1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (1915)
The first days of 1915 were notable, so far as Regimental officers and men were concerned, for the opening of short leave to England. Not since the Peninsular days had it been customary for leave home to be given to troops on active service, and the idea was so novel, to officers and men alike, as to be received with strangely mingled feelings. To many brought up in the old school of duty to their Regiment it seemed little better than absolute desertion to proceed on leave when their Battalion—their Company or Platoon—was going into the trenches, into danger. In January that feeling was general, and the first batches to proceed on leave were almost shamefaced as they left their billets. Later the feeling wore off, and leave home was accepted as part of the nature of that strange new warfare.
During January the weather steadily grew worse. The 2nd Battalion in reserve billets at Vieille Chapelle or at Gorre did not experience the worst of the ordeal, but the 1st Battalion still facing Neuve Chapelle suffered severely. By January 13th most of the trenches held by the 8th Division were three feet deep in water, and it was then decided temporarily to abandon the greater part of the trench line and to convert the parados into a breastwork. That was done, and behind the scanty cover afforded by a sandbag breastwork officers and men crouched in the pouring rain. Had the enemy been aggressive, or had their artillery been minded to shell that flimsy cover, the casualties must have been heavy; but the Germans were probably in similar plight and contented themselves with a sniping fire which caused but little loss (January 12th, one killed, 4 wounded. January 13th, three killed, three wounded. January 14th, five killed, six wounded. January 15th, three wounded).
Captain C. F. G. Crawford and Sgt. C. Turton (Breakfast time !)
From that date onwards until the beginning of March the 1st Worcestershire and the 2nd Northamptonshire alternately held that same line of trenches. 1st Battalion casualties during the period of occupation of "B" lines, facing Neuve Chapelle — December 19th-30th, three killed, 22 wounded. December 31st—January 31st, 28 killed, one officer (H. Fitz M. Stacke) and 60 other ranks wounded. February 1st to 28th, 12 killed, 25 wounded. March 1st-4th, 2 killed, 4 wounded. Total, December 19th—March 4th, 45 killed, 111 wounded.
The weather slowly improved. Gradually the trenches were pumped more or less dry, and bit by bit they were reoccupied. Nothing occurred of any noteworthy importance, except perhaps the early morning salute fired at 5 a.m. on the Kaiser's birthday (27th January) when for some five minutes every available gun and rifle in the British line rained shot and shell upon the German trenches. That salute was presumably an unpleasant five minutes for the Germans, but it was not without its disadvantages from the point of view of the Battalion, since a new and raw field battery in their rear bombarded our own trenches as freely as those of the enemy: Luckily no casualties resulted.
During the first days of March 1915 the trenches in front of Neuve Chapelle were held by the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, in preparation for the attack at Neuve Chapelle.
THE BATTLE OF AUBERS RIDGE
After four days in billets at Sailly, on the banks of the Lys, the 1st Worcestershire (The Battalion had been strengthened on the 27th April 1915, by a draft of 2 officers and 137 other ranks) fell in at 10.50 p.m. on the night of May 8th and marched forward to the assembly positions for the attack. The night was fine and warm with a bright star-light. By 1.30 a.m. of the 9th the units of the 24th Brigade were in their selected positions. The 2nd East Lancashire were in front line and behind them the Sherwood Foresters. To the right rear of the Foresters lay the 1st Worcestershire, half the Battalion close up by the Layes brook and half some four hundred yards to the rear. All three battalions were accommodated in roughly dug assembly trenches. The fourth battalion of the Brigade, the 2nd Northamptonshire, were some distance to the right, their role being to make a subsidiary attack from a small orchard against the German salient to the southward of the main front of attack. Orders were that as soon as the East Lancashire had attacked, the Foresters were to occupy the front-line trenches, their place in turn being taken by the Worcestershire. Then the Foresters would go forward and the Worcestershire would follow.
At 5 a.m. on a fine clear morning the British artillery opened fire. In a few minutes it became clear that neither the accuracy of the bombardment nor its effectiveness was at all comparable to that at Neuve Chapelle. British shells faultily timed struck around the assembly positions of the British assaulting battalions, whilst a continuous fire of machine-guns and musketry from the enemy positions showed that the German defences were not dominated.
At 5.40 a.m. the bombardment died down and the leading battalions advanced to the assault. The 1st Battalion Foresters moved forward to the front line and the two leading companies of the Worcestershire ("B" and "D") began to file into their vacated trenches, ready to follow them up. At the same time the rear half battalion ("A" and "C" Companies) advanced by rushes across the open to the forward trenches.
Aubers Ridge (9th May 1915)
Almost at once it was apparent that all was not going well. In actual fact the attack of the East Lancashire had been stopped dead. The German defences had been scarcely damaged by the bombardment, their protecting wire entanglements had not been cut, and from concealed embrasures in the parapet their rifles and machine-guns opened an annihilating fire. After heavy losses, the survivors of the 2nd Battalion East Lancashire fell back to their original front line. The Foresters tried to pass through them but were likewise beaten back. The two battalions became hopelessly intermixed and disorganised, and crowded the front trenches, blocking the path of the Worcestershire who, in pursuance of their orders, were trying to push forward up the communication trenches. Into the midst of that confusion crashed the German shells, while rifle and machine-gun bullets swept all open ground. By 7 a.m. the whole attack was at a standstill and casualties were rapidly increasing.
Messages were sent back, and at 9 a.m. the British artillery again opened a bombardment, no more accurate or effective than before. The three battalions of the 24th Brigade struggled to reform and move forward, but the trenches were choked with wounded and it was impossible to pass along them.
Efforts were made to get out of the trenches and to rush forward across the open. Several brave officers and N.C.O's. led such attempts. But all were shot down. The trenches in which the attacking troops were crowded formed a sort of salient, and were swept by fire not only from the front but also from the left flank.
For three hours the intermixed battalions struggled in the crowded trenches. Hour by hour the German artillery fire increased in intensity; for the real point of attack had at first been concealed by simultaneous demonstrations elsewhere along the front: as no attack developed at those other threatened points the more distant guns switched their fire on to the actual battle front.
Midday passed and the German gun-fire rose to intensity. Meanwhile preparations had been made for another attack and at 12.50 p.m. Lieut.-Colonel Grogan received orders that at 1.30 p.m. his Battalion, supported by the Foresters, should assault the German lines.
Colonel Grogan made such preparations as were possible to carry out his orders. At the same time he reported that he considered it impossible for the assault to succeed. The intermixture and confusion of battalions prevented any concerted and sudden advance over the parapet and the enemy's defence was only too clearly unbroken. As he wrote down that report the British artillery again opened fire and once again our own shells struck around our own trenches, inflicting heavy loss and ruining the last hopes of launching a successful attack. Ten minutes later (at 1.15 p.m.) the enemy's artillery, as if forewarned of the plan, redoubled their fire, especially from the left flank, where the attack of the 25th Brigade had similarly failed. After considering the situation Colonel Grogan took upon himself the responsibility of countermanding the assault: an action which higher authority subsequently approved. Later in the afternoon the East Lancashire, partially reorganised, were moved along the front-line breastworks towards the orchard, whence the 2nd Northamptonshire had attacked gallantly but had been virtually annihilated. It then became possible for the Worcestershire at last to reach the front breastworks.
Throughout the afternoon the situation remained unchanged. The stretch of open ground in rear made it impossible to withdraw the troops from the forward trenches, and they remained crowded amid the dead and wounded under a continuous bombardment - C.G. 24th Brigade Diary.—"At intervals during the afternoon, reports were received, from our infantry and artillery observing officers as well, that our shells were dropping short. Re-organisation of battalions took place as far as was possible under the continuous shell-fire."
At last darkness came on and the remnants of the 24th Brigade were withdrawn, except the 1st Worcestershire, which alone of the four battalions remained in good order. The Battalion was left to hold the defensive line and all night long worked hard, rebuilding the battered parapets and succouring the wounded who crowded the trenches. The attack, so boldly planned, had completely failed.
The cause of the failure had been underestimation of the strength of the German defensive line (profiting by the lesson of Neuve Chapelle, the Germans had greatly strengthened their parapets, and their defensive wire. Throughout the day their rifle and machine-gun fire was never quenched) and of the weight of artillery fire necessary to breach it. The result was an appalling casualty roll. The four battalions of the 24th Brigade lost more than 1,600 officers and men : the losses of the 1st Worcestershire were over 200 -- One officer (Captain R. J. Ford) and 31 other ranks killed. Four officers (Lieut. R. C. Wynter, 2/Lieuts. L. Garratt, C. B. Phillips and A. F. Birch-Jones) and 185 other ranks wounded, 8 reported missing.
During the ensuing twenty-four hours the 1st Worcestershire remained in the front line under, continuous shell-fire, labouring to repair the defences.
In front of the parapets the open ground was thickly strewn with dead and wounded of the East Lancashire and Sherwood Foresters. The wounded were in desperate plight, for the heavy firing which continued until nightfall on May 9th made it impossible for any help to reach them, and even after dark the work of the rescue parties was difficult. The enemy were on the alert against any renewal of the attack and bursts of fire continued intermittently throughout the hours of darkness. Many of the wounded were brought in before dawn but the daylight of May 10th showed many more still lying out between the trenches, signalling pitifully for help. Volunteers made their way out from the trenches and dragged back such as they could reach. Corporal E. Frazier and Private J. Williams showed the utmost bravery, going out again and again into the open under heavy fire. Between them they brought eleven wounded men into safety. Later in the day Corporal Frazier and Private Williams worked forward again across the open to reconnoitre an abandoned saphead into which they thought some wounded might have made their way. They found the saphead packed with wounded, who had dragged themselves there for safety. With the aid of Lance-Corporal H. Johnston and others they succeeded in getting back into safety no fewer than 80 disabled men (Pte. Williams were awarded the D.C.M. and Corpl. Frazier a bar to his D.C.M.).
After dark on 11th May 1915 the 1st Worcestershire were relieved by the Scottish Rifles and Middlesex of the 23rd Brigade, and withdrew from the trenches without further loss to rejoin the 24th Brigade in billets at Laventie. A big draft (92 N.C.O's and men) arrived to replace the casualties and on May 13th the Battalion diary recorded that "all deficiences were made up and the Battalion ready for action again." Failure had not affected the spirit of the Regiment.
The 1st Battalion played a comparatively passive role after the 9th of May. The limited supply of ammunition available made it impossible for the British forces to continue the attack north of Neuve Chapelle as well as that in the Festubert area; and the troops of the 8th Division had to content themselves with holding their own front and listening to the thunder of the guns further south.
On the evening of May 15th the 24th Brigade moved forward from their billets at Laventie and relieved the 146th Brigade at Neuve Chapelle. The line taken over was the identical position held by the 24th Brigade at the close of the battle on March 13th. It was now known as "C" Lines, the principal tactical feature being the ruined house around which the Sherwood Foresters and Captain Arden's company had fought. That heap of ruins, some 150 yards in front of the general line and connected to it by a communication trench formed a curious little salient known by that time as "The Duck's Bill." Around that salient sniping and bombing were almost continuous, but the rest of the new line was fairly quiet. Towards the southward the bombardment around Festubert could clearly be heard, but at Neuve Chapelle itself there was little activity beyond continuous shelling by the heavy artillery of both sides.
Thenceforward till the middle of June 1915 the 1st Worcestershire remained in trenches at Neuve Chapelle or in billets behind that sector of the front. Apart from a steady toll of casualties there were few notable incidents.
Casualties 1st Worcestershire :—May 15th-20th, 4 killed, 14 wounded. May 31st—June 17th, 3 killed, 22 wounded, in addition on June 12th three officers (Lieut. E. B. Conybeare, 2/Lieut. T. G. Stokes and 2/Lieut. F. Faulkner Lee) were wounded by a "minenwerfer" which burst outside their dugout. From May 20th till May 31st the Battalion lay in reserve at Laventie and La Gorgue. After that date the Battalion took over trenches on the right of those previously held between Neuve Chapelle village and the Bois du Biez, and held those trenches till June.