HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION
RAMICOURT AND MONTBREHAIN
Sept. 30th, 1918.— October 4th, 1918.
September 30th was spent in dug-outs and trenches in the region of our objective of the previous day, between Bellenglise and Lehaucourt. Early that morning the 1st Division advanced and occupied Thorigny and Talana Hill, South of the canal, thus securing our right flank, the retreating enemy offering splendid targets for our Lewis guns. The same day St. Quentin fell to the French.
In the afternoon the 32nd Division moved forward to the attack, supported by Cavalry, which it was hoped it would be possible to use if the Infantry broke through the last remaining fragment of the Hindenburg Line. This was known as the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line and ran more or less North and South about midway between Joncourt and Ramicourt. It consisted of a strong barbed wire entanglement and a double line of shallow trenches about a foot deep, with concrete machine gun emplacements every 50 yards. The whole was in a very incomplete state, but at the same time constituted a strong line of defence. Unfortunately the 32nd Division were unable to break this line, which the enemy were holding in force. Similarly, the 1st Division on the right were unable to make any further progress, and the 2nd Australian Division met with no greater success on the left. In consequence the Cavalry had to withdraw behind the canal.
The arrival of the Cavalry a few days previously behind our lines had presented one of the most picturesque scenes one could wish to see. Two abreast they came in almost endless streams along the roads and side-tracks and passed on to forward positions behind the canal, and the sight was one never to be forgotten. Not less wonderful, perhaps, was the unceasing flow of transport of every conceivable kind backwards and forwards along the Vadencourt-Bellenglise Road. The surface of the road was in excellent condition and in an incredibly short period the Sappers, who were now having very strenuous times, erected an Inglis bridge over the canal at Bellenglise, capable of carrying lorries and guns of all calibres. The way all this work was pushed on was little short of marvellous, and one could not help being struck by the enormous amount of organisation it all entailed, and the care with which every detail connected with the advance had been arranged.
The 139th Brigade were now temporarily attached to the 32nd Division, whilst the 137th and 138th Brigades were concentrated near the canal. We were supposed at this moment to be ready either for another battle or for moving forward according to the ordinary rules of warfare, with advanced guards and so on, if the enemy should give way. Preliminary orders were indeed received that portions of the Brigade were to be employed as Advanced Guard to the Corps, with their objective as Le Cateau.
With the object, therefore, of reorganising as far as possible, we were withdrawn from our position near Lehaucourt on October 1st, and moved about a mile North, to the trench system in "Springbok Valley," just behind Magny la-Fosse. On the same day the Transport, Quarter-Master's Stores and Battle Details which had previously moved to a field near "Hart Copse," a few hundred yards North-West of the Twin Craters, moved further forward and established themselves in Chopper Ravine, near the canal. This was not a specially comfortable spot, and the Quarter-Master's Department was constantly put out of order by the arrival from time to time of odd shells from a German long-range gun. Several of the riding horses, the cookers and some of the ammunition and Lewis gun limbers were up with the Battalion, so that the amount of transport left behind was not great. Both men and horses were now having a most strenuous time, and we were lucky at this juncture in getting back Capt. A. Bedford from a tour of duty at home. He arrived on September 29th and was at once appointed Transport Officer. We had been obliged to leave behind at Bernes large quantities of stores, including packs and Lewis gun tin boxes, owing to lack of transport, and it was a most trying business, when everyone was wanting lorries, to get the extra transport necessary to bring them along. To make matters worse the Hun was just now particularly active with his aeroplanes, and with fine nights he made frequent trips over our lines, dropping bombs. When the nights were very dark he often used to let off brilliant white parachute lights, and as they descended he was able to get some view of the roads and transport lines and any movement there might be. Usually he flew extremely low, and there is no doubt that he did considerable damage; especially as there were such masses of troops and transport concentrated in a particularly small area. We unfortunately lost several horses, but casualties amongst personnel were insignificant. His best bombing effort was on the evening of October 3rd. Having evidently seen a large party of men near La Baraque cross-roads, the airman promptly made for them and let loose two bombs, which fell right amongst them. Between 40 and 50 were blown to bits, whilst nearly as many were badly wounded, and the rest scared out of their wits. What the airman doubtless did not know was that they were a party of Boche prisoners! Only about six British soldiers were killed. It made a ghastly mess at the cross-roads, which was a most uninviting spot to pass for days afterwards.
During the short time at our disposal we did the best we could to reorganise our somewhat reduced forces. In spite of our losses at Bellenglise we still had 46 Officers and 752 other ranks, so were fairly well off. Second Lieut. Winter was put in command of B Company, and Capt. Miners, who had just returned from leave, resumed command of C.
On October 2nd orders were received that we were to take part in another big attack in conjunction with the 2nd Australian Division. Our Divisional Commander only received his orders for this attack at 4.30 p.m. on that day, and the operation was to take place early the next morning, so that there was very little time to get orders passed to the lower commanders and the necessary arrangements made. The orders were explained by the Brigade Commander to Battalion Commanders at a conference at Brigade Headquarters at Magny-la-Fosse about 9 p.m., and it was after 10 p.m. before Col. Dempster was able to give his orders out to Companies. The general scheme was that the 139th Brigade were to break through the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line and capture the villages of Ramicourt and Montbrehain, whilst the 137th Brigade on the right and the 2nd Australian Division on the left, were to attack at the same time, and the 1st Division, on the right of the 137th Brigade, were to capture Sequehart.
The objective of the 5th and 8th Battalions was the "Red Line" running North-West to South-East, just West of Montbrehain, the 5th Battalion being on the right and the 8th on the left, whilst the 6th Battalion was to pass through, capture Montbrehain and push out outposts as far as the "dotted blue line." This was something like 4,000 yards from our present Outpost Line. A Company of nine Tanks were to co-operate with the Brigade, advancing immediately behind the first line. The attack was to be launched at dawn and was to be carried out under an artillery barrage which, after delaying six minutes on the opening line, was to move at the rate of 100 yards in four minutes. The delay was to enable the Infantry to adjust their distance behind the barrage, which was to open a good deal further in front of them than usual, owing to the fact that the Artillery had mostly to move into fresh positions, and we could not, therefore, risk getting up close to its assumed line, whilst allowance also had to be made for the attacking troops not being exactly in their right position, owing to the difficulty of forming up in the dark on an uncertain mark.
Our jumping-off line ran from near Joncourt Cemetery to the Railway Cutting. The Battalion frontage was approximately 1,000 yards and was divided into two Company lengths. A (Thomas) on the right, and B (Winter) on the left were to lead, with C (Miners) and D (White) in support about 150 yards behind them. Second Lieut. Plant was sent as Liaison Officer to the Australian Battalion on our left, 2nd Lieut. Newton to Brigade Headquarters, and 2nd Lieut. Jacques to the 5th Battalion. Some additional work was to be thrown on C and D Companies, who were to follow up the 6th Battalion, mop up for them in Montbrehain and then return to the "Red Line." There was no time for reconnaissance. All we knew of the country was what we had gathered from maps or our Intelligence Department. From personal observation we knew nothing. Even the front held by the 32nd Division was not at all certain. We did know, however, that the enemy were holding the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line in force and that the country was of a fairly open type, sloping gently down to Ramicourt in the valley and up again beyond to Montbrehain, which would probably be a difficult problem to tackle.
It was in these circumstances that we set out shortly before midnight in the pitch darkness from Springbok Valley. Guides from the 32nd Division met us at the entrance to Joncourt and conducted us to the forming-up line, A and B Companies throwing out a screen of scouts in front as a precaution before we formed up. Though this was a most precarious proceeding it was carried out successfully, and by 5.30 a.m. on October 3rd, all troops were in their assembly positions, leading Companies extended in two lines and support Companies in lines of "section-blobs." During this operation the enemy did a certain amount of shelling, but not enough to cause us any great trouble. There was some fog at first, and this in the early stages of the battle, combined with smoke from a screen put down by the Artillery to hide the Tanks, made direction somewhat difficult. Later on it cleared and the day became quite bright and fine.
There was not such a concentration of guns as we had had on September 29th, nor had we anything like so many heavies, though there was a certain number of them firing on a few special targets, such as villages and other points behind the lines. The Guards Machine Gun Battalion again helped with the preliminary barrage, which opened promptly at 6.5 a.m., just as it was beginning to get light. We adjusted our position to the line of bursting shells and followed on as soon as the guns lifted. The rate of progress, 100 yards in four minutes, was throughout found to be too slow in this more open fighting, and we were constantly either waiting for the barrage to move on or running into it—not at all a pleasant proceeding.
It was not long before we began to encounter, in addition to the enemy's counter-barrage, opposition of a serious nature from his Infantry. The inevitable delay since we crossed the canal on September 29th had given the enemy time to bring up large reserves, and on this occasion the 46th Division had opposed to it four Boche Divisions—two tired and two fresh. Doubtless the enemy realised that every effort must be made to retain this, his last organised defence on this part of the front, and certainly the men holding the line we had to attack put up a most strenuous fight, and in hundreds of cases died bravely, fighting to the last.
The Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line was strongly held. In addition to many machine guns in the line itself, there were also machine gun sections in rifle-pits immediately behind it. Unfortunately the barrage put down by our guns was somewhat thin. There had been no previous bombardment, and as a result we found that the defences of this line were practically intact. No machine gun emplacements had been touched and not a single gap made in the wire, which was very strong, and we had to manipulate it as best we could.
A good deal of resistance in the early part of the fight was met with from the neighbourhood of Wiancourt on the left, and the high ground South-East of Swiss Cottage, and it was found that the Australians had not been able to make much progress and were practically held up. This being the case it was realised that the village of Wiancourt, which should have been taken by them, would be a serious menace to our left flank, and it was, therefore, decided that we should go out of our way and take it in the general advance. Two Platoons of A Company, with portions of B and D (Companies having got somewhat mixed owing to loss of direction), penetrated into the village and opened heavy Lewis gun and rifle fire on its defenders, who offered a stubborn resistance, mainly from machine gun posts. Eventually some of them were seen to run back, and our line immediately rushed forward with the bayonet and killed or captured the whole of the garrison. Several were killed whilst still holding the handles of their machine guns. Comp. Sergt.-Major Attenborough, of A Company, here performed several gallant feats in leading rushes against machine gun groups, and later did most valuable work in trying to establish liaison with the Australians, who unfortunately, even after the capture of Wiancourt, were unable to advance so as to help us.
Meanwhile the right was not making much headway, and C Company, from support, had become one with the attacking Company. The advance here being held up by machine gun fire, L.-Corpl. Vann with much gallantry crawled forward and managed to knock out the gun team which was causing most of the trouble. A trench something like 100 yards long, crowded with the enemy, was thus taken in the flank, and those who did not surrender were killed in trying to escape. They had, however, caused us many casualties, including 2nd Lieut. Dunkin and Sergt. Hurt killed, besides many wounded. One of the most gallant N.C.O.'s in the Battalion, Sergt. Hurt had already won the D.C.M. and M.M., and his death was a very great loss.
Similar actions had been taking place in other parts of the line. Again and again nests of machine guns were rushed at the point of the bayonet, which weapon undoubtedly did more deadly work on this occasion than on any other in our experience. Where they could not be taken by frontal attack, parties worked round their flanks and rushed them from the rear. The intensity of the fighting can be imagined from the fact that after the battle nearly 200 dead Germans were found along this line of trenches on the front of the 139th Brigade alone.
The main Fonsomme Line was now ours, though won at heavy cost. Direction had improved, though we were all too far to the left and much disorganised. We had to make the best of it and try to straighten out as we pushed on into the valley towards Ramicourt. Here we were met with fire from Boche guns firing from behind Montbrehain with open sights, causing many casualties. The position was as exposed as it could be, the only shelter being provided by one or two sunken roads. At the same time four or five of the Tanks, which for some reason had got behind at the start, had now come up and did much useful work in the outskirts of Ramicourt, though the same Boche guns brought most effective fire to bear on them, one of them getting five direct hits. On the left, B Company, who under Winter's excellent leadership, had done much fighting, now mixed up with A and reinforced by D, were also suffering heavily from the enemy artillery fire, and advanced by section rushes covered by Lewis gun fire. It was here that 2nd Lieut. T. F. Mitchell, commanding a Platoon of D Company, which he led with supreme gallantry, caring nothing for his own safety, was mortally wounded, dying the next day.
Ramicourt was eventually reached by oddments of A, C and D Companies, the remainder of the Battalion having got too far left, and passing through its Northern outskirts. There were several machine guns in the village, and snipers were active from the windows of the houses. These were all successfully mopped up with the help of the 6th Battalion, who pushed up a Company and their Battalion Headquarters, as there were so few troops at this point, the 5th Battalion having edged off through the Southern outskirts of the village. Jack White was seen in the village, wandering round quite unconcerned, revolver in holster—a small cane which he carried being apparently his most trusty weapon.
Having completed the capture of the village, which yielded a total of something like 400 prisoners, the remnants of the troops there were gathered together and the advance continued. A machine gun nest at Ramicourt Station having been rushed with the aid of a Tank, we pushed on to our objective, which, except on the extreme left, we reached practically up to scheduled time, 10.30 a.m., most of the troops being disposed in sunken roads on the West of Montbrehain. It had not been a good day for the Tanks, which in the end were all knocked out, though the last one working with the 5th Battalion on the right had a good run and knocked out no fewer than 16 machine guns before being put out of action.
As soon as the barrage lifted from the "Red Line," the 6th Battalion began to push on. They had met with an appalling disaster soon after crossing the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, where Col. Vann, once more gallantly leading his Battalion and in the forefront of the battle, was killed, shot through the head. The 5th Battalion too, lost Col. A. Hacking, who was wounded in the arm. Thus two old Officers of the 8th were put out of action almost at the same moment, both leading Battalions in our own Brigade. Alfred Hacking had done invaluable work during the few months he had commanded the 5th Battalion, and for his excellent leadership and gallantry during the fighting of September 29th and October 3rd was awarded the D.S.O. and Bar. Bernard Vann, affectionately known to some of his earlier friends as "Vasi," was described on one occasion by General Allenby, as the most fearless Officer he had ever met, whilst a brother Officer writes of him: "I can think of him only as a fighter, not merely against the enemy in the field, but a fighter against everything and everybody that was not an influence for good to his men. It was his extraordinary courage and tenacity which will be remembered by all who knew him: he inspired all by his wonderful example of courage and energy." Wounded at least eight times, and awarded the M.C. and Bar, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, it was fitting that his constant gallantry and magnificent example should be further recognised—alas! after his death—by the award of the Victoria Cross.
On continuing the advance the 6th Battalion edged towards the South, going through the centre and right of Montbrehain, and leaving the Northern portion alone. This left us considerably exposed, and an enemy machine gun firing from a position at the cross-roads on our left front, was doing much damage. White, Thomas and Miners held a hasty conference and decided to rush it, and the two former with a reconnoitring party went into the village to see if it could be outflanked from the region of the cemetery. At this moment a little "Joey" came in with "hands up," and it was decided to try a ruse. It was suggested to him that he should go and tell his friends to surrender, and after a little persuasion he went. The Machine gun stopped firing and he approached the post and disappeared into the ground, thus telling us what we wanted to know—the way in. Action was taken at once to deal with it. Second Lieut. Harrap, who had already done much valuable work, got together some Lewis guns and opened frontal fire on the position, whilst Miners and Sergt. Stimson worked round the flank from the village side and by a careful manoeuvre rushed on to the post the instant Harrap's guns stopped firing. Much to their surprise the post was found to be a quarry containing something like ten or a dozen machine guns and 60 or 70 men! A few bombs and revolver shots and the white flag went up. Harrap, who had rushed his men forward across the intervening 200 yards, was also at hand, and the capture of the post was complete. Second Lieut. Barker's Platoon (A Company) also assisted with rifle and Lewis gun fire, Barker himself being wounded.
Out of the medley of troops which collected there—of all Battalions in the Brigade—some attempt was then made to organise a Company, and posts were pushed further forward. The rest of the village after a hard struggle fell into the hands of the 6th Battalion about the scheduled time, 11.30 a.m. Loud explosions, heard soon after the village was entered, were caused by the blowing up by the Boche of two houses in the main street near the Church. Attempts were made to push out Platoons to the "line of exploitation," beyond the village, but this was found to be impossible owing to heavy machine gun fire.
Both in Ramicourt and Montbrehain we found French civilians, whose pleasure at being at last released from the Hun terror knew no bounds. About 70 all told had remained behind, refusing to be evacuated by the Boche. They gave us a great welcome and in spite of shells and bullets, brought out coffee to our men as they passed by. Later, under the guidance of the Brigade Interpreter, M. Duflos, they were taken back to safer regions.
It soon became evident that further trouble was in store for us owing to the fact that our left flank was again in the air. The Australians were not up with us and we were very uncertain of their whereabouts, though apparently not altogether out of touch with them, for one of their Officers, who was met in hospital later in the day, reported having received from someone in our Battalion the laconic message: "We are at ——. Where is the Australian Corps?" The enemy were still holding in force a position at no great distance from our left flank, and indeed, at one time were reported to be massing for a counter-attack which, however, did not mature. But on the right of the Brigade the situation was far worse. There the 137th Brigade, after making some progress, had eventually to give ground, and their left was now considerably behind our right. We were thus in a most awkward salient with both flanks exposed. It was, therefore, not surprising to find soon after noon very evident signs of a real counter-attack being prepared against the Brigade exposed right flank, and when a little later this attack was launched, the enemy managed to get round the South-East of Montbrehain and into that corner of the village in some strength, and it was decided to withdraw from it. This was successfully carried out under great difficulties, and eventually the Brigade took up a line just East of Ramicourt, the 8th Battalion occupying the railway and sunken road North-East of that village. The enemy soon reoccupied the whole of Montbrehain, but was unable to advance further.
We were now very short of ammunition as no supplies had been sent forward. This was mainly due to the fact that we had depended on a "Supply Tank," which did not fetch up quite where we expected. Fortunately no ill results accrued, but it taught the lesson that the supply of ammunition to advanced troops in moving warfare requires very careful prearrangement.
Company Commanders again conferred and decided to alter their dispositions, and with a view to protecting our left flank, B and C Companies moved across to bridge the gap there, leaving A and D Companies in the railway cutting. In these positions we were left for the rest of the day more or less in peace.
In spite of a slight set-back it had been a glorious day for the 8th Battalion. There was really no comparison between this battle and that of September 29th. The attack on September 29th was undoubtedly more spectacular, but in our humble judgment, having regard to the extremely short notice received, the strength of the enemy and the many difficulties encountered, the breaking of the Fonsomme Line on October 3rd may truly be counted as one of the most gallant exploits of the whole war.
Where one and all did so well and so many gallant deeds were performed it is difficult to single out any for special praise, but it is desired to note specially the good work of the following in addition to those already mentioned: Sergt. H. Wilson, L.-Sergt. Wicks, Corpl. Clark, L.-Corpl. Creamer, and Pvtes. Draper, Crowe, Slater, Wesley, Starr, Baxter, Jackson, and Martin. The day, however, had cost us much. Our casualties were one Officer and 20 other ranks (including Sergt. Gurdens) killed, and three Officers (2nd Lieuts. T. F. Mitchell, who died the next day, Barker, and F. T. W. Saunders), and 86 other ranks wounded.
Captain Homan had his Regimental Aid Post with Battalion Headquarters in a dug-out in the sunken road near our jumping-off line. Here he and Padre Sturt worked for something like 24 hours on end, attending to the wounded, though both badly gassed, whilst a willing band of Stretcher Bearers again performed a prodigious amount of work under most trying circumstances. Particular praise is due to Corpls. Wrigglesworth and J. Wright, and to Pvtes. L. Thomas and F. Green, the latter of whom was awarded a bar and the former a second bar to his M.M., for gallant work on this occasion.
It was impossible to estimate the actual number of prisoners captured by us, as there was one "pool" for the whole Brigade, but undoubtedly we had a very large share of the total, which was 36 Officers and nearly 1,500 other ranks; in addition to which large numbers were left on the ground dead. Of machine guns too, we captured a very large number, but owing to the impossibility of collecting them, little idea of the total could be formed.
During much of the day Horse Artillery and numbers of light rapid-moving Tanks, known as "Whippets," had been waiting in the valleys behind Joncourt, ready to push on once the line was broken, and endeavour to make a clean break through. Unfortunately their services could not be used, and once more they had to withdraw.
Late at night we got news that we were being relieved by the 4th Leicesters. They turned up alright to take over from B and C Companies, but owing to some error failed to relieve A and D, who were left holding the line, with little ammunition and no rations, and were not relieved until the afternoon of October 4th, when they made their way back to the valley just in front of Magny-la-Fosse and joined the rest of the Battalion in tents and bivouacs put up by "Tony" Bradish and Hallam, with the help of the Battle Details. "Bedder" too, was there, with Regt.-Quarter-Master-Sergt. Pritchard (who during these strenuous times had to carry on without a Quarter-Master), and the four Quarter-Master-Sergeants, all of whom did their utmost to make everyone comfortable.