During the afternoon, the Headquarters, finding that in their new position they were in touch with neither Brigade Headquarters nor their Companies, moved back to the hill-top. Captain Jack and the Padre remained with the R.A.P., though their valley was almost continuously shelled, and never entirely free from gas. The devoted work these two did that day is beyond description and too great for praise.
At 4-0 p.m., as our position was materially unchanged, we received orders for a fresh advance, to be made in conjunction with one Company of the 6th Sherwood Foresters. Our objective was to be a line along the Southern edge of the village, to link up with "C" Company, or at least to extend to where we imagined "C" Company to be. Captain Pink, of the Sherwood Foresters, commanded the Company which was to help us, and no one could have worked harder than he did to make our advance a success, but the uncertainty of "C" Company's exact position, and the impossibility of sending them any orders, made our task very difficult. Late in the afternoon we at last got news of Lieut. Steel. In spite of shells and machine-gun bullets, a runner came along the main road from St. Helene to the crater. This runner, Private F. Lane, had had to crawl 250 yards across the open under direct observation, had had to kill two Germans before he could get clear of the village, and had then run the gauntlet of shells and bullets along the road—all this alone. Not content with having delivered his message, he refused to rest, and, though exhausted, made his way back by the same way that he had come. We now knew where Lieut. Steel was under the bridge, but still we knew nothing of the main part of "C" Company.
At 7-30 p.m., as it was getting dusk, the combined advance started without a barrage. It was a big frontage for so small a force and parties lost touch with each other amongst the ruins. "A" Company's left kept close to the Sherwood Foresters, but the outer flanks of both were "in the air," for "C" Company could not be found. It was dark when the South side of the village was reached, and it was found terribly difficult to keep direction amongst the ruins and trenches. A Lewis Gun Section, under C.S.M. Wardle, disposed of the only party of the enemy who were encountered, but the post near the Blockhouse could not be found. Finally at 9-0 p.m. the Sherwood Foresters fell back to Fourmi trench near the main road, and 2nd Lieut. Dennis, now commanding "A" Company, ordered his platoons to return to their former positions. We had accomplished nothing.
The original plan had been that we should be relieved as soon as it was dark, but our present line was so uncertain that the relieving Battalion refused to take it over as we had it. The men were tired out, and it was impossible to expect them to make another attempt to form a line round the village. "C" Company were found, but too far North to link up with the others. Eventually, at 2-0 a.m. on the 25th, we were ordered to withdraw all our Companies and evacuate the village. This we did by 4-0 a.m. What was left of the Battalion then marched back to where we had left our greatcoats, while the Sherwood Foresters took over the line north and west of Pontruet. The Adjutant saw the last parties out of the village, and the Colonel, though tired out, insisted on going round the lines and visiting each platoon as it came in.
The following day we received this message from General Boyd:—
"Please congratulate Lieut.-Colonel Griffiths and the 1/5th Bn. Leicestershire Regiment on the good fight they put up yesterday, and tell them I am quite satisfied. They captured many prisoners and accounted for numbers of the enemy. Owing to unexpected reinforcements they attacked an enemy twice as strong as themselves, and moreover in a strong position. Although we did not reach our objective, the enemy was prevented from reinforcing the troops opposed to the Division on our right."
(sd.) G.F. BOYD, Major-General.
We had lost one Company Commander and three subalterns killed, one Company Commander and six subalterns wounded. Of the rank and file, thirty were killed, of whom three were Serjeants, one hundred were wounded, and eight were missing. But we had proved that five platoons could clear a village held by three Battalions (so said one of the prisoners) of the enemy; we had shown that when N.C.O.'s became casualties, private soldiers were ready to assume command and become leaders, and, most important of all, the battle had proved to each individual soldier that if he went with his bayonet he was irresistible.
CROSSING THE CANAL.
25th Sept., 1918. 4th Oct., 1918.
The two days following this action were spent in refitting and re-organizing what was left of the Battalion. All available officers from the "battle details" were ordered to join us, and Captains Petch and Banwell resumed command of their Companies, while Lieuts. Hawley and Corah took over "B" and "D." Major Burnett also came up and, though we were still in trenches and holes in the ground, managed to produce hot baths for everybody. The line was very quiet, the weather warm, we needed a rest, and for two days we had it. The Brigade was to be relieved by the Staffordshires on the evening of the 27th, and our first orders were to go into various trenches and dug-outs round Grand Priel Farm. These orders, however, were cancelled before relief, and we were allotted instead a quarry and some trenches just North of le Verguier.
Up to the evening of the 26th all had been very quiet and there was not the slightest sign that any active operations were intended. However on this evening, the Transport drivers, bringing up rations, told us that all the roads behind the lines were thick with guns, lorries and waggons, all moving up. At the same time Colonel Griffiths returned from a Conference, with some orders so secret that they were told to no one. The following day we saw that during the night many new batteries had taken up positions on the Ascension Ridge, guns had been carefully camouflaged, men hidden away in copses, and all was still very quiet. The same day, officers of another division came up reconnoitering—all with considerable secrecy—though one was seen to be carrying a map with a red line on it, somewhere four miles East of the St. Quentin Canal. The following night more batteries silently took up their positions; large bomb, water and ammunition dumps were made wherever a house or copse would screen them from the enemy's aircraft, everything was being prepared for some gigantic enterprise. As we went out to le Verguier, we passed some of the Staffordshires going to the front line. It was a very dark night, but we could see that they were carrying more than usual and that their equipment looked very bulky. They were wearing life belts.
The secret could now be kept no longer, and as soon as possible orders were made known to all. They were brief: "The 46th Division will on a certain date, as part of a major operation, cross the St. Quentin Canal, capture the Hindenburg Line, and advance to a position on the high ground East of Magny la Fosse and Lehaucourt (2 miles E. of the Canal)."
The St. Quentin Canal, or Canal du Nord, as it is called further North, runs for the most part North and South. At Bellicourt, opposite the Americans, 1,000 yards North of our sector, it enters a tunnel and is for a considerable distance underground. At Bellenglise, opposite the right of our Divisional sector, it takes a sharp turn to the East, and runs, past Lehaucourt and le Tronquoy, for 21/2 miles before again turning South. The main Hindenburg Line followed the line of the Canal, just East of it. The Americans would attack the line above the tunnel, and North of them British Divisions would continue the advance far to the North. The 46th Division would attack with its right on Bellenglise, and a gap of 1,000 yards from its left to the Americans. South of us no attack would be necessary; for, once across the Canal, our right flank would be defended all the way to le Tronquoy by the Canal itself and this portion of the Hindenburg Line, which we should "roll up" from the flank. Tanks could not cross the Canal except over the tunnel at Bellicourt. Consequently the IXth Tank Battalion, allotted to our Division for the attack, would advance with the Americans, and, once in Bellicourt, turn south and join us to assist in the advance to the village objectives and the heights. To the Staffordshire Brigade was alloted the crossing of the Canal and the taking of the Hindenburg Line. Then, after a pause to allow the Tanks to come round, the Sherwood Foresters on the right and our Brigade on the left would sweep on, still under a barrage, to the final objective. We should have to deal with Magny village, the Right Brigade with Bellenglise and Lehaucourt. On the final objective there would be another pause, then, if all had gone well, the 32nd Division would come through to the "Red" Line of exploitation—another two miles still further East. Maps were issued with the objective of each unit shown in colour. The Staffordshires had the "Blue," which was the Hindenburg Line, and the "Brown" further E. to hold till we came up; the 4th Leicestershires had the "Yellow," which included Knobkerry Ridge, the 5th Lincolnshires the "Dotted Blue"—just beyond Magny village; we had the last of all, the "Green" line, including a sunken cross-roads, an old mill on some very high ground, and a small copse called Fosse Wood. It was argued that by this time either the attack would have failed and we should not be wanted, or, if successful, there could not be very much resistance; we were very weak after Pontruet, and this was considered the easiest task. The day chosen was September 29th—the time, dawn.
Outside le Verguier there runs a muddy lane with an old quarry beside it. In this quarry, in an evil-smelling but very deep dug-out lived Battalion Headquarters; everybody else occupied trenches in the fields round about. On the opposite side of the lane was a battery of 9.2's, firing almost continuously day and night, making it almost impossible to reach the Headquarters, and quite impossible to ride down the lane. Altogether our surroundings were unpleasant. The enemy soon made them worse, for about an hour before dawn on the 28th he suddenly put over a few small shells, apparently high explosive, round "B" Company's trenches, while one or two also fell round "C" and "A" Companies. Finally he pitched three clean into the quarry, and the sentry wake up to the fact that they were not only high explosive, but contained a very fair percentage of mustard gas. It was about an hour before the discovery was made and still longer before all troops were moved away. "C" Company wisely took no risks and were soon across the road, and "A" and "D" were practically unaffected. "B" Company, however, were not warned, and it was nearly two hours after the first shell had come before they were finally moved grumbling to another area. Apparently no one was gassed, but we knew mustard only too well and feared very much what the enemy would bring forth. However, at 9-0 a.m. it came on to pour with rain, and we got more hopeful.
At 11 o'clock Col. Griffiths, taking the Adjutant and Company Commanders with him, set off to a Conference with the Tank officers at Brigade Headquarters. The enemy were shelling le Verguier, the 9.2's were firing vigorously, it was pouring with rain, and the horses were very nervous. The ride was consequently exciting. Led as usual by "Sunloch," the party galloped past the 9.2's and halted at the entrance to the village to try and "time" the Boche shells. One came, they dashed in, turned the corner and just got clear in time; the next shell skimmed over the last groom's head and wounded a German prisoner.
Our conference with the Tank officers caused a slight alteration in Colonel Griffiths' plan of attack. He had intended to advance with two companies in front and two in support, but finding that a three company frontage was more suitable for Tank co-operation, this was adopted—"A" Company (Petch) to be on the right, "C" Company (Banwell) to be in the centre, and "D" Company (Corah) on the left. "B" Company (Hawley) would be in support. The front line Company Commanders arranged rendezvous with their Tank Commanders, and we rode back.
By evening our worst fears had been realized, and forty-five of "B" Company had to be sent to Hospital, too blind from the mustard gas to be of any use. C.S.M. Wardle and about five men from each of the other Companies had also to go, while Headquarters lost Mess Corporal J. Buswell. As we had lost L/Cpl. Bourne a few days before, this left us rather helpless, and, but for our energetic Padre-Mess-President, should probably have starved. We had one consolation. Towards evening on the 28th the rain stopped, the weather brightened, and there seemed to be every prospect of a fine Sunday. Bombs, flares and extra rations were distributed at dusk, and we turned in for the night during which, except for a few aeroplane bombs, the evening left us in peace.
At 5-0 a.m., Sunday, the 29th of September, the barrage started. There was the usual thick morning mist, and even at 7-0 a.m. we were unable to see more than a few yards in any direction. Even gun flashes could not be seen, and the only intimation we had of the progress of the fight, was the continuous "chug-chug-chug," of the tanks, moving along the valley North of us, completely out of sight. As we were not due to move until 9-0 a.m. we spent the time having breakfasts and reorganizing the remains of "B" Company. Lieut. Hawley, with the aid of the recently returned C.S.M. J.B. Weir, D.C.M., formed one large platoon with as many Lewis Guns as possible. Between 7-0 and 8-0 a.m. the mist lifted once for a few seconds only, and, looking Northwards we could see the top of the next ridge. Along the skyline as far as the eye could see from West to East stretched a long column of horses, guns and wagons—moving forward. Below them, in the shadow, moved a long procession of Tanks. Then the mist closed down and we saw no more.
As soon as breakfasts were finished, picked N.C.O.'s and men were sent forward to get in touch with the rest of the Brigade and reconnoitre roads forward to the Canal. At 7-45 a.m. came a message from Brigade Headquarters, to say that, as the mist was worse further East, we had better start moving at once. Parade was accordingly ordered for 8-30 a.m., instead of 9-0 a.m., and we tried to form up in a field near the quarry. The mist was so thick one could not see from one end of a Company to the other, and it was nearly nine o'clock before Capt. Jack and his orderlies with their medical box appeared in the field, and we were ready to move off. Even so, we had to leave the mess staff behind, but the Padre promised to bring them along.
At 9-0 a.m. we moved off in single file, Col. Griffiths leading, and the Companies following in the order "A," "C," "D," Battalion Headquarters, and "B." It was terribly difficult to keep touch, as, with many oaths, we stumbled over ditches and holes until we reached the lane from le Verguier to Grand Priel. Here we picked up the Headquarter horses, and also were much cheered by some wounded soldiers, who told us the Boche was running away for all he was worth. Unfortunately our column was cut in half by some artillery coming down the line, who passed between "D" Company and Headquarters. Alongside us, moving on the same track, were the other Sherwood Foresters, also bound for the "Green Line"; their "all up" was passed to the head of our column, and the Colonel, thinking we were intact, moved on. At Ascension Farm, the Adjutant was sent in to report to Brigade Headquarters and the Colonel struck off into the mist, marching entirely by compass bearing. Periodically he and Captain Petch stopped to check their direction and then moved slowly on again; there was some barbed wire and the horses were sent back. Eventually, after crossing the old front line and going half way down the next slope the Colonel halted, and allowing the Companies to form up by platoons, waited until it was time to go on. He judged that he should be somewhere near the original starting line of the Staffordshires. "C" and "D" Companies came up but there was no Battalion Headquarters and no "B" Company—incidentally no Adjutant. The latter, coming out from Brigade Headquarters, found that the Battalion had gone and tried to ride after them. He merely succeeded in getting into a wire entanglement and having no groom had to leave his mare. With Lieut. Ashdowne, the Intelligence Officer, and Scout-Corporal Gilbert—the only ones left of Battalion Headquarters—he went on, hoping to catch up the Battalion before they reached the Canal. Fortunately at 10-45 the mist blew right away, and the sudden daylight which followed showed him where the Battalion lay; it also showed the Staffordshire's starting tape only 60 yards from where the Colonel had halted.
Until 11-20 we sat in the sun and waited in the hopes that some of the missing people might join us. We held a short Conference, and the Colonel decided that if there was any more fog or difficulty of any sort, Company Commanders should make their way at once to their places in the "dotted blue" line. Scouts were sent out to reconnoitre Canal crossings, and as soon as the barrage started for the 4th Battalion's advance, we moved forward in rear of the 5th Lincolnshires. There was some scattered shelling, but our formation—lines of platoons in fours—was found very suitable. On reaching the Canal the two right Companies crossed by the remains of an old dam, the left by Riquerval Bridge, and all formed up in the ruins of the famous Hindenburg Line on the far side. It had been terribly battered, and here and there the remains of its occupants showed how deadly our barrage, and how fierce the assault of the Staffordshires had been. As we reached the Canal a single Tank was seen coming down from the North, another followed and then others; "our" Battalion had crossed successfully at Bellicourt, so the battle must be going well.
After a short pause, the advance up towards Knobkerry Ridge started. As we crossed Springbok Valley we could see the 4th Battalion consolidating their newly-won positions on the top, and there was little opposition from this quarter. On our right, however, there seemed to be a stiff fight going on in Bellenglise, and several dropping shots from machine guns fell round us. We deployed into the "blob" formation, before ascending the ridge, and for the next half-mile our advance was worthy of a plate in Field Service Regulations. In front the Colonel, with his eye on Magny village, kept the direction right. Behind him the three Companies deployed, their "distance" and "interval" perfect, and working so well together that if one was checked for a time, the others saw it at once and conformed. Behind the centre a small red cross flag and the "red, white and black" marked the position of the Regimental Aid Post and Battalion Headquarters. The latter's flag was already becoming famous; it was the one with which "A" Company had tried to signal from Pontruet. A few yards short of the summit of the Ridge we halted and lay down again while the 5th Lincolnshires did their advance. While we were here, the Tanks came up, and so excellent had been the liaison, that from the Tank which stopped behind "A" and "C" Companies stepped the officer with whom they had arranged details the day before.
At about 1 o'clock we moved on again—our centre through Magny la Fosse and our Flank Companies on each side of it. The fight in Bellenglise seemed to be over, and for the moment things were very quiet. Swarms of prisoners, waving their arms, were seen coming from various trenches and the village; no one was looking after them, we were all much too keen on getting forward. Here and there, when a few Boches showed signs of getting into a trench instead of keeping to the open, some soldier would administer a friendly jab with the bayonet to show them what was expected of them. The Tanks came along behind us, meaning to form up in Magny woods, and wait there till we went on. As the Lincolnshires got their objective without trouble, we moved close up to them and once more lay down to wait for 1-40 p.m., the time for our own barrage and advance.
Unfortunately, though screened from the East, the corner of Magny Woods, was visible from the South. Across the Canal on the high ground, some German gunner must have seen the Tanks assembling, and, finding no attack was coming his way, started to shoot at point blank range at our right flank. The right and centre became very unpleasant, and there was a veritable barrage round "A" Company. Through it, very hot and very angry at being shelled, suddenly appeared Padre Buck, a heavy pack of food on his back, and behind him the Regimental Serjeant-Major and the missing Headquarters. He had found them near Ascension Farm and knowing enough of the plan of attack, had "sweated" them along as hard as he could. It is impossible to imagine what we should have done without runners, signallers or batmen, to say nothing of the food. As we were now only 600 yards from our final objective the Padre and Captain Jack went off to find a Regimental Aid Post and finally settled in a small dug-out in a sunken road just outside the village.
At 1-40 p.m. our barrage started and our advance began; our shelling was slightly ragged in one or two places, but for the most part it was very accurate—wonderfully so, as guns were firing at extreme range. On the right "A" Company working along, and on both sides of an old trench, reached their objective without difficulty except for the shelling which, aimed at the Tanks, was falling all round the Company. Captain Petch, after L/Cpl. Downs and others had removed some twenty-one Boches from a hole under the road, made his Headquarters there, went round his outposts, and sent patrols out to his right flank, where the Sherwood Foresters, delayed in Bellenglise, had not yet reached Lehaucourt. They soon came up, however, and our right flank was secured. In the centre "C" Company had even more shells and did not have the satisfaction of evicting any Boches. They reached their objective and put outposts round the Mill and along a sunken road to connect with "A" Company. The protective barrage was still in front of them, and through it, in the direction of Levergies, could be seen several German batteries limbering up. One was quite close. This was too much for C.S.M. Angrave and Serjeant Tunks, who collected some twenty men and, regardless of the barrage, took advantage of the cover of a sunken road running East, and pushed forward. They could not cross the open, but, using their rifles, drove off the gunners and killed the horses, so that the battery remained in our hands. This very enterprising party then went on under Serjeant Tunks and had a look at Levergies, finally returning after it was dark.
Behind "C" Company, the Colonel and Adjutant after lying for some time in a small hole, and wondering whether they would be rolled on by one of our Tanks, or hit by the shells aimed at it, finally planted their flag outside a little dug-out on the N.E. corner of Magny Woods. However, the Colonel would not rest here, but was off again at once to see how we had fared. He first met Captain Banwell looking for a "success rocket"; this sounded satisfactory, and, as about the same time, Lieut. Hawley appeared with "B" Company, and we once more had a "reserve," all looked well. On the left—"D" Company (Corah), after chalking their names on a battery of deserted whizz-bangs, collected a Boche officer and some 50 men from a 4.2 gun battery without any trouble; hurrying on, they found some 20 others trying to blow up a 5.9 Howitzer in Fosse Wood, demonstrated that this could not be allowed and took them all prisoners; then, without further opposition, they dug in round the E. side of the wood and continued the line Northwards to the Divisional boundary. After visiting these, the Colonel went off to look at the left flank, and here, except for an Australian Machine Gun Section under a Serjeant there was no one. The Americans were not up to their objective, they had not even taken Etricourt, and for nearly a mile back our left was "in the air." Worse still, the Australian Serjeant had just been ordered to withdraw; the Colonel pointed out the situation, and the Serjeant, dying for an excuse to stay where he could see enemy to shoot at, called back his men and said "he'd stay as long as we wanted him." It was not very satisfactory, but we could do nothing else except pray hard for the arrival of the 32nd Division. When the Colonel arrived back at Battalion Headquarters we thought at first that our casualties had been very light indeed, but it was not long before we got some bad news. On our right flank the Tanks had suffered heavily at the hands of the German gunners on the Le Tronquoy high ground, and one of them, disabled and on fire, was a mark for several German batteries. Some of the crew managed to escape, but others, too badly wounded, were left inside; one crawled to our Aid Post. Padre Buck heard of this and at once went off to the rescue. The shelling was very heavy, and he was hit almost at once and wounded in many places. He was carried back to the Aid Post, but died soon afterwards, conscious to the last, but not in great pain. The Padre had been with us two years, and during all that time, there was never a trench or outpost that he had not visited, no matter how dangerous or exposed. In addition to his Chaplain's duties, he had been O.C. Games, Recreation Room and often Mess President—a thorough sportsman and a brave soldier, we felt his loss keenly.
Meanwhile every effort was being made to tell Brigade of our success, and, while one aeroplane with British markings bombed us (in spite of numerous red flares), another took down a message from the "Popham" sheet, which Serjeant Signaller Wilbur was operating. Soon after 4.0 p.m. Captain D. Hill, the Brigade Major, appeared and told us that the 32nd Division would soon arrive, and at 5-15 p.m. their leading Battalions came through us. However, they found it was now too late to go forward, so put out Outposts just in front of our line. Their appearance provoked the Boche to further shelling, and an unlucky hit killed Serjeant Taylor, an experienced and valuable platoon Serjeant of "C" Company. Serjeants Marshall of "C" Company and Clarke of "D" Company, were also wounded, but our total casualties for the day were under 25. We had reached our objective at all points and captured 8 guns and about 100 prisoners. The Division altogether had taken 4,000 prisoners and 80 guns and had smashed the Hindenburg Line.
Though the machine-gun fire from low flying aeroplanes was somewhat troublesome at dusk, we had a quiet night after the battle, and were able to distribute rations and ammunition to the companies soon after midnight. At the time, we hardly gave a thought to this last, but it was a feat deserving of the highest praise. We had advanced some four miles into the enemy's country across a canal, and by dusk bridges and roads had been built sufficient to enable horse transport to carry rations and ammunition to the most advanced units. Ours were delivered just outside Battalion Headquarters, and the Companies fetched them from there. The admirable organization of the Staff, and the skill and pluck of our Transport Drivers, had enabled us to go into action carrying only our rations for the one day—very different from the Germans in their March offensive, when each man was loaded up with food for five days.
The following morning, the 32nd Division continued the advance, with a small barrage, against Sequehart, Joncourt and, in the near centre, Levergies. The enemy had found it impossible to remain in their positions at Pontruet and South of the Canal, and hustled by the 1st and French Divisions, had evacuated them. The French were now therefore continuing our line Southwards from Lehaucourt. The attack started at dawn and soon afterwards the valley past Fosse Wood was thronged with Whippet tanks and cavalry, waiting in case of a possible "break-through." It was the first time most of us had seen Cavalry in action, and they made an imposing sight as they filed along the valley in the morning mist. At the same time several batteries of Horse Artillery trotted up and taking up positions near our "D" Company, opened fire to assist the attack. Levergies, overlooked from two sides, was soon taken and several prisoners were captured on the left, but elsewhere the enemy had been strongly reinforced, and the attacks on Sequehart, Preselles and Joncourt broke down under heavy machine gun fire. Apparently a stand was to be made along the "Fonsomme" trench line—running N. and S. along the next ridge. After waiting all day, the Cavalry and "whippets" slowly withdrew again in the evening.
That night and the following day, as the 32nd Division had now definitely taken over the outpost line, the Companies were brought into more comfortable quarters near Magny la Fosse and Headquarters moved into an old German Artillery dug-out on the hill. In these positions "A" Company had the misfortune to lose Serjeant Toon, a most energetic and cheerful Platoon Serjeant, who was wounded by a chance machine-gun bullet, but otherwise we had a quiet time. Reorganization and refitting once more occupied our minds, and, as "B" Company's gas casualties had made them so weak, all "battle details" were ordered to join us. The following day they arrived under C.S.M. Cooper, who resumed his duties with "D" Company. 2nd Lieuts. Todd and Argyle also rejoined us from leave, and the Stores and Transport moved up to Magny village. The same afternoon there was a Battalion parade and General Rowley complimented us on our work during our two battles. He had visited Pontruet since the attack and was unable to find words to express his admiration for our fight in the village. The arrival of the "Daily Mail," and the discovery that at last the name "North Midland" figured in the head lines cheered us all immensely, and the fall of St. Quentin to the French gave a practical proof of the value of our efforts. We were all very happy and said "Now we shall have a good rest to re-fit."
Nothing, however, appeared to be further from the intentions of the Higher Command, and on October 2nd the other two Brigades came through us to take over the line from the 32nd, and again attempt to break the "Fonsomme" Line—on the 3rd. The French would attack on the right, the 32nd Division would be responsible for Sequehart, and the 46th, with Staffordshires on the right and Sherwood Foresters on the left, would sweep over Preselles, Ramicourt and Montbrehain, and make a break for the cavalry and "whippets." Joncourt had already been captured and the left flank was therefore secure. Our Brigade was in support, and would not be wanted to move until 8-0 a.m. There was not much time for making preparations, and the Artillery, who had particularly short notice, spent the night before the battle getting into position near our Headquarters.
Once more a thick morning mist covered our attack and the first waves, advancing with the barrage at dawn, quickly got possession of Preselles and the Fonsomme Line, killing many Germans and taking large numbers of prisoners. There was considerable resistance in the centre, but the Sherwood Foresters, led by such men as Colonel Vann, disposed of it, and by 10.0 a.m. all objectives were gained and everything ready for the Cavalry. Meanwhile, soon after 8-0 a.m., the Battalion was ordered to move up at once and support the Staffordshires. We were to be under the orders of General Campbell, but would not be used for any purpose except holding the Fonsomme Line, to which we were now to go. We had been warned the previous evening that, if used at all, it would be on the right flank, and reconnoitering parties had already gone forward to get in touch with the Staffordshires; these had not yet returned, so we started without them.
Soon after 9-0 a.m. we left Magny la Fosse and moved down the hill towards Levergies, which we decided to leave on our right flank, as it was full of gas. We were in lines of platoons in fours—"D" Company (Corah) and "C" (Banwell) leading, bound for the Fonsomme Line, "A" Company (Petch) and "B" (Hawley) following with orders to find support positions to the other two. The Headquarters moved by the railway line N.E. of Levergies to take up a position as near as possible to the Support Battalion Headquarters of the Staffordshires. All went well until the leading Companies were beginning to climb the hill E. of Levergies, when a runner from Brigade Headquarters caught us up with a message to say that the 32nd Division had not taken Sequehart in the first attack, and that it was uncertain in whose hands the village now was. Every effort was made to warn the Companies, but we could not reach "D" and "A" in time, and we could only hope that if Sequehart was still in the enemy's hands, they would be warned of it in time to deploy their right platoons, which would otherwise march in fours close to the edge of the village.
Sequehart, however, if not at this time actually in our hands, was at all events clear of the enemy, and our right flank had no trouble. The mist and smoke made communication between the Companies very difficult, and so each moved, more or less independently, to its allotted station. "C" was the first to reach the "Fonsomme Line," only to find that the line was nowhere more than six inches deep, and, except for its concrete machine gun posts, was only a "big work" when photographed from the air. Captain Banwell accordingly took up his position in a sunken lane running between Sequehart and Preselles. Meanwhile, the other leading Company, "D," had moved too far to the left, a very fortunate circumstance, because Colonel Griffiths was able to change their direction and dispose them facing right, to form a defensive right flank opposite Sequehart. "B" Company was also ordered to face right in support to "D" Company. "A" Company, however, had not made the same error as "D," and Captain Petch, keeping his direction, found, as "C" Company had, that the "Fonsomme Line" gave him no cover. He, therefore, occupied the same sunken lane, about 300 yards south of "C" Company. Soon afterwards an intercepted message told Captain Petch of our changed dispositions, and, to protect his right, he too moved his Company to conform with "D." Battalion Headquarters had by this time occupied a large bank at the bottom of the hill, where Colonel White, of the 5th South Staffordshires, had already planted his flag.
From our new positions we had an extensive view to the East. Mannequin Ridge was on the right flank with Doon Hill at the end of it, held by the enemy, though we could see the Staffordshires holding the ridge. In the foreground was a valley, and on our left another ridge stretching from Preselles to Ramicourt. The Staffordshires did not appear very numerous for their large frontage, and it was clear that unless the Cavalry appeared soon, there was danger that they would be counter-attacked. But at 10-0 a.m. the leading Cavalry were only just beginning to appear over the Magny heights. The enemy was fairly quiet, except for one field gun, 2,000 yards away on our extreme right, beyond Sequehart. C.S.M. Angrave kept sniping at the gunners, who replied to each of his shots with a whizz-bang.
It soon became obvious that so long as the enemy remained on Doon Hill, the Cavalry could not advance, and shortly after midday we received orders to place two Companies at the disposal of the 137th Brigade, to assist in an attack on the Hill. Colonel Griffiths decided to use "A" and "D" Companies, and Captain Fetch and Lieut. Corah were at once summoned to Headquarters, when we were told the attack was to be made by the North Staffordshires, Colonel Evans, and that our Companies would be in support. Accordingly Colonel Griffiths and the Company Commanders set off for Colonel Evans' headquarters while the two Companies moved over the open to "C" Company's sunken lane, where they formed up for the attack. A few of "A" Company under 2nd Lieut. Whetton crossed the lane and reached the Staffordshires' front line. There was no fixed time for the assault, but the hill was to be shelled by our Artillery until 2.30 p.m. This shelling ceased as our Companies reached the lane, nearly a mile from the objective, and Colonel Evans tried in vain to have it renewed.
Meanwhile the enemy had been assembling out of sight behind Mannequin Ridge, and now suddenly attacked the Staffordshires heavily, driving them from their positions on the crest. At the same time the valley was swept from end to end by bursts of machine gun fire, and it was obvious that an advance across the open could only be made with very heavy loss. Colonel Griffiths wished to stop the attack at least until Mannequin Ridge was retaken, but, before anything could be done, the enemy opened a heavy artillery barrage on the lane, and the Colonel was badly wounded. Some of "A" Company had pushed forward a little, and Captain Petch and 2nd Lieut. Dennis managed to find some cover for No. 4 Platoon about 200 yards East of the Lane. It was now about 3-0 p.m. and Colonel Evans, probably intending to alter his plans, sent for the Company Commanders. As they arrived a shell fell on the party, killing the Colonel, Lieut. Corah and 2nd Lieut. Christy, wounding Captain Petch. A few minutes later 2nd Lieut. Mace was hit in the leg with a bullet, and both he and Captain Petch were sent down. "D" Company was officerless, "A" had three isolated groups, two forward and unapproachable, the third under 2nd Lieut. Edwardes in the Sunken Lane. There were no orders and no one knew what to do, so C.S.M. Cooper collected "D" and 2nd Lieut. Edwardes and C.S.M. Smith collected all they could find of "A," and both prolonged "C" Company's line to the left. The lane here was less sunken than on the right, and the cover was very poor, affording little protection against the enemy's shells, which came from front and flank.
We were now very short of officers. The Adjutant, Captain J.D. Hills, was in command, with Lieut. Ashdowne as Adjutant; 2nd Lieut. Argyle was acting Liaison Officer with the Staffordshires, so there was no one else except the M.O. at Headquarters. Captain Jack, it is true, was a host in himself, for, when not tying up the wounded, he was always ready with some merry remark to cheer us up; we needed it, for our railway line was as heavily shelled as the sunken lane. In addition to the killed and wounded the Companies had also lost two new subaltern officers who had joined the previous day and gone away slightly gassed, while 2nd Lieut. Griffiths, who had gone forward with the reconnoitering parties, had not been seen since. Captain Banwell was therefore alone with "C" Company. Lieut. Steel was at once sent to command "D," and, on arrival at the sunken lane, at once received a shell splinter in the leg; fortunately, however, this was not serious, and he and C.S.M. Cooper were soon hard at work straightening out the Company. This Warrant Officer and C.S.M. Smith of "A" Company were admirable; it was largely due to them that both Companies, badly shaken after their gruelling, were within a few hours once more fit for anything. Our shortage of officers was likely to continue, for our only "battle detail," Major Burnett, had just gone to England, to the Senior Officers' School at Aldershot. Our casualties during the afternoon included one who could ill be spared. A direct hit with a shell on "C" Company Headquarters wounded C.S.M. Angrave in the back. He died a few days later. One of the original Territorials, he had served with us the whole time, and even four years of France had failed to lessen his devotion to "C" Company.
Soon after 3-0 p.m. General Campbell himself rode up to Battalion Headquarters and after explaining the situation, pointed out the importance of holding a little group of trenches on some high ground three-quarters of a mile E. of Preselles. Accordingly "B" Company (Hawley), now only 25 strong, were sent there with two Lewis Guns; at the same time some of the Monmouthshires were sent to help him. Meanwhile, all the afternoon and evening, the enemy kept making small attacks on Mannequin Ridge and towards Sequehart; several of these were broken up by Artillery fire, and after his first efforts he had no further successes. Our Cavalry, having arrived too late in the morning to pass through when the enemy was really disorganized, waited all day in the valley behind Preselles, and after losing several men and horses in the shelling, had once more to withdraw at dusk. Their horses were sent back, but as many men as could be spared were sent up dismounted, with rifles and bayonets, to help hold the "Fonsomme Line" in case of strong enemy counter attacks. They did not move up until dark and, of course, could not find the "Fonsomme Line," any more than we could in the morning, so started to dig where they could. Fortunately the Commanding Officer, going round the line, found them, and, sending one party up to help "B" Company, who were now alone, he and Captain Banwell guided the rest across the valley, where they could find some cover on the hill side. Had they been allowed to remain where they had started to dig, they would probably have suffered very heavily in the morning from the Ridge opposite, whence the enemy would have had a beautiful view of them.
Rations arrived soon after dark. During the afternoon 2nd Lieut. Todd had reconnoitred a route for his limbers, and, after a narrow escape from some heavy shells, had managed to find a passable road. With the limbers came also 2nd Lieut. Griffiths, who had been wandering all over the countryside in his efforts to find us. By midnight the companies had their rations and their mail, and, even in the sunken lane, a smile could be seen here and there. The night was quiet, and we were able to collect all scattered parties and see what our casualties had been. Fortunately the loss of other ranks was not in the same proportion as of officers, but we had started so weak that we could ill afford to lose the seven killed and 30 wounded which were our total casualties for the day. "A" and "D" Companies had been hardest hit and Lance-Corporal Meakin was amongst the killed; Serjeant Ward had been wounded, Serjeant Peach of "B" Company had also been killed, while "C" Company, in addition to their C.S.M., lost Serjt. Bond gassed and Cpl. Foulds wounded.
At dawn on the 4th, as there was no sign of any attempted counter-attack on the part of the enemy, most of the dismounted cavalry were withdrawn, and we remained in our positions of the previous day. The morning was slightly misty and Battalion Headquarters had one bad scare. The Commanding Officer and Adjutant were out looking for new quarters, when they suddenly saw coming over the hill W. of Sequehart—behind their right flank—a number of Germans in open order. A battery of 60 pounders in Levergies saw them at the same time and opened fire at point blank range. It was fully five minutes before a few leisurely French soldiers appearing over the same crest, showed that the Germans were merely a large batch of prisoners collected by the French at dawn. Throughout the day the enemy shelled various parts of the back area, and in this respect Headquarters came off worst, being more bombarded than even the sunken road. The bank under which they sat did not give them much cover, and the Boche managed to drop his shells with great accuracy on the Railway line and even hit the R.A.P. By the afternoon they were so tired of being chased backwards and forwards along the bank that they followed the example of the M.O., who with a wonderful display of calmness, which he did not in the least feel, sat reading a book of poems and refused to move. He admitted afterwards that he had not read a line, but it looked very well, and as usual he kept us all cheerful.
Late in the afternoon the long expected orders for relief came and we learnt that we were to come out that night with the Staffordshires. "B" Company on the left were actually relieved, but the other Companies had merely to wait until the front line Battalions were clear and then march out. The Boche shelled Headquarters once more just as they were going and fired a considerable amount of gas shells all over the countrywide, but no one was hurt, and eventually, some by Magny, some by Joncourt, all arrived at the little village of Etricourt. Some of us rolled into dug-outs, some into ruined houses, some in the road; all of us murmured "Now we shall have our real rest at last," and went to sleep—tired out.
FRESNOY AND RIQUERVAL WOODS.
5th Oct., 1918. 11th Oct., 1918.
One night was all we spent in Etricourt, bitterly cold but quiet and unmolested by the enemy. The following day, the 5th of September, was bright and warm, so we at once set about improving our surroundings, started to bring some of our stores from Magny La Fosse, and were just beginning to think we might make the place fairly comfortable, when orders came for another move. There was going to be another battle, and, though we were not taking part, our area was wanted for a Support Division, so we were to go back across the Canal, and take over some shelters in the old front line trench on the Ridge. This sounded rather cold, but at all events we were going backwards to that long expected rest; not too soon, for at midday an observation balloon made its appearance, and its section chose Etricourt for their home, with the result of course of annoying the Boche to such an extent that he fired some shells over the village. At 5-0 p.m. we fell in and marched by Riquerval Bridge over the Canal and up to the Ridge, passing the Brigadier on the main road by the Canal, and found the Brigade we were to relieve, sitting very comfortably in their shelters and huts. Unfortunately they had no intention of moving until the following morning. It was now 6-30 p.m. and would soon be dark, so we were faced with two alternatives—one to sit on the road, send for the Staff, and wail loudly, the other to help ourselves.
The other two Battalions chose the former; we, being now very old soldiers, chose the latter. An open patch of ground with some good large shell holes was before us, we had a tool cart with us, and here and there might be seen a sheet or two of corrugated iron. Long before it was dark a thin curl of smoke coming out of the ground, a snatch of song, or someone grousing in a loud voice, were the only indications that there were four Companies of Infantry living there. The officers were a little less fortunate; knowing that there were bell tents coming on the limbers, they waited for them. At last they came, and very good tents, too, but someone had forgotten to bring the poles. In spite of this, we were soon all under cover, and in Headquarter Mess were actually having a hot dinner when the Staff arrived and informed the other two Battalions that they would now (in the dark) have to make the best of whatever cover they could find.
The following morning our tent poles arrived, and, having planted the red, white and black flag outside the C.O.'s, tent and mounted guard, we felt quite respectable again. By the afternoon we had so far increased in pride that the Drums not only blew "Retreat," but gave us an excellent concert while the guards were changed. We expected every hour or so to get orders to go back to some place of greater comfort for our rest, but thought it best to take no risks, and, on the morning of the 7th, gave everybody a hot bath. Two wagon covers and a cooker on the Canal worked wonders in this way. This day we lost two more officers—2nd Lieut. Whetton went on leave, and Lieut. Steel had to go to Hospital as the wound in his leg would not heal. "B" Company, being little larger than an ordinary Platoon, Lieut. Hawley was transferred to "D," and 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove commanded "B." Captain Banwell had 2nd Lieut. Griffiths in "C" Company, and 2nd Lieuts. Edwards and Dennis were still with "A." There were no other Company officers, as 2nd Lieut. Argyle was kept at Headquarters for Intelligence work. Fortunately 2nd Lieut. Todd still remained to look after the Transport, which throughout the fighting had been excellent, and Capt. Nicholson, though suffering from "flu," stuck nobly to his work and looked after our comfort at the Stores.
Just after 10 o'clock on the 7th, orders came from Brigade for a move on the following day—forward, not further back, and once more our hopes of the promised rest were dashed. This time the attack was going to be made by the other Divisions, and the 46th was to move at Zero to some assembly areas round Magny La Fosse, and wait there in case the enemy were sufficiently "broken" to allow of a general advance. Zero was five minutes past five—a most uncomfortable hour for a move, especially as breakfasts had to be eaten beforehand. Almost everybody was in bed before orders came, but there were some who had no sleep that night: the Orderly Room producing operation orders, the Quartermaster's department (whose wagons arrived at 3-0 a.m.!), and the cooks getting breakfasts ready, were the most unlucky, but so well did all ranks and all departments do their work, that at 5-0 a.m. the Battalion fell in ready to move. Packs had been stacked, ammunition and bombs distributed, most important of all, we had had a good breakfast. There is no doubt that our discipline and spirit were never better than during those strenuous weeks.
Seldom has more bad language been heard than on that early morning march down to the Canal again. It was half dark and there were Units assembling and marching in every direction. Eventually, finding we should be late at the starting point if we waited for the Regiment which should have been ahead of us, we decided to go on at once, and set off down the rough and slippery track to Riquerval Bridge. All went moderately well until a "C" Company limber stuck. Before it could be drawn clear, a Company of another Regiment marched up and round it, entirely preventing our efforts to free it. Curses were loud on both sides, but nothing could equal the flow of language that the two Company Commanders flung at each other over the heads of their perspiring Companies.
Eventually the limber was on the road again, and we reached the Bridge, near which the Boche every few minutes dropped a shell. This fact, coupled with a long line of Artillery horses going to "water," and the Brigadier trying to get his Brigade across the Canal, produced an effect which completely eclipsed the limber scene. However, as we crossed, the Boche stopped shelling, daylight came and we found the road good, though traffic made the rate of march very slow. The blaspheming consequently subsided, and, finding a field track going in the right direction, we continued our march at a fine pace until we reached our assembly position—an open stretch of ground on the South side of the Magny-Joncourt Road. Along this road were batteries of heavy guns, standing almost wheel to wheel and firing rapidly, so, in view of possible retaliation, the Companies were scattered over various little groups of trenches in the neighbourhood. The cookers came up and we prepared to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, while we once more had the pleasure of watching the Cavalry waiting to be used, and once more saw them go slowly back.
In the afternoon we moved into the next valley Eastwards, so as to be nearer the "line" if wanted; there was also better and less scattered accommodation. Gun pits, dug-outs and the inevitable grassy bank provided all we wanted, and when, an hour later, some few gas shells fell in the valley, we were all snugly under cover. All that is to say except the cookers and with them Serjeant Thomson and his cooks; these were in a shallow sunken road, and had a shell within a few yards of them, fortunately doing no damage. Thinking it best to take all the rest we could, we had the evening meal early, and long before it was dark most of the Battalion were asleep. The Commanding-Officer himself retired before 9-30 p.m., and was consequently fast asleep when, soon after 10-0 p.m., a runner appeared with the usual "B.G.C. will see all Commanding Officers at once." The rendezvous this time was Preselles, some two miles away across country. It was a dark night, but with the aid of a compass he found his way there all right and received orders from General Rowley for an immediate move. The Brigade was to relieve a Brigade of the 6th Division in the right British sector next the French; the Battalion would relieve the West Yorks R. in the right sub-sector. The following morning the Brigade would move forward into Mericourt which was supposed to have been evacuated by the enemy; we were to be "squeezed out" by the 5th Line. R. and French joining hands across our front, and would come into support. Guides would meet us for the relief at Preselles at midnight, October 8th/9th.
The Commanding Officer at once hurried back to the Battalion and verbally issued relief orders while the Companies were falling in. In a little more than half an hour all were ready to move, and Companies marched independently to Preselles, where, under cover of the hill side, the Battalion assembled soon after midnight. There were no guides, so, after waiting some time in vain, the C.O. once more went to Brigade Headquarters and asked for instructions. He was given a map reference—supposed to be that of the Battalion Headquarters of the West Yorks., and once more the Battalion moved off. In single file, with no intervals between platoons for fear of losing touch, and a very uncertain knowledge of the position of the enemy, we marched slowly across country towards where we hoped to find Battalion Headquarters. Reaching the famous sunken road of the battle of the 3rd, we halted while a search was made; we had come to the place referred to on the map, there was nothing there. Fortunately, just as we were wondering what on earth to do, two W. Yorks. guides appeared, led us to their Battalion Headquarters, and soon afterwards the Companies disappeared Eastwards.
Battalion Headquarters was in a small cellar under an isolated house just outside Sequehart on the Preselles Road. It was a most extraordinary relief in many ways, and perhaps the most extraordinary part was the scene in that Headquarters. There were four of us with the M.O., five West Yorks., a French Interpreter, a Padre, and an indescribable heap of runners and signallers, to say nothing of batmen, in a cellar which might have held four people comfortably. On one of the beds in the corner lay an officer. Noticing that he was not wearing W. Yorks badges, we asked who he was. They did not know, he had been there since they came in and had never moved; "perhaps he was gassed or dead," they remarked casually. This was typical of how we all felt, much too tired to worry over other people's troubles. As it happened he was not dead, and, though to this day we have never discovered who he was, he eventually disappeared—going out to look for his own Regiment. For some hours we sat in the most terrible atmosphere waiting for the relief to be finished, and at last, just as dawn was breaking, as three Companies had reported that they were in position, we agreed to take over the line, and the W. Yorks. marched out—to take part in some other battle further North. As soon as they had gone, the C.O., with a map in one hand and a slice of bread and jam in the other, went up to look at our front line and see whether the Boche had really left Mericourt.
The Battalion sector was astride the Sequehart-Mericourt Road which ran due East along the valley South of Mannequin Ridge. Sequehart village and the valley were both full of mist and gas which hung about in patches, and made walking very unpleasant. There were many German dead round the village and in the concrete emplacements of the Fonsomme line, and the fighting in this part must have been heavy. Keeping to the main road, the C.O. found "B" Company at a small cross-roads about one mile East of Sequehart; "A" Company, according to the West Yorkshires, should also have been here, but as this was the Company which had not yet reported "relief complete," he was not surprised when he could not find them. At the next cross-roads, half a mile short of Mericourt, were "C" and "D" Companies on the right and left respectively of the road. Small patrols had already been out towards the village and had not found any enemy, and both Companies were now engaged in finding the Units on their flanks. On the left a post of the Lincolnshires was soon found, and on the right the French were only a few yards away. The liaison here was perfect. After an exchange of courtesies by the Company Commanders, the flank posts fraternized vigorously, and the Frenchmen, by producing some "Jimmy Blink," cemented the Entente Cordiale. They were in great spirits, and since dawn had been formed up with bayonets fixed, waiting to make an attack; "Zero" hour had not been told them, but that did not worry them in the least. To improve the co-operation between us, the French sent a platoon under a Subaltern officer to work with us.
By 6-30 a.m. the mist had lifted enough for us to see Mericourt village plainly, and a strong patrol under 2nd Lieut. Griffiths was sent out to reconnoitre it. They met with no opposition. A few minutes later, a mounted Officer of the Staffordshires, without stopping at our front line to ask about the situation, rode into the village. We were all much too interested in watching to see what became of him, to think of warning him that the Boche might still be there. Soon afterwards, as there was still no sign of the enemy, "C" Company moved into and occupied the East side of the village, and "B" and "D" Companies moved on to the West edge. Messages were sent back to tell Brigade that we held Mericourt, and to bring the Headquarters up there—at present they were about three miles back. From "C" Company's position on the high ground East of the village we looked across a large valley, at the North end of which could be seen Fresnoy le Grand; along the bottom ran the main Fresnoy-St. Quentin Railway, and on the other side a collection of small copses was marked on the map as Bois D'Etaves. Nowhere was there the slightest sign of the enemy. In view of the fact that we were particularly ordered to be in Support if an advance was made, the C.O. would not push on further without orders from the Brigadier. Meanwhile, he went off to look for the missing "A" Company, leaving the three Companies, "B," "C" and "D," holding the village and watching the valley.
At 7-30 the leading platoon of the 5th Linc. Regt. came up on our left, and about an hour later the French started their advance, and, passing Mericourt on the South side, deployed down the slopes towards the Railway line.
As soon as General Rowley heard that Mericourt was in our hands, he rode up to the village and reconnoitred the valley and Fresnoy himself from "C" Company's high ground. Seeing that the French were meeting nothing more than machine gun fire, and were apparently making good progress, he ordered Captain Banwell to move at once into Fresnoy; there was no one else available at the moment, so we ceased to be in Support. The main road had been blown up in two places, but there were no other obstacles, and the Company reached the town without difficulty. The machine gun fire had been very heavy from the Bois D'Etaves on their right and from the Railway embankment, but they had had no casualties, and passed rapidly along the streets, finding no enemy, but meeting to their surprise several civilians, who, over-joyed at their "deliverance," were doing all they could with cups of coffee to welcome their rescuers.
For four years these unhappy people had lived under the heel of the German, and the rotting carcases of six-months' dead horses which littered the street showed what life they had lived during that time. They had been taught to hate the English, whom they only knew as night-bombers, and yet, when the Boche was being hunted out and offered to take all civilians back to safety in motor lorries, 300 men, women and children, headed by the Deputy Mayor, heroically refused to leave their town, preferring, as they said, to risk the bombardment and the "brutal English" than to remain one day longer in slavery.
At 9-0 o'clock, other Units made their appearance in Fresnoy, and the 5th Lincolnshires, with two Company Headquarters in the Quarry just outside the S.W. corner of the town, pushed some platoons through towards the Eastern edge—on the right of our "C" Company. Capt. Nichols of this Battalion had his Company round the large house used by the Germans as a Hospital, but, except for this, no one seemed inclined to push forward in any strength. At 11-0 a.m. the Brigadier moved his Headquarters into Mericourt, and the Boche, presumably thinking the village was now as full as it was likely to be during the day, shelled it vigorously with gas and High Explosive. He paid particular attention to our ridge of observation, and, having pounded us off this, proceeded to hammer the other end of the village, whither we had moved for greater comfort. At the same time several salvoes were fired into Fresnoy. Soon afterwards a message from Captain Banwell told us that, with the exception of the Railway and Station, the whole town was in our hands. He had tried hard to reach the Railway Embankment from his side of the town, but the machine gun fire was very hot, the ground absolutely open, and after losing Gosden, a Lewis Gunner, killed, and one or two men wounded, had decided to wait for some Artillery. Meanwhile, the French had reached the Railway further South, so the C.O. sent Lieut. Hawley with half "D" Company to try and take the Station from this side. He moved off to do so at midday, leaving C.S.M. Cooper to command the other half Company. "A" Company (Edwards) now arrived, and, with "B" Company (Cosgrove), dug themselves into a bank on the South side of Mericourt village.
Lieut. Hawley and his party made their way rapidly down to the Quarry, and keeping just inside the Southern outskirts of the town, soon found the French left flank, from which they were able to reconnoitre the Railway Station. This last seemed to be the only place where the enemy was still offering any resistance, and there were apparently three machine guns somewhere near the Base of a large factory chimney in the Station yard. Lieut. Hawley divided his party into two, and while he himself gradually worked his way direct, the other party under Serjt. Marston, M.M., armed with as many bombs as they could carry, rapidly made their way round towards the enemy's rear. The Boche apparently thought he would soon be turned out, and some twenty of them, hurried along by one of our Lewis Guns, managed to escape before we arrived. However, they did not all get away, and when Serjt Marston lobbed his bombs on to them from behind and the others came up in front, they found five Germans still sitting there with their gun. These were promptly captured and sent down, and the town was now entirely in our hands.
Between 5-0 and 6-0 p.m. we received orders that the 5th Lincolnshires would take over the whole of the Railway, and that we were to come back into Mericourt and rest as much as possible. At the same time the enemy started to bombard Fresnoy with every available gun and howitzer. For an hour gas and high explosive shells fell in every corner of the town and its immediate surroundings. Capt. Banwell, who was returning to his Company from Headquarters, and the C.O., who was trying to find "D" Company, both had a very unpleasant time. One runner with the orders for the relief did manage to reach "D" Company without being hit, and soon after 8-30 p.m. they moved out from Fresnoy and dug into a bank just outside Mericourt. "C" Company, however, no one was able to find; it was a dark night and consequently very difficult to keep one's direction amongst the little streets and sunken lanes in the Northern end of the town, where they had taken up their position. The C.O. himself spent a large part of the night looking for them without success, but one of the messages, which he left at every post and Headquarters he called at, eventually found its way to Capt. Banwell, and between midnight and 1 a.m. on the 10th "C" Company at last came out and occupied a bank near "D" Company. Most of us had not had any sleep since we left our "shell-holes" Camp at dawn on the 8th—some of us none since the 7th, and when we finally lay down, tired out, we slept far into the next day.
Soon after midday on the 10th Major R.S. Dyer Bennet reported for duty and took over command of the Battalion, Capt. Hills resumed his former duties of Adjutant, and for the next few weeks we had no Second in Command. At the same time orders came that the Brigade would continue its advance on the "leap-frog" principle. Each Battalion would be given a definite objective for the whole of the Brigade frontage, the rear Battalion passing on to the next line as soon as each objective was gained. We were now rear Battalion, and moved after dinners to the Railway Cutting just outside Fresnoy on the Bohain line, where, while we waited for further orders, we had teas and distributed rations for the following day. The Lewis Gun limbers and cookers were now allotted to Companies, and the remainder of the 1st Line Transport occupied a field close to us. 2nd Lieut. Dunlop, D.C.M., and 2nd Lieut. Taylor returned from leave and went to "D" and "C" Companies respectively. Lieut. Ashdowne again became Intelligence Officer and 2nd Lieut. Argyle returned to "B" Company. Each Company had now two officers and "C" Company had three. Soon after six o'clock we had orders to move at dusk to the line of the Aisonville-Bohain road, now held by the 4th Battalion, and push forward from there to the edge of the Bois de Riquerval. At the same time a patrol of Corps Cyclists was being sent along the main road towards Regnicourt, and if they reported that the enemy had evacuated this village, our orders were to advance during the night to a line running Southwards from there, through the Bois, to gain touch with the French at Retheuil Farm. At a Company Commanders' Conference, held as soon as these orders were received, Major Dyer Bennet decided that if Regnicourt was clear of the enemy, "C" and "D" Companies should advance up the main road as far as the village, and, on reaching it, turn Southwards into the Bois, spreading out along the line of our objective. "A" Company, keeping touch with the French, were to advance up the "ride" on the Southern boundary of the Brigade, while "B" Company, followed by Headquarters, would go straight through the wood in the centre. We would all form up in the present positions of the 4th Leicestershire and start our advance without a barrage at 2-0 a.m.—the 11th of October.
As soon as it was dark we moved off with our Lewis Gun limbers and medical cart, keeping as far as possible to cross-country tracks and avoiding all main roads. There was some gas hanging round the Bois D'Etaves, but we were not worried by this, and soon reached the Seboncourt-Bohain Road, held by the 5th Lincolnshires. From here onwards the route was not so easy to find, but we managed to take our limbers to within a few hundred yards of the 4th Battalion Headquarters and here, after distributing Lewis Guns and Ammunition to Platoons, the Companies were met by guides and moved forward to their assembly positions. Meanwhile Battalion Headquarters moved into the farm house already occupied by the 4th Battalion. In the cellar we found, in addition to the usual Headquarter Officers, a French Interpreter, and part of a French Liaison platoon, no air, very little light, but plenty of tobacco smoke. Soon after we arrived a message from Brigade told us that the Cyclists had met with no enemy as far as Regnicourt, but had found a patrol of about twenty in that village and had been fired on by them. We were discussing this, when suddenly there was a scuffling overhead and we were told that there was "something ticking somewhere," and that everyone had left the house. The cellar occupants were not slow to follow, and thinking of time-bombs and infernal machines managed to empty the cellar in a record time. We settled down uncomfortably under a hedge, and prepared to read and write orders with a concealed electric torch—the maximum of discomfort. However, we did not have to stay there long, as a runner came to tell us that the origin of the "ticking" had now been discovered, and, as it was nothing more formidable than the recently wound up dining room clock, we returned to the cellar. Major Dyer Bennet, arguing that, if the Cyclists could get as far as Regnicourt, we should reach our objective without difficulty, decided that the attack should be carried out as arranged, and, sending the Adjutant to find the 6th Division, moved up himself to the Aisonville Road, leaving only the Aid Post and some Signallers and servants at the Farm.
The Aisonville Road ran almost due N. and South along a valley; between it and the edge of the Bois de Riquerval was open ground for about 300 yards sloping gently up to the wood. A small cottage marked the start of "A" Company's "ride," and the stretch of road immediately N. of this was deeply sunken. Here "A" Company formed up and tried to find the French who were considerably further South than we expected. Incidentally they were not as far forward as we were, and the Boche enfiladed the road about midnight with a whizz-bang battery from the South. "B" Company formed up in an isolated copse about 100 yards East of the road into which the 4th Battalion had made their way during the afternoon. The left half Battalion remained along the road bank and in a dry ditch 50 yards W. of it, near to the junction with the Regnicourt Road up which they were to advance. There was one solitary house, protected by the hillside, which provided Company Headquarters with a certain amount of cover. The night was dark and the enemy, except for the whizz-bangs on "A" Company, very quiet.
Soon after midnight the Adjutant returned from the 6th Division. He had found that the 1st Leicestershires were on their right flank, and that they were going to continue their advance at 5-15 a.m. on the 11th. Major Dyer Bennet therefore decided to postpone our attack until that hour, so that we might all go forward together. In any case it seemed likely that this would be a better plan, as it would be daylight soon after the advance started; and, on so wide a frontage, it would have been almost impossible to maintain direction in the woods by night, especially without a moon. At 5 o'clock we were all formed up along the road, Battalion Headquarters close to "A" Company, and at 5-15 a.m. in absolute silence and without a barrage we started to climb the rise towards the edge of the wood.
The left half Battalion along the Regnicourt Road made most progress without meeting any opposition. "D" Company leading, they advanced by platoons on both sides of the road, keeping touch with the 1st Battalion on their left, and had gone nearly a mile before they were checked by machine-gun fire ahead of them. Half-way from their starting point to Regnicourt stood a little group of houses at the top of a small hill, and from here, as well as from the thick scrub and undergrowth which covered the country on both sides, the enemy's machine gunners had a good target. Thinking that this was probably some small post left behind by the Boche as he retired, and knowing that the cyclists had been through the previous night, Lieut. Hawley decided to attack at once, and "D" Company, making use of all the cover they could find, worked their way up the hill and soon captured the house. One German came out into the road with his machine gun and started to fire at them point blank, but the leading Platoon got their Lewis Gun into action, and, knocking out the Boche, captured the gun. The two leading Platoons of "D" Company had deployed, and, with 2nd Lieut. Dunlop on the left of the road and the others on the right, tried to continue their advance. Seen from below, the group of houses had seemed to be on the top of the hill, but beyond them the road, after a slight dip, rose again to a ridge 300 yards further East, and here the enemy were in considerable force. Several gallant attempts to advance were frustrated by very heavy machine gun fire, and having lost Serjts. Bradshaw and Dimmocks killed, and several others wounded, the Company was compelled to remain lying flat just beyond the houses. One little party had taken cover in the ditch along the roadside and were seen by the German machine gunner. The ditch became a death trap. Hodges and Longden, the runners, and Maw, the Signaller, were killed, and Hall, another runner, badly wounded; Serjt. Foster and L/Cpl. Osborne, both of whom had done particularly good work, were wounded, and the casualties were very heavy indeed. In half-an-hour this Company lost 10 killed 14 wounded and one prisoner. It was obvious that the Cyclists had never been further than these houses, which they must have mistaken for Regnicourt, and their report was consequently worthless.
Capt. Banwell now arrived with two platoons of "C" Company, and thinking it possible that the Companies on the right might not have got as far even as "D" Company, decided to protect the right flank from any possible counter-attack. He sent off Serjt. Tunks and No. 11 Platoon to prolong "D" Company's line to the right; they did this and managed to advance a few yards further before being compelled to dig in and keep very flat by the enemy's machine guns. A few minutes later 2nd Lieut. Griffiths followed with his platoon, to work Southwards into the woods to try and find the centre Company, or at least discover how they were situated. They managed to advance about 400 yards before they too met with fierce opposition, and had three men cut off and captured by a strong party of Boche concealed in the undergrowth. Eventually, unable to find any trace of "B" Company, 2nd Lieut. Griffiths decided to "dig in" where he was, and by doing so extended "C" Company's line still further to the right, bending back slightly to protect the flank. At 8-0 a.m. the 1st Battalion on the left had reached the same line and were similarly held up. Capt. Banwell therefore reported to Headquarters that further advance without artillery support was impossible, and that "C" and "D" Companies were holding a line running Southwards for 400 yards from the group of houses, into the Bois de Riquerval, and would wait there for instructions.
Meanwhile the centre and right had fared even worse. In the centre "B" Company, formed up originally in an isolated copse, moved forward at 5-15 a.m. in two parties towards the main part of the wood. The left hand party under 2nd Lieut. Argyle had plenty of cover for the first half-mile and pushed on rapidly, until, coming over a small crest into the open, they too met with heavy machine-gun fire. After several ineffectual efforts to advance, they dug themselves in and remained there for the rest of the day, replying to the Boche fire with their Lewis Guns, but with no visible effect. (It was afterwards discovered that this party were less than 100 yards behind 2nd Lieut. Griffiths' platoon, unable to see each other owing to a "fold" in the ground.) The other half Company under 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove started their advance across an absolutely open patch of ground, sloping gently downwards towards the centre of the woods. They had gone a few yards when the daylight showed their position to the Boche, and for the next half-hour they suffered heavily. Lying on the forward slope, with no cover, they saw 50 yards away on their right two small but deep trenches. One man tried to run there and was hit a few yards from them; another had better luck and got there safely, through a perfect stream of bullets from three guns. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove himself was badly wounded and had to be carried out, so also was Serjt. Muggleston. The others, some crawling and some running, gradually collected in the two trenches and remained there for the rest of the day.
On the extreme right "A" Company (Edwards) made no headway at all. Between the road and the edge of the wood was about 150 yards of open ground, across which ran a Z-shaped hedge, while, at the point where the "ride" entered the wood, stood a Chateau and a large black hut commanding all the country round. Daylight came soon after they left the road and with it a burst of heavy machine-gun fire from the Chateau at close range, which split the Company into three parts. Headquarters and one platoon found some cover round the little house on the corner where they started; near them in a bank was 2nd Lieut. Dennis with his platoon, while the remainder, under Cpls. Thompson and Shilton, were in the Z-shaped hedge, unable to show themselves without being fired at. On their right the French had captured Retheuil and Forte Farms.
At 5-20 a.m., Major Dyer Bennet, finding it impossible to see anything of "A" and "B" Companies, decided to advance his Headquarters, keeping as far as possible to the centre of the Brigade frontage. Accompanied by the Adjutant, R.S.M., a few runners, and the French Interpreter, he set off for the edge of the wood, which was reached without loss; but the enemy's machine guns at the Chateau, 200 yards away on the right, and slightly below us, plainly told us that "A" Company had not gone forward. A similar distance away on the left, concealed by a wall and the corner of the wood, another gun was firing across at "B" Company, who could be seen on the opposite hillside trying to reach the cover of their two trenches. The Headquarter party was too small to be able to help, so while the Adjutant went back to try and find some reinforcements, the Interpreter, Henri Letu, made a most gallant reconnaissance into the woods to see if he could gather any information. The "reinforcements" consisted of a platoon of French soldiers, a Lewis Gun team of the 4th Battalion and two signallers. At the same time the M.O. and Intelligence Officer (Lieut. Ashdowne) arrived, and the latter, taking two men with him, soon drove out the enemy from the "corner wall" post on the left. The Battalion Headquarter flag was hung out in a conspicuous tree, signal communication was opened with the original Headquarter Farmhouse, and at about 8 o'clock the party was still further reinforced by the arrival of Cpl. Thompson and No. 1 Platoon of "A" Company, whom the Adjutant had discovered under the "Z" shaped hedge. All these movements had to be carried out with great care, as any visible activity at once drew fire from the Chateau.
This Chateau Major Dyer Bennet now decided to attack, and soon after 9.0 a.m. a party consisting of No. 1 Platoon and some Frenchmen set off under the Adjutant to do so. Cpl. Shilton and a few men were sent through some gardens to engage the enemy on their right flank; the Lewis gun, under Cpl. Thompson, went through the woods to try and attack the buildings from the rear; the Frenchmen advancing still further into the woods, protected the left flank. Cpl. Thompson's party were soon engaged. They had pushed forward rapidly for about 50 yards when suddenly Pte. Underwood, who was leading, jumped behind a tree and fired. Nine Boches seemed to come out of the ground almost at our feet, and for a few minutes there was some lively fighting around the trees. The Germans managed to kill Pte. Blythe, a very old soldier of the Battalion, and then made off, leaving one wounded man behind them. This little fight had given the alarm to the party in the Chateau, and though Cpl. Thompson pushed forward with great courage it was too late to catch them, and we entered the house and grounds without further opposition. The fall of the Chateau enabled the remainder of "A" Company to advance and occupy the edge of the wood, which they at once did, putting out several posts round the buildings. The Adjutant's party then returned to Battalion Headquarters which had been left very weak during the attack. Soon afterwards, as the situation now seemed fairly satisfactory the wounded prisoner was sent down under the 4th Leic. Lewis Gun Section, who were no longer required.
At 10-0 a.m. we were just considering the possibility of pushing forward still further when a sudden burst of machine gun fire, sweeping low over our positions, drove us to cover. The French had apparently been counter-attacked out of Retheuil and Forte Farms and the Boche from these new positions overlooked us completely. Under cover of this fire a strong hostile counter-attack was launched against the Chateau, and "A" Company were once more driven back to the road, leaving several men prisoners behind them. But the road too was now overlooked and, though sunken, was no protection, so that, unable to stay in it, they moved to a small bank on the W. side of it and dug in there. 2nd Lieut. Edwards was wounded and sent down, and the Company was commanded by 2nd Lieut. Dennis. At Headquarters, L/Cpl. Exton, who had just arrived with a message from "B" Company, was killed and a stretcher-bearer badly wounded. Capt. Jack, the M.O. went off to tend the latter, and was himself badly hit in the body; another stretcher-bearer was hit trying to get to him, and for a short time he had to be left. A few minutes later the enemy's fire slackened; the M.O. was carried away, and, though he lived to reach the Ambulance, died there in the evening. Captain Jack had been with us just a year, and we felt very keenly the loss of his cheerful presence at Battalion Headquarters, for he was one of those men who were never depressed, and even in the worst of places and at the worst of times used to keep us happy.
The Adjutant now went back again to the old Farm House to see if he could find out what had happened to the other two Companies. The 4th Leicestershires had been relieved, and the 5th South Staffordshires had taken over the Farm and were now preparing to relieve us in the line if possible. Captain Salter was there from Brigade Headquarters and undertook to send relief orders to the Left half Battalion, whose position was now known.
Meanwhile the South Staffordshires moved up to the copse whence "B" Company had started, and a Company occupied the line along the bottom of the "Z" hedge to the "wall and corner" position—i.e., about 200 yards behind the line held by Battalion Headquarters and "A" Company. The relief of the Left half Battalion, though difficult, was carried out in daylight, and was complete by 11-30 a.m., largely owing to the energy of the Staffordshire Company Commanders. Crossing the crest by the group of houses was by no means an easy matter, and both relievers and relieved had to crawl through the scrub, in which 2nd Lieut. F.G. Taylor of "C" Company did particularly good work, while for "D" Company C.S.M. Cooper worked magnificently. Three Platoon Serjeants had become casualties and this Warrant Officer did all their work himself, rendering invaluable assistance to his Company Commander.
The relief of Battalion Headquarters and the Right half Battalion was impossible during daylight, and the G.O.C. 137th Infantry Brigade took over the command of the line as soon as our "C" and "D" Companies were relieved, while the rest of our Brigade moved back into billets at Fresnoy le Grand; we were to follow when relieved. Meanwhile, arrangements were being made for some Artillery and Tank support, and it was proposed to try a further advance during the afternoon. At the same time the Chateau was recaptured from us, the position on the edge of the wood had become so badly enfiladed that the Headquarters moved out and started to dig a new line in the open, where, as the Staffordshires were holding the "wall and corner" position, we were fairly safe. About mid-day, however, as the enemy had become quieter, we returned once more to the edge of the wood. It was never very comfortable in this isolated position, but Lieut. Ashdowne and R.S.M. Lovett showed the most wonderful coolness, and were continually out looking for new positions or watching the flanks. At 2-0 p.m. the Staffordshires received orders that they would have the help of two Tanks for their attack, which would start at 4-0 p.m. from the isolated copse. At about 3-0 p.m. the enemy again started to enfilade our wood position so badly, that for the last time we decided to leave it and came back to our line in the open, which we deepened as quickly as possible; it was hard work as the men had to dig with their entrenching tools as they lay flat. We had not, however, been long in this position before the Staffordshires behind us withdrew to form up for the attack, and, though the party at the "Z" hedge remained, the other party left the "wall and corner" unprotected. Meanwhile, thinking that, if not relieved soon, we should be surrounded from the right flank, Major Dyer Bennet went back to reconnoitre some deep short lengths of trenches about 100 yards in rear, deciding that if the attack did not prove successful he would bring Battalion Headquarters back into them.