Seventh Manchesters index
Pursuing the Hun.
THE SELLE RIVER.
Yet again the vicinity of Havrincourt Wood was the abode of the 42nd division, and having been supplied with tents we set about the task of refitting and reinforcing. Companies once more attained a strength of about 100, and as the new men largely consisted of troops drafted from non-infantry units, principally A.S.C. from England, and men out for the first time, it was necessary to push along vigorously with training, for it was certain that we should be wanted again for fighting very soon. Returns from leave, etc., caused the following arrangement of company commanders:--Lieut. Douglas, M.C., "A" company; Capt. Grey Burn, M.C., "B"; Lieut. Gresty, M.C., "C," and Capt. J. Baker, "D"; while Capt. S. J. Wilson, M.C., was detailed to battle surplus. In the absence of Col. Manger on English leave, Major Rae assumed command of the battalion, while Capt. Barratt resumed the duties of adjutant, Capt. Creagh having gone to England on a senior officers' course.
When the division broke up camp on October 8th and marched up the line to get into closer support, the situation was roughly as follows. Since the battle on the Hindenburg Line the enemy had had no rest, and in spite of the difficulties of the ground (in one place a canal running north and south intervened) the N.Z's. and divisions right and left, had made steady progress, inflicting terrible casualties on the Boche who were sturdily resisting every yard of ground. To the north, Cambrai was still in the hands of the Hun, and from the continual fires seen in that direction it was obvious that he was wreaking characteristic vengeance on the helpless town. The part of the Western Front between Cambrai and St. Quentin was recognised as the key to the whole situation so that naturally exertions were gigantic by both sides. Foch maintained his artillery concentration in this sector and undoubtedly one of the greatest wonders of that year of wonders, 1918, was the manner in which the guns obtained their never-ending supply of ammunition. The steady pounding never ceased day or night, and when infantry action took place, the noise welled up to terrific barrage speed for hours on end. When the nerve-shattered German soldier pathetically walked over to our lines one morning with hands up and exclaiming "Kamerad, too much shell!" he was surely expressing the enemy point of view. The line had thus been pushed on to the western outskirts of Solesmes, and troops in this area were now waiting for the fall of Cambrai and Douai to continue the pressure. When these events took place preparations were made for another battle.
During the battalion's march forward there was considerable night-bombing by enemy aircraft, and on the first night Sgt. Riley, an old member of the battalion, was killed and several men of H.Q. wounded by bombs on their bivouac. It was a fair country that the 7th were now approaching. After seven months' campaigning in the dismal devastated lands of the Somme regions the sight of whole houses with chimneys and roofs, and smoke exuding from them in the correct manner, was as welcome as an oasis to the thirsty traveller in the desert. Here were billets, a word of which we had almost forgotten to use. But picture our excitement when we saw a real live civilian. The sight of these things probably brought home to our men the full meaning of the German defeat more than anything else. The 127th brigade spent a few days under most comfortable conditions in the village of Beauvois on the Cambrai-Le Cateau road, residing in houses, almost complete with furniture. A few of the villagers had courageously remained behind, taking cover in their cellars while the fighting and shelling took place above their heads. A good deal of wanton destruction had been carried out by the retiring Hun, but on the whole the countryside presented a normal appearance, a most welcome sight to eyes wearied with the scenes of devastation, and an important factor also in keeping up the morale of the troops.
Eventually the N.Z's. were relieved, and it was found that a very skilful and determined enemy lay in front. Subsequent events, indeed, showed that the strongest remaining division in the German army, the 25th division, had been put into this sector. They had been conserved during the recent fighting, and on the prisoners who were captured clothing and equipment were brand new. They had a proud record extending right through the War, and claimed they had never received a beating from any British troops. (They were soon to meet their Waterloo.) The 126th brigade were detailed to deliver the first shock of assault. Their objective included, after crossing the Selle River within point blank range of the German M.G's. and rifles, a deep Railway Cutting east of the main Solesmes road, Belle Vue Farm, and the ground immediately beyond the railway. The 127th brigade were to go through when these positions had been made good and occupy the high ground overlooking Marou, a small hamlet on the final objective, which was to be taken by the 6th Manchesters.
The battle opened at dawn on October 21st, and after very heavy fighting, in which one exceptionally large number of the enemy stood and fought hand to hand and were killed with the bayonet; the 126th brigade took all their objectives in splendid fashion. Then came the Manchesters, the 6th on the left, the 5th on the right, and the 7th in close support. The 6th advanced well, but the 5th quickly had trouble being held up owing to the troops on their right not keeping up. The enemy was fighting well, his infantry and machine gunners being particularly stubborn and covering their retirement very skilfully. Machine guns swept the advancing lines of the 5th, and the bare high ground to be crossed left them very exposed to exceedingly heavy enfilade fire. It was during this portion of the fight that Pte. Wilkinson of the Wiganers obtained the V.C. for message carrying. Five of his comrades had been killed within a few yards after starting on the same mission. Wilkinson volunteered to be the sixth to make the attempt. He was entrusted with the task and got through.
The 7th were now drawn into the battle, and "D" company advanced to form a defensive flank for the right company of the 5th. With this help the line was advanced, but it could not reach the final objective and so link up with the 5th who had already reached and occupied Marou. "A" company had advanced in support to the 6th and took up their allotted positions, forming four defended localities in depth ready to make a defensive flank if necessary. The 62nd division on the left had pushed through Solesmes and had made good the high ground to the east of that town, joining up with the 6th Manchesters. At 4.30 p.m. a further barrage was put down for the 5th division and the 5th Manchesters to continue the advance. The latter, however, were very weak, having suffered heavy casualties, therefore "C" company of the 7th went forward and advanced to occupy the final objectives. The enterprise was entirely successful, and a machine gun nest, which had caused most of the trouble on the right, was captured, the garrison surrendering as prisoners. A dangerous counter-attack was repulsed by "C" and "D" companies and then the line was secured, and junction made with the 5th in Marou. Enemy artillery fire had been heavy during the day, and Battalion H.Q. in a deep ravine suffered severely from large calibre shells, so that they moved forward in the night to a healthier spot near the 6th H.Q. The positions were maintained all next day until relieved by the 125th brigade.
Luckily in this show our casualties were light, totalling a loss of about 40 other ranks, very few being killed. The action of Capt. Baker in forming the defensive flank for the 5th undoubtedly restored an uncertain position, and materially assisted in the further advance. We were all pleased when he was awarded the Military Cross for this and general good work throughout the War with the 7th since June, 1915. The pace and power of the attack can be gauged by the fact that six battalions of the redoubtable Hun 25th division, in spite of their proud record, were obliterated, and three days after the battle the division was disbanded and absorbed in another. The destruction of this division was an achievement of which the 42nd were justly proud. The motto of "Go one better" had been "put over" the Boche in an unmistakable manner.
On October 23rd the division marched back to Beauvois again, the N.Z. division having once more taken up the pursuit of the enemy, following him vigorously to the vicinity of Le Quesnoy. The IVth corps were going well, and all through these operations it was a noticeable feature in the situation maps of the third army front published from time to time that they always occupied the most advanced positions, and seemed to perform the function of the spear head of the attacks.
As the line of advance for the 42nd division lay through the huge Mormal Forest, our training at Beauvois was largely in wood fighting. We were making preparations for what was to prove the last battle of the War. Col. Manger returned from leave and resumed command of the battalion, while Major Rae remained on battle surplus where, unfortunately, his old illness recurred and he had to go to hospital and eventually to England. His excellent work with the 7th, however, had been recognised for he was awarded the D.S.O. after the Armistice. Capt. Grey Burn, M.C., was promoted to Major and became second in command of the 5th L.F's. "B" company being taken over by Capt. Branthwaite, a recently joined 2nd line officer. Capt. D. Norbury, having returned from a tour of duty at home, was made O.C. "A" company, while Capt. S. J. Wilson, M.C., commanded "C" company.
The battalion marched out on the evening of November 3rd to take part in the work of exploiting success after the N.Z. division had smashed the enemy line. The attack commenced on the morning of November 4th, and after fierce fighting, and only after the garrison had been completely surrounded, Le Quesnoy was captured. The "Diggers" followed up vigorously and chased the Huns through a large part of Mormal Forest. Meanwhile our job was to "keep closed up" as far as possible and be ready to continue the pursuit, with the 126th leading and the 127th in support. The first night was spent at Viesly, and the second at Pont à Pierre, just south of Salesches. The next day the weather completely broke down, and we moved forward in pouring rain, over the recently captured ground, arriving late at night in a thoroughly soaked condition at the tiny village of Herbignies on the western edge of the Forest. Here we found most of the civilians had remained through the fighting, and they told excited stories of the happenings. Small children toddled about the houses while Boche shells were still bursting not very many hundred yards away. It seemed a most extraordinary situation after the loneliness of war as we had always known it. These things had been the monopoly of the soldiers, but here were women and children trespassing upon our preserves. It helped us to realise the true tragedy of War.
That night the 126th brigade took over the front, a sketchy business in view of the position, and the N.Z's. marched back. One of the officers, during the day, had called out to us in characteristic Colonial fashion, "Well, boys, are you going up to finish it?" whereupon one of the men replied with Lancashire directness, "Ay, we started it, so we may as well finish it." There was a good deal of peace-talk flying about. German prisoners had admitted that they could not go on much longer, while rumours about conferences were very prevalent. Still, until we got orders to stop fighting, this job had to continue, and that was the chief consideration for us, although the order to cease fire would have been keenly appreciated.
Early morning found us on trek in a steady downpour of rain which made our already wet clothes more and more sodden. In this doleful fashion we splashed along over the muddy forest tracks to get close to the East Lancs. who were carrying out an attack. The 8th Manchesters had a particularly stern time, encountering nests of machine guns which had not been cleared from their exposed flanks, so that they lost very heavily. Nevertheless, the attack was eventually pushed home, and the Huns were dislodged. Subsequent events revealed that from this moment the German retirement became a scurry of a disorganised rabble. The roads were blocked by their hurrying transport, and personnel simply made the best use of their legs, scampering across country where it was impossible to march on the roads. The civilians told us that utter confusion reigned everywhere. Our foremost troops undoubtedly met determined resistance from the machine gunners, but they were probably blissfully ignorant of what was taking place behind them.
As far as the 7th was concerned November 6th was one of the most miserable and trying days ever experienced. In the middle of the morning we arrived at our position, where we stayed during the whole of the day in a bitterly cold rain with no possibility of shelter. When it was ascertained that the enemy had been dislodged we made a few fires and tried to restore life to our numbed bodies. The divisional commander, having seen our condition, and realising that very few in the brigade would be fit for fighting after two such days, ordered up the 125th brigade, who had had an opportunity of getting dry and warm. We marched joyfully back in the middle of the night to Le Carnoy and there spent two days in billets.
The advance of the 42nd was now rapid. Hautmont, a fairly large manufacturing town, was captured after street fighting, and by the evening of November 9th an outpost line had been established south-east of Maubeuge. The 7th meanwhile had marched up through the forest and were billeted in the small village of Vieux Mesnil. Here we received official orders to stand fast on the morning of November 11th. At 11 a.m. the battalion paraded outside the church and there the bugles sounded "Cease fire" for the first and last time during the War. The men took the news very quietly. We were too close to actual events to give ourselves over to the mad demonstrations of joy such as took place in spots more remote. At the same time everyone experienced a curious feeling of calm satisfaction that an unpleasant task had been accomplished. The 42nd division had taken part in two great drives, the clearing of the Turk from British territory in 1916 and the clearing of the Hun from allied territory in 1918.