following night, when the battalion were to be relieved ; and, despite the risk, the arrangement for relief was confirmed. The men stumbled along through the gas. The night was dark, and the fumes of the explosions made it darker. The road was pitted with shell holes, and the men fell into them. Some, splashed by the contents of the shells, were burned on the arms and neck. Weary, bathed in perspiration, half stifled, they stumbled on through the gun positions to the train of open trucks, in which, as a sort of natural climax, they were kept waiting long enough in the biting air to encourage chills before being moved to the rest camp, five miles away. Coughs, sore throats, sore eyes, voices reduced to a whisper, were the portion of all ; but about 250 men had to be sent to hospital. The battalion went back to the Ribecourt right sector ; and, on the night of their return, 100 boys joined them. They had come from England and arrived after three days' travelling in trucks at 1 a.m. on March 21st. They had never seen a trench and had no experience of actual war.

March 21st. — At 4 a.m. the preliminary bombardment began. High explosive shells with trench mortars firing with extraordinary rapidity made a deafening noise. But the 7th Royal Fusiliers were incorrigibly cheerful. ' Nothing to worry about " was the report from A Company on the right . D reported a strange cloud approaching, and this was soon of the density of a London fog. B discovered that the Germans were attacking and had got into the trenches of the battalion on the left. B beat off the attack on their front by Lewis gun and rifle fire. The S.O.S. rocket was invisible in the smoke. A pigeon insisted on choosing the wrong direction. Runners at last got through, and the barrage came down in front of the front line. But the bombardment grew heavier and heavier. B Company had to withdraw on the uncovering of their flank. Captain K. Hawkins, M.C., the commander, was killed at the entrance to his headquarters. Captain J. Foster, M.C., was called up to battalion head-quarters to arrange a counter-attack with C Company. He was twice buried on the way up and knocked about by the debris of explosions, but eventually he arrived. The men from the left battalion began to drift in. The right battalion's line was pierced, and the men flowed into the Royal Fusiliers' trench. A Company was ordered to re-organise them and take the lost ground, and the situation was restored. An officer's servant had taken charge on the left, and the line was organised and vigilant. At the end of the day the battalion had held their own and assisted to prop up a shaky position.

But this was one of the bright spots in a disastrous day. The 4th Royal Fusiliers had been subjected to the same almost unbearable bombardment. The front line posts were lost in the attack which followed, but at 9.45 a.m. the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers had restored the brigade front. At 3.40 p.m. the Germans came on again. They were beaten off by machine-gun fire in the battle zone, but at 6.15 p.m. the battalion were ordered to retire to Brown Support. They took up the new positions with the 2nd Suffolks on the right and the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers on the left.

On the extreme south of the line the Fusilier Brigade of the 58th Division had been heavily engaged and had fought valiantly against overwhelming odds. The 2/2 Londons were holding a long line, the northern boundary being Travecy and the southern the Oise Canal, nearly 5,000 yards. Their strength at this time was 22 officers and 585 other ranks, an absurdly small body for so perilous a length of front ; and, as three German divisions appear to have been thrown against them, the battle had not opened long before the battalion were overwhelmed. The marshes of the Oise were thought to justify so long a line ; but the water was unusually low, and the thick mist more than neutralised the advantages of this obstacle. Travecy was gassed, and no further news was gained of A Company, stationed there. With the ten men of the trench mortar battery, they numbered no more than 200 ; and within an hour they were a besieged garrison, cut off from all communication with the rest of the army. These men held their original positions as long as there remained even the ghost of a chance of success. A platoon, reduced to 10 men and an officer, held the southern end of the village until only the officer and a wounded man remained. Two or three hundred dead Germans lay about their post before they fell back to the central keep. The other platoons fought with similar stubbornness until at noon the remnants of all were concentrated in the keep. This small body, perhaps 50 to 60 strong, was seldom left in peace. Throughout the day and night and up to dusk on March 22nd attempts were made to rush the position, for they found time and opportunity to enliven the enemy transport on the St. Quentin road, and a group of German staff officers who paused on the road were reminded forcibly that the little garrison still existed. At length, when darkness fell on the 22nd, the weary and hungry men had exhausted all their ammunition. They had used in their gallant resistance 18,000 rounds S.A.A., 200 trench mortar shells and 400 hand grenades. They had exacted a heavy price, and the remaining 44, including the wounded, were taken prisoners after two days' resistance to the inevitable.

B Company and battle headquarters at La Fere stood to their positions, though they, too, were cut off at 9.30 a.m. They were still firing in the evening, and then, their ammunition almost at an end, tried to fight back to the battalion. At 10 a.m. Captain Houghton and part of C Company attempted to defend the right flank. A quarter of an hour later Captain G. C. Lees, the adjutant, and 40 other ranks were all that remained of the battalion. With these men C.S.M. Boag fell back to the Crozat Canal to defend the battle zone. The 2 /4th had moved to the canal bank at Fargniers the night before ; and, stationed in the battle zone on the morning of the attack, they became almost at once involved in the fighting. The Germans, advancing with great rapidity, gained a footing in the eastern half of Fargniers, but at 11 a.m. were completely held in the battle zone, despite repeated attacks. The 3rd Londons, who had now joined the brigade, were in the rear zone, and two companies reinforced Fargniers and the Farme Rouge in the afternoon. Quessy was garrisoned by a composite force, including the reserve and tunnelling companies. At 8.30 p.m. the enemy were still held, but the Fusiliers were ordered to withdraw across the canal on the reorganisation of the division's front. The retirement was carried out successfully, without the enemy's knowledge. At the end of the day, in which it had seemed almost hopeless to attempt to cope with the situation, the battle zone had been lost, and the Fusilier Brigade were weaker by 1,266 officers and men. The 2/2nd had been practically wiped out. Their task had been quite impossible, and they had fallen under its dead weight.

Even the 11th Battalion in the division lying north of the 58th agreed that the opening bombardment was the worst ever experienced. They were at Caillouel when the battle opened, on the right rear of the Fusilier brigade of the 58th Division. But at 8 a.m. they were ordered to the Tombelle Wood, and by midday the lorries had taken them thither. At 1 p.m. they were ordered to counter-attack and retake the switch line between Montescourt and Ly Fontaine. The Germans were already at Gibercourt, half-way between these two places ; and it was necessary to check the advance. The Fusiliers crossed the Crozat Canal to Montescourt, and then, with the Northants on their right, swept ahead at dusk. The nth Battalion's advance brushed away all obstacles, and a little after 7 p.m. the battalion set about the work of consolidation. But by this time the enemy were close up to the canal from Fargniers to Quessy, and the work of the nth was interrupted by the arrival of further orders. They had to form part of a rearguard covering the retirement of the 14th Division on their northern flank and then to withdraw across the canal to Jussy. The men marched back with the experience, novel on this day, of having carried out a successful advance.

The 1st Battalion had been in the line in front of Vendelles on March 12th, and five days later could easily see the German officers examining the positions with field glasses. But they were relieved on the following day, and were out of the line when the offensive began. They promptly moved to battle positions — A and B were in the front line, C and D in the brown line east of Vendelles — and for an hour were compelled to wear gas helmets. Battalion headquarters had to be moved four times owing to the heavy shelling, and the German aeroplanes were very active. But there were singularly few casualties, though Second Lieutenants J. A. Mears-Devenish and L. G. Peaston were killed, and Second Lieutenant C. H. Matthews seriously wounded.

March 22nd. — On March 22nd the attack was continued over the whole front. The left front of the 24th Division after a gallant stand had been forced back through the successes of the enemy further north ; and in the afternoon the 1st Battalion, with the rest of the division, retired through the 50th Division to the third line of defence at Bernes. On this day they suffered more severely, among the casualties being Second Lieutenant R. W. Uphill killed, Captain W. L. T. Fisher wounded, and Captain G. A. Jones, Second Lieutenants A. Kerry and S. W. Wallis, missing.

The 7th Battalion had held the line on the first day of battle ; they were now to retire. At 1 a.m. they were ordered to withdraw to the support line and be clear of the front line within two hours. There was no transport, and what could not be carried had to be destroyed. Heavy trench mortars and gas cylinders were made useless, and the battalion took to the duckboard track. The next morning the enemy advanced in small disconnected bodies, while an aeroplane, flying about 150 feet overhead, took stock of the new positions. The British artillery at first showed no sign of life ; the German was all too active, and the infantry moved ahead in perfect security until they came within range of the Lewis guns. At about 11 a.m. the British artillery opened, and the German advance was checked. At 8 p.m. the withdrawal was resumed.

The 4th Battalion also were compelled to retreat on this day. The Germans had made considerable headway on the right of the 34th Division, causing that unit to retire and thus exposing the right flank of the 3rd Division. In the afternoon a determined attack was made on the 4th Battalion's block in Shaft Trench, but it was beaten off. The battalions on both sides of the 4th were driven from their positions ; and the Royal Fusiliers, after holding the enemy off for some time with both flanks in the air, were withdrawn. The new front line was established about 7 p.m., and some time after parties of the 2nd K.R.R. and 2nd Suffolks reported themselves. It had been an unsatisfactory day, for the battalion had been compelled to retire while they were still perfectly able to hold up the weight of the attack on their own sector. Captain J. A. Coley was killed during the action, but the casualties were not heavy.

At the other end of the line the remains of the London battalions fought valiantly to hold the Germans off the canal. A Company of the 3rd Londons held out in Tergnier against counter-attacks, and it was not until evening that the village changed hands. The 2/4th were in the reserve line, about a mile to the west, at Voeul. At 6.30 p.m. low-flying aeroplanes attacked the position, and were beaten off with machine-gun fire. At night patrols were sent out. Though the battalion had suffered so heavily, they had lost none of their spirit ; and they succeeded in capturing a number of prisoners, including a machine gun and its crew.

The nth Battalion had reached their new positions after the withdrawal across the canal, after midnight. They were thoroi ghly tired out and very hungry, and the cookers were the most pleasant sight they had on the west bank of the canal. Everything else was sufficient to suggest despair. The canal was an obstacle to the German advance ; but above Jussy it makes a sharp bend to the west, leaving the town in a small salient. The German machine guns were able to enfilade the position and make it untenable. The nth Royal Fusiliers soon had experience of the difficulties of the position. Shortly after daylight the German attack began. Field guns and trench mortars were brought up, under cover of which repeated attempts were made to cross the canal. In the afternoon, after renewed attacks in strength, the enemy secured a footing on the west side of the canal. A fierce struggle took place on the towpath, but, with the help of A Company of Northants, the situation was restored, and the Germans were forced back across the canal. Tergnier had been lost ; the enemy were across the canal in that sector ; but on the front of the 54th Brigade, which included the nth Royal Fusiliers, the line was still intact at nightfall.

March 23rd. — The following was one of the most critical days of the offensive. Both the Third and Fifth Armies had readjusted their front, and the day was to put the new positions to the test. The night had witnessed another withdrawal of the 7th Battalion. At 8 p.m. on the 22nd the battalion had begun to move back through Trescault to the Metz switch at the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood. The imposing name was applied to a group of trenches, about two feet deep, with no field of fire and without dug-outs. There was no cover, and no communication. There was no water, no transport, little ammunition ; and when the Germans were seen advancing in the morning the battalion were ordered to retire once more. Captain Thomas was placed in command of the rearguard, while Captain Foster led the first two companies. They marched through the wood to Neuville. Shells fell among the rearguard, but fortunately the casualties were few. The battalion at length reached Lechelle. The trenches were poor. The battalion had no rations. The water was cut off. There was no reserve of ammunition. The Germans were seen to be advancing from the south and from the right flank. At this moment the 1st Artists Rifles and the 4th Bedfords were holding a line east of Ytres, and the 7th Royal Fusiliers were in support. The position rapidly grew critical. Heavy shell began to fall on the huts in Lechelle where the men had been placed for greater safety. But unless they retired, they would be cut off. So the battalion had to fall back over the open to the Rocquigny-Bus road. The Germans opened fire from the south. Shrapnel, high explosive and machine-gun fire made the situation almost intolerable. At last the battalion got through the barrage ; and then Captain Forster sounded his hunting horn, and the stragglers began to collect from various directions. Major Whigham was evacuated with shell shock. Lieut. -Colonel Malone had been wounded by a machine gun. From the point of view of efficiency these were very severe blows. Captain J. Forster, M.C., assumed command. At 7 p.m. the battalion were ordered to fill the gap between the 47th Division and the right of the 190th Brigade. The left of the battalion was moved to the Bus-Lechelle road, when the enemy were reported advancing on Bus. An intense machine-gun fire was opened on the men, and touch could not be obtained with troops on the left, where the rest of the Brigade were supposed to be. A patrol sent out to Bus found the Germans there, and did not return. Dumps were on fire on every side. The enemy were seen to be advancing rapidly towards the main road. The position appeared to be beyond hope.

Many battalions in these days had the same feeling of complete isolation, as though no one was fighting and prepared to fight but themselves. The 2nd Division were operating very close to the area of the 7th Battalion, and to the Fusilier battalions included in it the retirement of the 63rd Division appeared inexplicable and tended to make their own position untenable. The central control of the operations appeared to have given way. The 17th Battalion Royal Fusiliers had been in the fine near La Vacquerie in the third week of March. On the 20th they could observe a number of German staff officers in the enemy positions opposite their front. Hundreds of men were seen entering and leaving the trenches in full pack, and machine guns were being taken up to the front and support lines. But the Royal Fusiliers were not left to resolve the riddle. They were relieved that night and went back to Rocquigny. On March 22nd they began to move up again with the 24th Royal Fusiliers, the 5th Brigade being attached to the 17th Division as reserve troops. The 17th Battalion moved up to the Green Line as the 24th moved back to it on March 23rd. At 2 a.m. the 17th were standing to in expectation of an immediate attack. Colonel Weston was appointed outpost commander of the 6th Brigade. At 10 a.m. and again at 1 p.m. the line was heavily shelled. Headquarters had already been twice moved ; and they were moved once again in the afternoon, to the north-east corner of Haplin-court. About 4.50 p.m. the Germans were seen to be entering Velu Wood in large numbers, and a few minutes later enemy shells began to burst all round and over the back areas. The Germans were already in Bus.

Meanwhile at 2 p.m. the 17th Division had retired through the Green Line, which now became the front line. The 24th Battalion were astride the Bertincourt-Velu road, but two companies were now sent to reserve positions south-west of Bertincourt. The 17th Battalion at this moment had already moved further west under the threat of an outflanking movement from the south. At 10 p.m. the enemy attacked the headquarters troops and the remains of the 1st K.R.R. just north of Bus. The two reserve companies of the 24th formed a defensive flank north-east of Bus, and the attack was beaten off. The troops fought in complete ignorance of the dispositions of the 63rd Division, on their right. The Germans were in Bus, but the 7th Royal Fusiliers could not have been much more than 1,000 yards away, and between them were the other battalions of the 190th Brigade.

The readjustment of the Third Army positions south of the Scarpe required the withdrawal of the 4th Battalion with the 3rd Division and the divisions on their flanks. The retirement was carried out between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. The Germans were already in the rear of the support line, but no casualties were suffered, and the movement was completed without incident.

On the front of the Fifth Army the day witnessed a more critical development. In the morning the 1st Battalion took up positions in front of Monchy Lagache, with C and D Companies in the front line and A and B in support. On the previous evening General Gough had intended to secure the main Peronne bridgehead by a line between Vraisne and Croix. Monchy Lagache lay at about the centre of the position, and the 1st Battalion were therefore looking forward to a stand. But in the morning Gough's position was such that he judged it too great a hazard to risk decisive action with tired troops against an apparently limitless stream of advancing Germans, and orders were accordingly given for a gradual withdrawal to the line of the Somme. The 1st Battalion therefore retired from Monchy Lagache, fighting rearguard actions. Part of the retreat was covered by the 72nd Brigade, and the battalion reached the Licourt position at night after a very trying day, in which, however, but few casualties had been sustained.

On the night of the 22nd the nth Battalion, as we have seen, were still holding the left sector of the canal to Jussy. But at dawn on the next morning, under cover of a thick fog, the Germans forced the canal crossing and began to issue in force from the town. Second Lieutenant Smedley scouted right out to the left flank, now in the air, " and up to the village under heavy machine-gun fire. This highly valuable work was carried out with the greatest pluck and determination. During the subsequent withdrawal Second Lieutenant Smedley, although wounded, carried his task to completion by covering the left flank." Such is the official description of an action which gained for this officer the M.C. But in reality this piece of work was one of extraordinary daring. The fog was almost impenetrable beyond a few feet. The battalion had only moved back to Jussy the day before, and it was under such conditions that Smedley felt his way to the German position. No one, indeed, could tell, under such conditions, where the enemy were. And when a little after noon they became located, they were some distance in the rear of the canal on the Jussy-Faillouel road. The thin line on the canal became like a sieve, and knots of Germans trickled through. The battle line became a scene of small isolated encounters. Major Deakin and Captain Pearcy were captured. The Germans had got round both flanks, and penetrated through the patches of the line they had obliterated. Captain Brooking for fourteen hours defended the position held by his company on the canal line against repeated attempts by the enemy to cross in large numbers. The thick fog made this extremely difficult, " and it was by his personal example and skilful handling that the enemy were frustrated with considerable losses. Eventually he was badly wounded, but continued to encourage his men with the utmost disregard of danger until he was cut off.

The defence of the canal was most gallant. The officers everywhere suffered terribly, fighting till they fell or were cut off and captured. Lieutenant Knott killed four of the enemy, and then, his ammunition exhausted, clubbed another before he was killed. Part of the battalion did not receive the order to retire, and when the fog lifted at midday the Germans were in front and on both flanks ; only a small party got back to the railway line. There another stand was made with the headquarters troops, until the Germans were within ioo yards and were again working round the flanks. The colonel fought with this body and escaped with the remnants. Sergeant W. Brisby, M.M., gained his D.C.M. by his coolness and extraordinary courage. He organised the party who fought through the enveloping line and took part in the last stand. Private Jordan secured the same decoration for organising a bayonet attack when called upon to surrender. By this means the remainder of his company secured the freedom to get back to the battalion.

With various intermediate halts, the nth Royal Fusiliers at length reached Caillouel ; but they returned to the village in a very different condition from that in which they had left it. They had held an exposed position on the canal, and no gallantry could compensate for the handicaps of their position and the day. They were now only 2 officers and 25 other ranks strong; and even when the battle surplus had been embodied, including tailors, police, pioneers, shoemakers and drums, they only mustered 8 officers and 180 other ranks. Yet the battalion were full of spirit, though they were placed in brigade reserve.

The 3rd Londons on the same day were engaged at Noreuil, and fell back to Chauny, where, with the 2/2nd Battalion, positions were taken up for the morrow.

March 24th. — On the night of March 23rd — 24th the battle front south of Ypres was the critical quarter of the line, and the 24th saw the development of the disorganisation which had begun on the previous day. The 4th Battalion again gave more than they got, and the constantly repulsed attacks cost the enemy dearly. Ludendorff noted how exhausted the Seventeenth Army were on March 25th, and the steadfast stand of the 4th Battalion played its part in the general scheme which achieved this successful result, for this flank became the fixed point upon which the remainder of the Third and the Fifth Armies pivoted.

The 26th Battalion (41st Division) had been brought up to the front hurriedly on the first day of the offensive. On the 22nd the division had entered the front line near Vaulx-Vraucourt to fill the breach which was opening between the 40th and 6th Divisions. The battalion were in support, though one after another the companies became involved on the flanks of the brigade, and fought very valiantly against repeated attacks. On the 24th the position on the Fifth Army front had changed so fundamentally that the Third Army front was drawn back a much greater distance, and Lieut.-Colonel H. M. Tuite was killed while commanding the rearguard, who covered the retirement of the mass of the battalion. When he fell an attempt was made to carry him back ; but, seeing how near the enemy were and how inevitable it was that the men should be captured if they stopped to remove him, he ordered them to leave him. He was heard of no more, and died in this way on the field of battle very gallantly.

At the same time, a little to the south the 2nd Division were also retiring. The 17th Royal Fusiliers were the last to retire, after fighting a stubborn rearguard. They passed through Villers and Beaulencourt to Ligny, where the 24th Battalion joined them in position south of the village. Further south lay the 23rd Battalion, who had held the position on the flank of the Third Army, and after fighting an engagement with both flanks in the air had fallen back on Le Transloy at dusk.

The 7th Battalion at 5 a.m. were covering the main Bus-Rocquigny road, and in this position held up for a time the enemy's advance. Rocquigny was heavily bombarded and subjected to machine-gun fire ; and at 8 a.m. the battalion fell back on Le Transloy, where they were congratulated by the G.O.C. division on their fine work during the first stage of the retreat. In a few hours the enemy pressure on their position was such that the battalion were ordered to fall back once more. They retired as left flank guard across country through Flers and High Wood to Bazentin le Petit. The village was reached at 6 p.m. after several encounters with the enemy. The battalion were now ordered to divisional reserve at Courcelette, and spent the night in a chalk quarry in the open.

While these movements were taking place in the Third Army the 1st Royal Fusiliers were being withdrawn from the line on the Somme front. At 7 a.m. they began their march to Chaulnes, where they took up outposts for the night. The nth Battalion were still not far from the Oise. During the day they were in brigade reserve behind the Crepigny ridge. To the north, the village of Beaugies was thought to be held by the French, and a patrol of the nth Battalion were sent out to clear up the position. The road rises sharply from Crepigny through a thick wood, and it was difficult to see clearly. Captain Wattenbach with five men and a Frenchman went out after dark, and near Beaugies ran into a body of Germans. At first it was thought that they must be British troops, since no one at the time knew that the enemy had penetrated so far west ; but when the true state of the case was discovered the patrol made their way back to report. The brigade fell back, but the position was not cleared up till the following day.

Still further south the 2/2nd and 3rd Londons, who had taken positions east of Chauny on the previous day, were attacked with great force after three hours' bombardment. Despite their weakness, the attack was beaten off, and the battalions were enabled to continue their retirement, the 2/2nd to Abbecourt and the 3rd Londons to Quierzy and Manicamp.

March 25th. — The 4th Royal Fusiliers were not engaged on March 25th. The position on this part of the front had hardened. The Germans had been fought to a stand-still, and for two days there was no attack. But further south the enemy had crossed the Somme and were now fighting on the old Somme battlefield. North of Bapaume the 26th Battalion were heavily engaged during the day, as the Germans delivered repeated attacks east of Achiet le Grand. But, under the command of Major Etchells, all attacks were beaten off.

On the night of the 24th, the 17th and 24th Battalions had assembled just east of Ligny Thilloy, and contact had not been made with the enemy when they withdrew and marched south-west along the Bapaume-Albert road. Between Pys and Le Sars the brigade to which both battalions belonged took up positions and met the German attack with rifle and machine-gun fire. But at noon fresh attacks were delivered. Grevillers and Bihucourt fell. These villages were on the north of the position held by the two Fusilier battalions, and their division was out of touch with the divisions farther south. At 2.10 p.m. the Germans were pushing through Le Sars, and could be seen advancing under cover of a smoke screen on Courcelette. At 4 p.m. the 17th Battalion were ordered to stand at all costs. But two battalions moved off on the right, and Colonel Weston led a counter-attack with about 40 men and drove the enemy back over the railway. The 51st Division, on the left, were now forced to retire. The right flank gave way, Major Pretty being killed. The battalion, now at Miraumont, began to retire along the main road to Beaucourt, which appeared to be full of officers and men of different units. Another move was made to a spot just south of the Ancre near Hamel. The 24th Battalion had also fallen back to the spur east of Hamel, and in these positions the night was passed.

The 23rd Royal Fusiliers had spent the night 24 — 25th at Le Transloy. Their position had been necessarily exposed, as their brigade (90th) had been detached from the 2nd Division in an attempt to fill the gap between the Third and Fifth Armies. But at dawn on the 25th the troops moved westwards and took up positions around Gueudecourt. They reverted to the 2nd Division at this place, but their position was still exposed. The neighbouring troops were well to the west of them, and, not far away, units could be seen to the north and the south retiring, though in perfect order. Brig. -General Barnett-Barker (99th Brigade) was urged by generals and staff officers of other units to retire with them. A 5-9 shell burst beyond the village, and a little later Barnett-Barker was persuaded of the uselessness of defending the village. A tent had been put up for him by the roadside on the west of the village, and he wrote the order to retire at discretion at 5.30 p.m., stating that brigade headquarters were moving back a mile. Another shell fell near by, and he was killed at once, as he was leaving his tent for his new headquarters.*

At dusk the 23rd Battalion fell back to Eaucourt l'Abbaye after an unsatisfactory day. They had stood like an island in the wash of retiring troops, and at length had themselves been forced to fall back. Lieut.-Colonel Winter, as senior colonel, assumed command of the brigade, and Major Lewis took over command of the battalion.

It is a remarkable fact that, though the 23rd were never seriously challenged at Gueudecourt on this day, the 17th Battalion had been heavily attacked at Miraumont, five miles to the west, the 24th Battalion were compelled to retire from the neighbourhood of Le Sars, three miles further west, and the 7th were outflanked at Courcelette, four miles to the west. Neither Le Sars nor Courcelette lay as much as a mile distant from Gueudecourt in a north and south direction. At noon the 7th Royal Fusiliers took up a high position covering Courcelette. The enemy were still advancing in force, and the troops in front of the battalion were forced behind their position, and touch was not maintained on the flanks. As a consequence the battalion began to withdraw slowly towards Thiepval at 2 p.m., covered by a rearguard, with the Germans pressing round both flanks. They became involved in a heavy engagement, and many men were cut off. At 8 p.m. they took up a position on the right of Thiepval road and held on until 4 a.m. on the next day. The anomalies in the Third Army position, as reflected in the fortunes of the Royal Fusilier battalions, appear greater than those of the Fifth Army.

* The first commanding officer of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers in France, Barnett-Barker was closely associated with the battalion until its disbandment. The conventional phrase that he was beloved by the battalion was in this case literally true, for he earned and won an extraordinary regard and respect from all who came in contact with him. * It is a point of interest that on this position they lay only two or three miles from Crisolles, where the 4th Battalion had halted in the retreat after Le Cateau in 1914.

The 1st Battalion moved forward this day from Chaulnes to Dreslincourt ; but, encountering very heavy forces, they were compelled to fight their way back to Chaulnes. The remnants of the nth Battalion further south were sent to hold the Montagne de Grandru * and prevent the Germans getting round to the rear of the 18th Division. The enemy had been seen earlier in the morning marching behind a band to the west, on the left flank of the division.
About 11 a.m. a heavy machine-gun fire was opened from Behericourt, on the right rear of the Fusiliers' line. They were almost cut off, and the Bedfordshires had to move up on their right to cover their retreat. The nth Battalion slipped away by platoons under a very heavy fire, and, some French troops coming up, the Fusiliers and Bedfordshires were withdrawn to the reserve. All endeavours were being shaped to enable these troops to cross the Oise, and the Germans, in attempting to get round to the rear, hoped to cut them off. When the Fusiliers returned from the Montagne de Grandru it was hoped that they could cross by the bridge at Babceuf. But the Germans were found to be already in possession ; and the troops were moving westwards when it was discovered that there was a gap between the French and the 53rd Brigade with only a thin line of 75 's in position. It was at once determined to prevent the Germans forcing this gap and capturing the guns by a counter-attack ; and the Fusiliers were put into the fighting once more with the Bedfords. With a spirited advance * at 5.30 p.m. Babceuf was retaken, after some street fighting ; and the Fusiliers were then withdrawn westward to Varesnes, where they crossed to safety over the half-demolished bridge, and left the line for a few days. The battalion had lost practically all but its spirit. The London battalions of the 58th Division had already found sanctuary across the Oise, and on this day held Quierzy and Manicamp on the south of the river. On the following day the remnants of the three battalions were formed into one battalion under command of Lieut. -Colonel R. H. Dann, D.S.O.

* " A brilliant counter-attack, capturing 150 prisoners " (Despatch).

Aveluy. — The positions on the north of the Somme now began to take final shape. The 23rd Royal Fusiliers had slipped back from Eaucourt l'Abbaye during the night, and on the 26th were occupying positions near the 17th and 24th Battalions, close to Beaumont Hamel. At Hamel the 17th and 24th Battalions held positions near the final resting place of the 3rd Army front. On the north, however, the Germans crossed the Ancre and took Colincamps in the morning, but the village was retaken by New Zealand troops in the afternoon. On the left flank the 23rd Battalion were heavily engaged until relieved by the New Zealand Division, but the 17th and 24th were not attacked. Further south the 9th Battalion had now entered the battle. On the 24th they had been at Auchy le Bois, and on the 25th had been compelled to travel all night to Albert. The position changed so rapidly in this area that they were first ordered to Montauban, then to Carnoy. The second order was cancelled, and they remained by the roadside. On the 26th they had new orders to take up position on the western bank of the river Ancre, in front of Aveluy, and they were in line by 6 a.m.

To the north lay the 7th Royal Fusiliers, who had crossed the river by the Authuile bridge and were holding the eastern edge of Aveluy Wood. From the high ground they could see the Germans moving towards Aveluy at 8 a.m., and the bridges were at once destroyed. An hour later, troops of the 12th Division relieved the battalion, who thereupon withdrew through the wood to Martinsart and Engelbelmer.

From the hollow, where the 9th Battalion lay, the enemy were not seen until midday, when they were observed advancing over the high ground east of the river. During the night the Germans made a determined attempt to cross the Ancre but were driven off by Lewis guns, machine guns and rifles. Farther north the enemy succeeded in forcing his way into Mesnil and the eastern edge of Aveluy Wood. To the south Albert was lost. At 3 a.m. on March 27th the 7th Battalion were in support to an attack of their brigade on the railway west of Albert. The Germans were prevented debouching from the town, and the battalion were moved to the Bouzincourt- Aveluy road, where they checked the enemy advance till late in the evening, when they were relieved and left the line.

In this sector, March 27th again saw heavy righting. At 8 a.m. the Germans renewed their attempts to force a crossing, but were again driven back by the 9th Royal Fusiliers. The battalion on the right were overwhelmed half an hour later and were closely pursued by the enemy. The 9th Battalion, with their right in the air, were forced back. A platoon under Captain Beaurains held on until completely surrounded, and then fought their way back to the high ground on the west of the village. D Company attempted to deliver a counter-attack, but the enemy machine-gun fire prevented them reaching the river. At 5 p.m. the Germans resumed their attack from the direction of Albert ; and, the right flank being again turned, the battalion fell back to the high ground in front of Martinsart Wood, where a line was organised during the night with the 5th Royal Berks on the right. To the north of the 9th Battalion, the enemy had attacked in strength with such success that the 5th Brigade were recalled, and the 24th Royal Fusiliers took over positions in close support along the northern edge of Aveluy Woodd On the 28th the enemy attacked the railway embankment west of the wood, but the 24th Royal Fusiliers counter-attacked with two other battalions and drove them back. The right of the 9th Battalion was once more attacked at 9 a.m., but the attack was beaten off with loss. On the following day posts were established in the southern edge of Aveluy Wood without opposition ; but an attempt to establish a Lewis gun post down the forward slope was checked by machine-gun fire. The 9th and 24th Royal Fusilier Battalions on this front were relieved on the evening of this day, and the battle began to die down. The 17th Battalion, who relieved the 99th Brigade, were not disturbed in Aveluy Wood, and on March 30th suffered comparatively little in the German bombardment.

To Amiens. — During these same days, while the opposing forces about Aveluy had been fighting for a mile or two of ground, the 1st Battalion had covered a distance of nearly seventeen miles as the crow flies, and considerably more as an army marches. They were the last troops to leave Chaulnes on March 26th, and they did not retire until the Germans were pressing round their left flank. They marched back to Lihons, crossed the Amiens railway and reached Vrely, where they lay in support on the following day. On March 28th they fell back once more for the same reason that had compelled them to abandon Chaulnes. Their left flank was in the air, and a local counter-attack with the 3rd Rifle Brigade could not do more than interpose a temporary check. They continued their retirement through Caix, and formed a covering flank towards the north-east for a French counter-attack. But the Germans, ever pressing onward, were once more round the battalion's flanks, and they marched back to Villers aux Erables and thence across the Avre to Castel for the night. The 29th found them on outpost positions on the high ground between Castel and Hailles. On March 30th a persistent rain fell and imposed a check upon the enemy advance, though it did not impede the gathering of the French, who were now arriving in great numbers. The position even on this part of the front was approaching equilibrium. Montdidier had fallen. The Germans were established across the Avre and before Hangard ; but successes gained by the enemy were now smaller, more bitterly contested, and more dearly bought. At 3 p.m. on the following day the 1st Battalion were ordered out to protect the Hailles bridgehead. A few days later they saw service in the Gentelles-Hangard line, but the tour was without incident.

This last phrase hardly describes the projected attack by the nth Royal Fusiliers on the Aubercourt ridge, north-east of Hangard, on the evening of April 2nd. They were fired on from the front and the rear ; and the enemy barrage was so heavy that the attack was abandoned. The following night they were ordered to counter-attack, and after crossing ploughed fields in pouring rain by compass, found themselves moving towards a vast gap.

A line was determined upon, and word was sent back that at least another battalion would be required to fill the gap. The Essex were sent forward and the position cleared up.

Arras. — Meanwhile an attack had been delivered on the northern or pivotal flank of the battle front. Decisively checked in this quarter at the beginning of his offensive, the enemy on March 28th made a determined effort to obtain greater freedom for the development of his offensive by a blow in great force along the valley of the Scarpe, though the attack extended as far south as Bucquoy. Three first line battalions of the Londons and the 4th Royal Fusiliers were involved in this heavy battle. In a message to the 3rd Division on March 30th, Lieut. - General Haldane, commanding the VI. Corps, wrote :
' The repeated efforts, made in great force by a determined enemy, to break through the left of the Corps where the soldiers of the 3rd Division stood were repulsed time after time, and where ground had to be yielded to maintain an unbroken line, every foot was contested with a resolution which can hardly have been surpassed in the annals of the British Army. Had the 3rd Division, much weakened by several days of hard fighting and nights devoid of rest, not maintained an unbroken front on March 28th, it is difficult to believe that the enemy could have failed to attain his objective — the capture of Arras."

The 4th Royal Fusiliers, forming part of this division, had left the front line on March 27th, but at 9.40 a.m. on the following day X Company was ordered up to the Green Line to occupy the position vacated by Z Company. The 9th Brigade lay below Neuville-Vitasse, and early in the battle the brigades on both sides had been driven back. Z Company had reached the support line of the first system, only to find it already gravely prejudiced and under a heavy attack. Captain Lord, M.C., accordingly formed a defensive flank for the brigade with the company, and, with the remainder of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the 13th King's, held the position against all attacks until 5 p.m. The line being no longer tenable, they successfully withdrew through the Green Line which, with Neuville-Vitasse, now became the front line. Before the withdrawal a platoon of W Company had been sent up to strengthen both flanks of the battalion.

The remaining platoons of W Company were sent up to the left flank to try to fill the gap between the battalion and the 76th Brigade. But this brigade had been driven out of Neuville-Vitasse, and the two platoons could not gain contact with them. Z Company were then sent up to form a defensive flank west of the village. They had been heavily engaged all day and had steadily covered the withdrawal through the Green Line. But they were still able to perform a new and perilous task. Taking up position in a number of shell holes, they successfully closed the gap and enabled the division to present an organised front once more. During the March fighting the battalion suffered 13 officers and 193 other ranks casualties. On March 29th the four companies were in the line and head-quarters details in support. But the attack had been definitely checked, and on this sector of the front no further appreciable change took place.

North of the Scarpe, where the three London battalions were engaged, the plane of fighting was not very different. The 1/4 Londons, who bore the brunt of the attack, lay a few hundred yards west of Oppy. The main defences of the forward area were three posts, Oppy Post (north-west), Wood Post (facing Oppy), and Beatty Post (south-east of the village) . The first and last were overwhelmed early in the battle ; and the enemy gained a footing in the positions on the right and left of the battalion. Wood Post, however, held out for about an hour. The preliminary bombardment had caused little damage and no casualties ; and the small garrison of 2 officers and 45 other ranks inflicted heavy casualties with rifle and Lewis-gun fire. A small body of Germans who had gained a footing in the trench connecting the old and the new posts were promptly bombed out. When Beatty Post fell the enemy attempted to get round Wood Post from the right. Attempts to get round the left were repeatedly checked, But the right flank was more vulnerable ; and at length, when bombs and ammunition were almost exhausted, the survivors of the garrison, i officer and 15 other ranks, withdrew, covered by the Lewis guns. Beatty Post had been badly damaged by the German trench mortars, and although it was overwhelmed by the attack in fifteen minutes, the garrison had first inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy as they advanced in great density through the wire. Only 1 officer and 6 other ranks escaped of the 3 officers and 84 other ranks who had garrisoned the post. Oppy Post garrison had lost heavily in the preliminary bombardment and only 6 returned of the original 50.

The resistance of Wood Post saved the Marquis line astride the Ouse valley from being overwhelmed. About 9.30 a.m., after it had fallen, a strong body of the enemy were seen working up Ouse Trench towards the forward battalion headquarters. Major F. A. Phillips, who was in charge of the forward area, at once counter-attacked over the open with 20 headquarters details. The Germans were pressed back and a block established, which was held with grenades by a party under Sergeant Udall. Second lieutenant Hudson, with a platoon in Marquis Trench, formed a defensive flank and held his positions with fine spirit. Time after time during the day the enemy gained a footing in the line but was immediately thrown out ; and the defence of the forward line undoubtedly did much to stem the enemy advance. The battalion lost 236 officers and men, 160 being cut off in the disconnected fighting, chiefly at the three posts. But this action, probably the most important and useful fought by the battalion, deserves to rank high among the fine defensive battles of this day.

Bucquoy. — In the last days of March the 10th and 13th Royal Fusiliers had been brought down from the Ypres area and had reached the neighbourhood of Gommecourt. On March 31st the 13th Battalion went into the front line at Bucquoy. The following morning the Germans attempted to rush the bombing posts of No. 2 Company. The attacks were beaten off, and Second Lieutenant J. Davis, though wounded, stood on the top of the parapet and continued to direct the bombers. It was noticed that during these days the enemy exposed themselves very freely and provided good practice for the snipers. But on April 5th the battalion were involved in a very determined attack which the enemy delivered from the Somme to some distance beyond Bucquoy. The preliminary bombardment at 5.30 a.m. practically obliterated the trench positions of Nos. 1 and 3 Companies. At 8.45 strong bombing attacks were made on Nos. 2 and 3 Companies, and the men were pressed back to company headquarters before a counter-attack restored the position. About two hours later it was seen that other battalions had not been so successful, and the left of the battalion being uncovered, the order was given to retire. Nos. 2 and 3 Companies fell back covered by No. 1 Company's support platoon under Second Lieutenant G. E. Vickers. The flank of No. 1 Company being uncovered in the withdrawal, they were at once rushed, and a desperate fight followed at company headquarters, which were partially blown in, several men being buried. Before the company could extricate themselves a number of men were cut off. By 2 p.m. the line was reorganised with parties of several other battalions and of the trench mortar battery, and no attempt was made to press the attack home. A great many decorations were given for this spirited defence, including the D.S.O. to Lieut. -Colonel H. A. Smith, M.C., through whose skilful handling of a crumbling position the neighbouring battalions were organised into an effective fighting force, and the M.C. to Second Lieutenant J. Davis. A little to the south the 7th Royal Fusiliers were involved in the same attack. They had taken over the front line positions near Mesnil from the 24th Royal Fusiliers on April 3rd, when Captain (acting Major) P. L. E. Walker, of the 7th Hussars, had taken over the command of the battalion. The preliminary bombardment had cut all communications, and at 10.30 a.m. the position was already critical. The great loss of officers led to some disorganisation, and, with the battalion out of touch on both flanks, the men were overwhelmed. The Germans had got through the line and were firing upon the men from the rear. Captain Tealby withdrew his men, and in the new positions inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Hand-to-hand fighting persisted throughout the afternoon. At dusk the right of the position was taken over by another battalion, but it was impossible to effect contact with the troops on the left, and in the gap there were three enemy patrols. At 4.30 on the morning of April 6th further attempts were made to get into touch with the Bedfords on the left. The adjutant and three men at length achieved contact, and posted a Lewis-gun team with a small party of the battalion on that flank. Major Walker had been severely wounded, all the officers were now casualties and a N.C.O. took charge. A counter-attack by the Royal Marine Light Infantry, in which the remainder of the battalion took part, recovered much of the lost ground, and by 2 p.m. the position was partly consolidated. It was held till dusk, despite the heavy barrage, and the 7th Battalion were then relieved. They had lost 12 officers and 205 other ranks in two days of most bitter fighting, but in the end the Germans had not appreciably changed the position.

The area of the Somme offensive bubbled up into action at various points for some little time yet. But the worst was over, though no one as yet knew it, and the centre of interest had already moved northward to the area about the Lys, where similar startling changes swiftly appeared to wash away all the landmarks which three and a half years' occupation had established.

The Lys. — With the same suddenness that the offensive on the Somme had begun, the storm broke on the Lys. Almost at once defences which had the prescriptive right of three and a half years' tenure were swept away, and new crises appeared. In the original attack no Royal Fusilier units were involved. But the battle had not been joined long before the 2nd and 4th Battalions were both summoned to the area. During the Somme offensive the 2nd Battalion had been engaged on the Gravenstafel defence line, and they remained in the Ypres area until the Battle of the Lys began. On April 10th they arrived by bus at Vieux Berquin at 6.30 a.m. They were sent in the evening to occupy positions in support of the troops holding Estaires, but at 4 a.m. they withdrew, handing over to the 5th Durham Light Infantry, who had evacuated Estaires. At noon they took over the defences of Doulieu with three companies. In a few hours the village was the centre of brisk fighting, and the support company (Z) had to be sent to the right flank position, where the Germans were making headway too rapidly.

As the day wore on Doulieu tended to become the apex of a small salient, but the men held on until 2 a.m. of the 12th, when they were ordered to retire. They fell back about two miles, and at 9 a.m. they were heavily attacked in an isolated position. The 31st Division, on the right, had retired ; and the battalion fell back gradually to the village of Bleu, which was held by the remnants of the 86th and 87th Brigades until 4 p.m. The British line had now begun to show gaps under the continued pressure of superior forces, and the enemy pushed through and seized Outtersterne and Merris. The 2nd Battalion fell back once more to the Vieux Berquin-Outtersterne road up to the Farm Labis, where the left was drawn back along the edge of a wood. The day had been one of very heavy righting on positions which could not be maintained in face of the forces pitted against them.

The Germans attacked heavily early in the morning of the 13th, but were held up by the left post, which inflicted considerable casualties by machine-gun fire. The catching fire of an ammunition dump on the right front of the battalion formed a useful diversion by causing confusion among the Germans as they formed up in its vicinity. But the attack developed very heavily against Vieux Berquin on the right of the battalion, and the troops holding it were driven back. The support troops on the right of the 2nd Battalion also retired, and the right flank was then left open. At nightfall both flanks were open, Vieux Berquin had fallen, and the Germans had passed the small island of troops on the north and the south. The battalion were withdrawn during the night, and on the 14th arrived at Borre. In the fifty-two hours they had spent in the Lys battle area the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had 15 officers and 324 other ranks casualties. They were true to their fate in finding the hottest part in the battlefield ; but their steadfast stand had played no small part in gaining time for the deployment of reinforcements. Included in the casualties were Captain H. V. Wells, Lieutenant L. B. Solomon, Second Lieutenants H. Norwell, N. H. Willett, H. L. Mepham, G. T. S. Rumball and F. J. A. Wilson. On April 15th a composite brigade was formed, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers forming No. 1 Battalion, two other battalions making up No. 2 Battalion, of the 87th Brigade.

Meanwhile the 4th Battalion had also made their appearance in this area. They had been brought up hurriedly on April 9th. About 5 a.m. on the 10th the battalion took up position from the La Bass£e Canal to the north-east corner of Gorre Wood, coming under the orders of the 55th Division until April 15th. On this sector of the Lys battleground the troops had offered a most stubborn resistance. The front of the 166th Brigade, to which the 4th Battalion were attached, was dented several times at Loisne, not a mile from where the Royal Fusiliers lay ; and the men shared every bombardment which was aimed at the troops holding the line. All day on the 10th they were subjected to a rain of 5-9 shell. On the following day the two left companies experienced a particularly intense bombardment and suffered twenty-three casualties. Battle-tried units in support were relieved on the 13th, and on the night of the 14th the 4th Battalion took over the left sector of the front line. All ranks of this battalion did all that was demanded of them in a soldierly manner," wrote Brig.-General R. J. Kentish, of the 166th Infantry Brigade, on handing over the sector to the 9th Brigade, to which the 4th Battalion belonged.

Villers Bretonneux. — Local attacks continued to be made at various parts of the Somme battle-front during the struggle in the Lys area, but the engagement that took place at Villers Bretonneux on April 24th was a more serious operation. The Fusilier battalion formed from the remnants of the three London battalions of the 58th Division had been disbanded on April 4th, and it was three battalions who made their appearance in the Hangard area in the third week of April. This sector of the front south of the Somme had a particular attraction for the enemy, for it covered the junction of the British and French Armies. On April 23rd A Company of the 2/2 Londons wounded and took prisoner a German, who gave the details of the attack which began the next morning at three o'clock near Hangard Wood with a heavy barrage and gas bombardment. At 6 a.m. the infantry attacks began, and the 3rd Londons * south of the Hangard Wood held their line all day in spite of the flanks giving way. The 2/4 Londons did not fare so well. The first attacks were beaten off successfully, but when the attack was resumed with tanks in the afternoon, the left flank was turned and the battalion fell back. A little later another readjustment of the line became necessary ; and the 2/4th took up position in the Cachy Switch Line, east of the village, continuing in a line of shell holes near the Cachy- Hangard road. They had given way, though not to such a depth as the troops further north at Villers Bretonneux ; and battalion headquarters did not move the whole day from the quarry east of Cachy. But their losses were extremely heavy, including 4 officers and 203 other ranks missing.

* Lieut. -Colonel Chart was awarded the D.S.O. for his services on this occasion.

The 3rd Londons were still in line when the counter-attack at 10 p.m. on the 24th partly restored the positions of their left flank, and on the following day they saw a further German attack broken up by British artillery. Both battalions were relieved on this day. The 2/2 Londons were not engaged, nor were the nth Royal Fusiliers, who were in support to the 58th Division. But the 3rd and the 2/4th played no mean part in an action in which the enemy were first decisively checked in the Somme area, and then pushed out of their momentary