1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (1918)
WINTER AT PASSCHENDAELE
At the start of 1918 the 1st Battalions of the Regiment journeyed up to the Passchendaele Ridge and back again to camps around Ypres as the Divisions exchanged positions in regular succession throughout January and February. The 1st Battalions passed short periods among the shell-holes in the front line, followed and preceded by periods of heavy work at labour camps in the Salient and periods of rest and reorganisation in other camps west of Ypres.
From the 1st to 4th January 1918 the 1st Battalion were at "Brake Camp," Vlamertinghe. On the 4th January the Battalion moved to "Junction Camp," St. Jean and remained there until the 6th January.
The 1st Battalion were then in front line from the 6th to 9th January. In support positions at Bellevue from January 9th to 12th. Battalion casualties January 6th to 12th were 15 wounded.
On the 12th January they moved back to "Brake Camp" and on the 15th January moved again to "California Camp," at Wieltje. On the 17th the Battalion moved back to rest at Poperinghe, where they remained until the 26th.
During the first fortnight of January the weather was very cold with much snow, but on January 15th came a change. Rain and bitter sleet with a driving wind brought an extreme of misery. The frozen ground melted into slush, the duck-boards were obliterated and tracks were lost in the swamps. Hostilities almost ceased, and for a week there was but little fighting on the Passchendaele Ridge, Then gradually the weather improved, sniping and shelling were resumed and both sides attempted minor trench-raids.
Before dawn on February 13th the forward posts of the 1st Worcestershire, then in line north of Tournant Farm, were raided by the enemy. Two posts just north of the Farm were rushed by German storming parties, amid a storm of firing. Firing continued until the dawn: then the company commander, 2/Lieut. S. G. Russell, was able to ascertain the situation. He collected men from other posts, organised and led an immediate counter-attack and recovered the lost ground. Casualties:—1 killed, 3 wounded, 3 missing. 2/Lieut. Russell was awarded the M.C.
A second enemy raid was attempted ten days later (night February 24th/25th), but the raiders were detected and repulsed.
A week later the 8th Division was withdrawn into reserve. The plan of defence against the expected German attack demanded the creation of a reserve of specially trained formations. The 8th Division was among those selected, and the 1st Worcestershire moved back on March 5th out of the Salient by train from Wieltje to Abeele. Thence the Battalion marched to Watou and there settled down to a course of hard training.
Wieltje area map 1918
Counter attack at Pargny (23rd March 1918)
The first sign of the great German attack which reached the 1st Worcestershire at Moringhem had been an urgent warning order on March 21st that all units of the 24th Brigade were to be ready to move at five hours notice. All arrangements for a rapid move had already been worked out, and when definite orders came that evening (at 6 p.m.) everything was ready. Next morning the 1st Worcestershire marched to St. Omer and at midday entrained for the front.
The troop train carried the Battalion southwards to the Somme area. Night had fallen before the train reached Amiens; thence after a short delay the journey was continued eastwards to Nesle. At 2.30 a.m. on March 23rd the train reached Nesle Station. The troops detrained and assembled in the darkness. An apprehensive R.T.O. gave such information as he possessed, together with a telegraphic order from XIXth Corps Headquarters. Those orders were issued to the Brigade direct by XIXth Corps, as 8th Division Headquarters were not yet established. The orders were for the 8th Division to take up a defensive position along the River Somme from Bethencourt to Brie. The information was sufficiently alarming. The Fifth Army was said to be in disorderly retreat: the strength and the nearness of the advancing enemy were alike unknown but distant firing could be heard.
Neither Divisional nor Brigade Headquarters had as yet arrived. The three battalions of the 24th Brigade, were assembled by their respective commanders and marched northwards through the darkness to Epenancourt. Thence the three battalions took up position as best they could in the darkness, the 1st Worcestershire deploying to the right as far as Pargny, the 2nd Battalion Northamptonshire deploying to the left, and the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters continuing the northern flank of the Brigade past Cizancourt to the bridge at St. Christ. The 1st Foresters were commanded temporarily by a brilliant young officer of the Worcestershire, Captain (acting Lieut.-Colonel) T. H. Watson, son of Colonel R. J. Watson of the Regiment. Although only 25 years of age he commanded the battalion most successfully until his death in the operations about to be described. Major (acting Lieut.-Colonel) F. C. Roberts, commanding the 1st Worcestershire, was only eighteen months older.
At dawn the troops entrenched as best they could on the slopes above the river. The eastern horizon was lit up by gun-flashes. Straggling troops and fleeing country-folk came herding back across the bridges, bringing reports of the enemy's advance. Orders came that the line of the river must be held at all costs.
During the morning (March 23rd) the troops dug themselves into cover along the river banks. Eastward the sound of gun-fire could already be heard, coming nearer and ever nearer. During the day some troops of the 23rd Brigade came up and prolonged the line to the right of the 1st Worcestershire. The roads in front became congested with a confused rabble of retreating troops and country-folk.
Soon after midday the gun-fire sounded nearer, and bursting shrapnel gave warning that the enemy was at hand. To ensure the safe withdrawal of the retreating troops in front, Major (acting Lieut.-Colonel) F. C. Roberts led "A" and "B" Companies of the 1st Worcestershire across the river and established a bridge-head position on the high ground east of Falvy.
Pargny, 23rd March 1918
About 2.0 p.m. the retreating battalions of the Fifth Army began to come through the line of the 24th Brigade. Mostly they were North-Country troops of the 50th Division, but other troops were intermingled. In spite of their long ordeal of fighting and marching they were still in good heart, but men and munitions alike were exhausted. Many were wounded and all were desperately weary. They stumbled through the protective line, and went on as best they could to reorganise in the open country behind.
Hard on the heels of the retreating troops followed the pursuing Germans. They closed in upon the rearguard of the 50th Division and would have cut them off had not Major Roberts' little force been at hand. The two Worcestershire companies opened fire, checked the pursuit and enabled the rearguard to withdraw. Major Roberts held his ground until the last of the 50th Division had crossed the river. Then he withdrew his platoons, evacuated Falvy, and blew up the river bridges. The bridges had previously been prepared for demolition. Actually at Pargny the demolition, as we shall see, was not completely effective. The enemy vanguard followed slowly, and shots were exchanged across the river before darkness fell.
The night was unquiet, with intermittent gun-fire and constant sniping shots across the river. The 1st Worcestershire—some five hundred fighting men in all were deployed in a line of small defensive posts from Pargny to north of Epenancourt. The front held was too wide to permit of any large reserve. About 8 p.m. Major Roberts went along the line of posts from north to south. On reaching a small post some six hundred yards north of Pargny village (Point (A) on the map) he was told that the enemy had gained the village: that post had been shot at from the northernmost houses: the posts nearer to Pargny had ceased to fire and must have been destroyed.
Major Roberts realised at once that the battalion supposed to be on his right flank must have gone back; realised also that the wrecked bridge at Pargny must still be passable, and that unless the village could be recaptured there was nothing to prevent the enemy from advancing in the darkness and rolling-up the Brigade from the right. He determined upon an immediate counter-attack.
In about twenty minutes Major Roberts had assembled all his available reserve, some 45 N.C.O's. and men. He led them by covered approaches to an assembly position west of the village (Point (B) on the map) and thence along the sunken lane to the cross-roads at the village's south-western exit (Point (c) on the map). There, sheltering behind a broken-down cottage, he gave whispered orders.
Success depended on the moral effect of sudden surprise in the dark by a determined attack: the bulk of his little force would charge straight down the village street (Road (B)—(D) on the map): two small flanking parties, ten men each under trusted N.C.O's., would work down the" outer side of the houses to head off fugitives. At about 9 p.m. all was ready.
"We started off," wrote Major Roberts, "with fixed bayonets and magazines loaded. For the first hundred yards or so we went in two parties in single file on each side of the main road, at the walk and as quietly as possible. The first sign I had of the enemy was some shouting from houses we were passing, and then both machine-gun and rifle-fire (very wild) from windows and doors,- with small parties dashing into the streets and clearing off in the direction of the bridge. Once this started we all went hell-for-leather up the street, firing at anything we saw and using the bayonet in many cases. Every man screamed and cheered as hard as he well could, and by the time we reached the Church the village was in an uproar—Bosches legging it hard for the bridge or else chucking their hands up. In the Churchyard itself the hardest fighting took place — tombstones being used as if in a game of' hide-and-seek.' After clearing it we had a few moments rest and then went smack through to the bridge, where a crowd of Bosche were trying to scramble across: some did and some didn't. That more or less ended it..., The two flank parties did extremely well as regards turning runaways into us, and increasing the general confusion; which as a matter of fact went far to helping us get the village. We actually captured six light machine-guns and fifteen to twenty prisoners, and killed about eighty Our own losses were heavy "
The success of that swift counter-stroke must partly be attributed to good fortune, for it is clear that the German vanguard—weary, doubtless, after their long advance—had been lulled by the weakness of the previous opposition into neglect of all ordinary precautions; but the boldness of the scheme, the quickness of the plan and the reckless courage of the attack all make that little fight worthy to be remembered by the Regiment as an example of what can be achieved by pluck against odds. That brilliant counter-attack, together with his brave leading in the days which followed, earned for Major Roberts the Victoria Cross.
After the recapture of Pargny the front of the 1st Worcestershire remained unchanged through-out the night; but dawn showed the situation to be serious. In front the enemy were massing in strength; away to the left the Sherwood Foresters were with difficulty holding back fierce onslaughts at St. Christ; on the right flank the 24th Division had retreated. The enemy had crossed the river at Bethencourt and were entering Morchain.
Major Roberts withdrew the right flank of his Battalion from Pargny and wheeled the companies back into position facing south-east on the heights behind Epenancourt. Thence they were able to sweep with fire the open slopes north of Morchain. For a time the enemy were checked; but the troops of the 24th Division further south continued to retreat. Before dusk the Germans had gained Dreslincourt and were close to Pertain.
All night long heavy fighting continued to the southward, and the sound of firing worked further round the right flank of the Battalion. At dawn it was clear that the outer flank was nearly encircled. Withdrawal was inevitable, and in the first light of March 25th the 1st Worcestershire and 2nd Northamptonshire fell back across the open through Licourt, and took up a new position along the railway embankment behind Marchelepot. The withdrawal was made in good order, the companies retiring in succession, covering each other by fire.
In their new position the two battalions were in touch with other troops on the right holding Omiecourt; but a gap was opened by the withdrawal between the left flank of the Northamptonshire and the right of the Sherwood Foresters. The Foresters had made a wonderful defence of the crossing at St. Christ. Even when thus isolated they continued to hold their ground for some time longer; but presently they fell back to the railway near Misery and rejoined the Brigade.
The position on the railway embankment was held until long after dark. Shortly before midnight came orders for another retirement: the 24th Brigade would withdraw to Ablaincourt. In the darkness the companies assembled and tramped back to the new position. Before dawn they were ensconced in a line of half-ruined trenches—the very trenches which the 61st Division had held in the spring of 1917. The trencheswhich the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions of the Regiment had been holding at the beginning of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, Casualties of the 1/Worcestershire had included;—March 23rd—Killed—Lt. J. E. T. Haynes, wounded—Lt. G. L. Roberts, 2/Lt. B. C. Lovick. March 24th—Killed—Capt. M. Warren, wounded—Capt. J. A. Smithin, Lts. T. M. Camochan and J. Potter, 2/Lts. J. Robinson, W. Hipkiss, H. F. Wilkins, W. H. Varlow and L. D. Faulk.
The 24th Brigade was reorganised. Several additional battalions had come under the orders of the Brigade during the previous twenty-four hours. The 6th Durham Light Infantry were now on the right of the 1st Worcestershire. The 2nd Northamptonshire were still on the Battalion's left flank. Further to the left the line was prolonged by troops of the 50th Division. Behind the line the remnant of the 1st Sherwood Foresters lay as a reserve.
At dawn on March 26th the enemy came on in force against the new position but were beaten back by the fire of the defence. Further south, however, the line gave way and at 10.0 a.m. came orders for the 8th Division to fall back once more, to a position at Rosieres. That village would be held by the 23rd Brigade with the 24th Brigade on their right.
To reach the new position the 24th Brigade had to move south-westward, a matter of difficulty since already the enemy's troops were in ruined Chaulnes on the right flank; nevertheless the withdrawal was successfully made by a devious route past Lihons, and by 3.30 p.m. the new position had been taken up. The defensive line lay along the shallow valley which runs up towards Rosieres from the eastern outskirts of Meharicourt. Already some half-dug trenches marked the new line, and the 20th Entrenching Battalion, which had been digging those trenches, came into line on the right flank of the Brigade. The 2nd Northamptonshire had crossed the track of the 1st Worcestershire during the retirement and were now on the right flank. The left flank of the Worcestershire was close to the Sugar Factory, which was held by a group of machine-gunners and other details. North of the Sugar Factory the line was continued by the 23rd Brigade under Colonel Grogan.
At dusk strong forces of the enemy could be seen advancing across the open country towards Meharicourt. During the night patrols of the enemy pushed forward, and firing was constant, while with desperate haste the entrenchments of the defence were deepened and strengthened.
That night the weary troops were heartened by an order which came down the line that this new position must be held at all costs. "The Corps Commander," ran the words, "looks to all ranks to make one more supreme effort and maintain to the last the magnificent fighting qualities and endurance already displayed throughout the battle. Every man who is able to retire is equally able to use his rifle or bayonet and will therefore maintain his place in the line until relieved."
1st battalion Worcestershire Regiment Officers and Sergeants (March 1918)
THE BATTLE OF ROSIERES
Dawn of March 27th showed dense waves of the enemy pouring forward over the open slope beyond Meharicourt. All along the line guns and rifles opened fire, and under the rain of shells and bullets the first and second waves of the enemy dwindled and came to a halt; but a third wave carried forward their survivors and surged up against the British trenches. The rapid fire of the Worcestershire and the Northamptonshire withered the attack on their front, but on the right the half-trained Entrenching Battalion gave way, and the Durhams also were forced back. A critical situation was saved by the Sherwood Foresters, who came up from the rear and by a brilliant counterattack re-established the line. The Germans fell back behind the road which runs from Rosieres to Meharicourt, leaving the open slope west of the road strewn thick with their dead.
After that repulse the enemy made no further attempt to storm the trenches of the 24th Brigade, but heavy firing continued throughout the day across the little valley. During the day most gallant work was done by Sergt. E. Joseph, in charge of the Battalion Signallers. Under intense fire of shells and bullets he repeatedly worked along the telephone lines repairing breaks and maintaining communication throughout the battle: he was awarded the D.C.M. During the days fighting Captain G. A. Sheppard was wounded, and the Commanding Officer, Major (acting Lieut.-Colonel) F. C. Roberts was also hit. When Major Roberts was compelled to go back to hospital the Adjutant, Captain W. C. Stevens was left in command. Other casualties of the 1/Worcestershire during March 26th—28th included the following officers wounded—Lieuts. L. G. Bradfield, A. K. Whitehurst, H. Simpson and D. McCrellin, 2/Lts. S. G. Russell, F. G. Lee and B. M. Klear.
On the left the 23rd Brigade, after very heavy fighting around Rosieres Station, had also held their line. For his gallant conduct on this day gained Colonel Grogan, then commanding the 23rd Brigade, a bar to his D.S.O. The 8th Division had everywhere stood firm, but to north and south the position was not so satisfactory. On the south the enemy had gained some ground, but far more serious was the situation on the northern flank. The right flank of the British Third Army, north of the River Somme had swung back a long way further than the left flank of the Fifth Army south of that River, and the enemy, working up the line of the river, were already beginning to envelop the left flank of the Fifth Army's position.
As a result, orders were issued for a fresh retirement, to a line facing north-eastward along the southern bank o.f the River de Luce which runs through Vrely and Caix. That latter village was already occupied by a French battalion, and the 24th Brigade fell back into line with the French troops in the early hours of March 28th. On their right the 17th Brigade held Vrely.
Vrely, however, now formed a sharp salient, and about midday a strong enemy attack broke through the line at that point and overwhelmed the defenders. The 24th Brigade narrowly escaped being surrounded, but after severe fighting the Brigade succeeded in wheeling back into a new position running due south from Caix. There was a good line of old trenches, well wired, and the dogged survivors of the Brigade prepared to make a desperate resistance; but, before any strong enemy attack developed, orders came to retreat again, this time right back into reserve. French troops had come up in sufficient numbers to allow some rest to the exhausted British battalions. A new line was being established through Mezifores and Demuin. That position was held by the 20th Division, with French troops on its right flank. Behind that line the 8th Division would reorganise.
That final retirement began about 3.0 p.m. Falling back by alternate companies, the battalions of the 24th Brigade eventually shook off their pursuers, passed through the outpost line of the French near Mezieres and reached Moreuil in the beautiful wooded valley of the River Avre. After a short rest the march was continued across the river to Rouvrel, where the 1st Worcestershire found billets.
Six days of incessant fighting, marching and digging had left the survivors of the Battalion utterly exhausted, and throughout the twenty-four hours which followed officers and men slept like logs. Throughout that period conspicuous good work had been done by the Brigade Signalling Officer, Captain C. V. W. Court, who had shown the greatest pluck and devotion to duty. He was awarded a bar to his M.C., as was also the Adjutant of the Battalion, Captain W. C. Stevens. After dark on May 29th they were roused, and marched as best they could to join the rest of the 24th Brigade further back in billets at Jumel.
The German attack on March 30th and the resulting loss of Demuin shook the whole front south of the Somme, and the exhausted troops of the 8th Division had to be called upon for a further effort. Early that morning orders were sent to the battalions of the 8th Division to be prepared to move forward to the line, and at 6.0 a.m. the 24th Brigade assembled in the streets of Jumel. The three battalions (1st Worcestershire, 2nd Northamptonshire, and 1st Sherwood Foresters) now mustered altogether not more than a thousand bayonets, and twenty-four hours of rest had hardly enabled them to shake off the effects of their six-days' battle ; but the Brigade was still full of fight and marched off, first northward to Remiencourt and then eastward to the Sencat Wood. The enemy's thrust at Demuin had been followed by another further south against Moreuil. There the 2nd Cavalry Division were being hard pressed.
Throughout that day the 1st Worcestershire lay in reserve on the edge of the Sencat Wood, listening to the heavy firing and watching the smoke of burning Moreuil rising above the trees in front. After dark came orders to move forward across the River Avre and relieve the cavalry. The Brigade crossed the river at Castel and advanced up the slope to Moreuil Wood. The Worcestershire were detailed as Brigade Reserve and took over reserve trenches in the valley west of the Wood from dismounted troops of the 16th Lancers and 4th Hussars. The other battalions of the Brigade went forward to the eastern side of the wood.
1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (2 Companies) defensive position 31st march 1918
Next morning (March 31st) a strong German attack broke through the troops north of Moreuil Wood and captured Hill 110 together with the small wood on that hillock's western face. The 1st Worcestershire formed a defensive flank with two companies from the wood to the river and held that line until a counter-attack late in the afternoon by the 2nd Royal Berkshire retook the wood and the hill. The neck of trees between the Small Wood and the Main Wood was still held by the enemy, and the position of the two flanking companies of the Worcestershire was readjusted to face that belt of trees.
Throughout the 1st of April the position stayed unchanged. That night French troops (French 133rd Division) came up through Castel and took over the line. After relief, the 24th Brigade marched back to Dommartin, where all slept soundly till the following midday. Then the march was resumed to Vaux-en-Amienois. There busses were waiting, which carried the remnant of the Brigade back out of the battle area. Late in the evening of April 2nd the Battalion debussed at Hangest, and
lay there for three days, enjoying a well deserved rest. During those operations, from March 23rd till April 2nd, the 1st Worcestershire lost in all 19 officers (2 killed, 16 wounded, 1 missing) and 404 N.C.O's. and men (reported as 24 killed, 180 wounded, 200 missing), out of a previous fighting strength of 31 officers and 737 N.C.O's. and men.
The great German offensive had spent its force by the last day of March: on April 5th the last attack died away, and the enemy's advance came to an end. The British Third and Fifth Armies had been driven back twenty miles with immense loss of casualties, prisoners, stores and guns. At the time those losses blinded the judgment not only of the Regimental officers and men but also of the spectators at home. The great battle was regarded as a disaster, the greatest British disaster in history. Nowadays, at long last, the struggle may be regarded in a truer perspective.
"Contrary to the-generally accepted verdict," writes Mr. Churchill, "I hold that the Germans, judged by the hard test of gains and losses, were decisively defeated." The British Armies had retreated, but they had lost neither their cohesion nor their fighting spirit. The German Armies had advanced, but they had gained no decisive result, and they had paid for their advance by casualties far exceeding those of their antagonists. "They lost for the first time in the war, or at any rate since Ypres in 1914, two soldiers killed for every one British and three officers killed for every two British".
That toll had been exacted by the stubborn defence of the British battalions, by the devotion of the many brave men who fought to the death in the forward trenches, shooting down the best troops of the enemy before they themselves were overwhelmed. The "shock-troops," the picked soldiers of the German Armies, had been sacrificed to break the British defence; and in that unbroken defence the Battalions of our Regiment had played their part. The 3rd Battalion at Morchies, the 10th Battalion at Doignies, the Pioneers at Courcelette, the 1st Battalion at. Pargny and at Rosieres, all alike had held back the advancing enemy and had inflicted losses far in excess of their own strength; but, when all those brave Battalions have been given their due, it is the memory of the 2/8th Worcestershire at St. Qucntin that is most worthy of honour—the memory of that gallant little band who, without thought of retreat or hope of relief, held "Ellis Redoubt" to the last through eight long hours against overwhelming odds, and by their sacrifice helped to purchase our final victory.
OPERATIONS IN PICARDY
In Flanders the enemy's offensive had spent its force by the end of April; but before that month was out the German forces in Picardy made a final effort against the British line near Amiens.
East of Amiens the little town of Villers Bretonneux stands on the high ground which separates the valley of the River Luce from that of the Somme. On the western side of Villers Bretonneux is a large wood, the Bois de l'Abbe, of which the eastern and the western offshoots are called respectively the Bois d'Aquenne and the Bois de Blangy.
Before the Somme offensive of 1916 Villers Bretonneux had been in the front line of the French defences. The German offensive in March had driven the Allied forces back to within a mile of the village. There a new front line had been established, the old 1916'trenches serving as a support position.
Up to that sector in the middle of April came the 8th Division, including the 1st Worcestershire. Till then the Battalion had lain in the valley of the Somme, some ten miles west of Amiens, first at Hangest (2nd—7th April) and then at Soyes (7th—12th), resting and refitting after the hard fighting of the previous month.
On April 12th the 8th Division moved forward. The 1st Worcestershire moved up by train from Hangest to Amiens and then marched to billets at Querrieu. There Colonel Davidge rejoined the Battalion, after completing six months duty in England, and again took over the command.
On April 18th a change of position was made: the 8th Division, previously in reserve to the Australian Corps north of the Somme, was transferred to the lllrd Corps, south of the river. The 1st Worcestershire marched southwards, crossed the Somme by a pontoon bridge, and took over billets at Glisy.
On the next day the 24th Brigade moved forward to the line. The 1st Worcestershire were at first ordered to take up their position in reserve trenches within the Bois de Blangy. Hardly had that position been taken over when an outburst of heavy gas-shelling in front caused apprehension of an attack. The Battalion was ordered further forward to support trenches on the southern outskirts of Villers Bretonneux.
The 1st Worcestershire remained in support trenches for three days (Casualties 1st Worcestershire, April 19th—22nd, 1 killed, 5 wounded). Then, on the evening of April 23rd, the 23rd Brigade took over the line and the Worcestershire moved back into reserve. The position at Villers Bretonneux, however, was not a simple one. The tangle of old trenches required a large garrison and the 23rd Brigade was weak in numbers. So "C" and "D" Companies of the Worcestershire were left in the forward system, under the orders of the Brigadier of the 23rd Brigade, their old Battalion Commander, Colonel (acting-Brigadier-General) Grogan.
The remainder of the Battalion moved back into the reserve line of trenches which ran through the Bois de l'Abbe; "C" and "D" Companies were attached to the 2nd Devons and moved back about a mile to support trenches behind the right flank of the Devons, between Cachy and the southern edge of the Bois d'Aquenne.
THE ACTION OF VILLERS BRETONNEUX
A German sergeant-major captured on the 21st had stated that an attack would be made on the 23rd; a second prisoner captured on the 23rd by the French on the right gave warning of an attack on the 24th. During the preceding three days the defences of Villers Bretonneux had been bombarded continually with gas shells. The night of April 23rd/24th was exceptionally quiet, suspiciously quiet, and all ranks were already on their guard when, shortly before 4.0 a.m., the enemy's guns opened an intense bombardment with gas and high-explosive shells. That had been anticipated; what had not been anticipated was the form which the attack assumed.
Villers Bretonneux was veiled in a thick mist, made thicker still by the gas and the smoke of the bursting shells. Through the fog, in the first dim light of dawn (about 7 a.m.), came a low rumbling, and a number of German tanks loomed up close in front of the British defences. Apparently five or six tanks. They were first seen, by the troops in the front line when less than a hundred yards away.
No warning had been received of the presence of those hostile tanks, and no preparations had been made to meet them. The tanks rolled forward over the British front line; then, turning to left and right, they enfiladed the trenches and moved up and down them, sweeping them with fire from end to end. The troops in the trenches, half blinded by their gas masks, put up the best fight possible; but their bullets could not injure the tanks, and behind the tanks German infantry (The 4th Guard Division) closed in and completed the slaughter. In a short time the 2nd Middlesex and 2nd West Yorkshire had been overwhelmed. The reserve company of the 2nd West Yorkshire, in the trenches previously held by the 1st Worcestershire just south of Villers Bretonneux, escaped disaster. They were attacked by three tanks, but the attack was not pressed home, and the survivors succeeded in withdrawing round the northern end of the wood. Rumbling on through the mist, the German tanks attacked the 2nd East Lancashire in the defences of Villers Bretonneux. After a gallant struggle that Battalion also was rolled up. A small party of survivors fell back beyond the houses to the northern edge of the wood. That retirement left open the eastern edge of the Bois d'Aquenne and German infantry pushed forward into the wood.
On the southern outskirts of the Bois d'Aquenne the two forward companies of the 1st Worcestershire, in position behind the 2nd Devons, had lain low in their trenches during the bombardment. No word came back to them from the West Yorkshire in front. But, a few minutes before the first tank appeared, some stragglers from the London Division on the right had brought warning to the Devons of a tank attack. The first that the troops on the right of the 8th Division saw of the attack was a German tank, which came roaring out of the mist from the south-east against the Devons' trenches. Every rifle and Lewis-gun which would bear opened fire, but the tank came straight on up to the trench line. Opening fire at short range, its guns blew away part of the Devons' parapet; then it swung round and moved off.
Shortly afterwards three more tanks appeared on the left and rolled up the two left hand companies of the Devons. The survivors of those two companies fell back, still fighting, into the Bois d'Aquenne, whence they presently found their way forward again to the trenches still held by the right half of their Battalion. Those trenches, as well as those of the 1st Worcestershire in rear, were as yet intact, although like the other trenches,they were certain to be mere death-traps if attacked by the tanks. The enemy's infantry came on in front, and an enfilade fire struck the trenches from machine-guns in Villers Bretonneux and from scattered parties of the enemy on the edges of the Bois d'Aquenne; but the attacks in front were easily repulsed and an active defence was organised to flank and rear.
Presently help came. Three British tanks appeared in rear and came forward along the southern edge of the Bois d'Aquenne just as a hostile tank bore down to attack the Devons' trenches. A fight ensued between the clumsy monsters. The first two British tanks, weak "female" machines, were knocked out, but the big "male" tank which came up behind them attacked the German tank, secured three direct hits and forced it into a sandpit, where the German tank was ditched, and abandoned by its crew. This was the first duel between tanks which ever took place. The British tank was subsequently disabled by a chance shell, but not before its appearance had caused the hasty retreat of the enemy's machines. The Devons then reorganised their line, throwing back their left flank to the Bois d'Aquenne, and clearing the edge of that wood.
Heavy fighting lasted throughout the day. Several more attacks were made by the enemy's infantry from the south-east but the Worcestershire and the Devons repulsed them without difficulty.
On the left flank the British counter-attacks made but little headway during the day, and it was eventually decided to make a big counter-attack with fresh troops at night.
Two Australian Brigades were brought up, one north and one south of the wood, to deliver the attack, while two battalions of the 8th Division, the 2nd Northamptonshire and the 22nd Durham Light Infantry, were to clear the village.
The counter-attack was launched at 10.0 p.m. The 13th Australian Brigade advanced past the trenches held by the 1st Worcestershire and attacked towards the Monument. Heavy fighting lasted all night and the following morning. By midday the enemy had been driven out of Villers Bretonneux. The positions of the enemy in the Bois d'Aquenne were rounded up and captured by troops of the 23rd Brigade. The 13th Australian Brigade had not actually been able to recapture the ground around the Monument, but a firm line had been formed there and the position was satisfactory.
Heavy gun-fire lasted all day and did not die down until darkness fell; the two companies of the 1st Worcestershire remained in their position throughout that day and until nightfall on April 26th. Then they were relieved and marched back into the wood to rejoin the rest of the Battalion. The other companies of the 1st Worcestershire had manned the reserve trenches throughout the action, but otherwise had not been engaged.
On the evening of April 26th Australian troops took over the reserve line and the 24th Brigade moved back into the Bois de Blangy. On April 28th the Brigade moved back to billets in Camon. The casualties of the Battalion from April 23rd to April28th had totalled 137, including 11 officers. The loss had fallen mainly on "C" and "D" Companies.
Killed, 3 officers (Capts. D'A. G.St. Clair Roberts, M.C., and N. H. Stone, M.C., 2/Lt. J. Shaw), and 20 men. Wounded, 7 officers (Capt. F. E. C. King, Lt. A. H. Read, 2/Lts. J. T. Milner, F. Rayner, F. H. Hudson, F. G. Bason and F. N. Worthington) and 126 men. These figures include 5 men wounded on April 23rd. Of the officers, 2 were killed, and 1 wounded on April 26th; the remainder on April 24th/25th.
THE MOVE TO THE AISNE
After the fight at Villers Bretonneux the 1st Battalion of the Regiment moved to a new theatre of operations.
At the end of April it had been decided that certain of the British Divisions which had borne the brunt of the fighting on the Somme and on the Lys should be transferred to the French front in order to give them an opportunity to recuperate; for the enemy had as yet made no serious attack against the French Armies.
The Divisions thus transferred to the French front were to form part of definite French Armies and to come under their command.
The 8th Division, including the 1st Worcestershire, was among the first to be despatched to the new front. Other Divisions were sent south at the same time, among which were the 25th Division, including the 3rd Worcestershire. Later the 19th Division, including the 10th Worcestershire, also came south to join the forces under French command.
The move of the 8th Division took place early in May. On May 2nd the 1st Worcestershire marched from Camon past Amiens to Guignemicourt. Next evening (10 p.m., May 3rd) the Battalion entrained at Saleux.
At 3.0 p.m. on May 4th the train reached Fismes. The Battalion marched southwards to Chary Chartreuve. There the 1st Worcestershire remained in camp for five days, cleaning up and training. On May 8th the Battalion was inspected by the Commander of the French Army Group, General Franchet d'Esperey (Commanding the French Sixth Army).
On May 10th came orders that the 8th Division would relieve the French 71st Division in the front line, and the 1st Worcestershire marched through the pleasant countryside of Champagne, by way of Fismes, Courlandon and Ventelay, to Roucy on the banks of the River Aisne.
During the second week of May the 1st Worcestershire moved up into the front line. After a mght at Roucy, the Battalion crossed the River Aisne on May 11th by the bridge at Pontavert and relieved the French 221st Regiment in the trenches facing Juvincourt.
The position heldjby the 8th Division was somewhat curious. It lay some distance to the west of that high ridge of the "Chemin-des-Dames" on which the original British Expeditionary Force had battled in 1914. Subsequent attacks by the French Armies in 1917 had pushed the front line forward some two miles from the River Aisne along most of the front which the British now took over. On the right of the 8th Division's new front, however, the line reached the river and bent back along it, with a curious re-entrant at Berry-au-Bac. The line of the 8th Division thus formed a sort of salient. All three Brigades of the Division were placed in line, the 25th Brigade on the right, the 24th Brigade in the centre, near Juvincourt, and the 23rd Brigade on the left. The boundary between the right and the centre Brigade was the little River Miette. In rear of the left Brigade of the Division was a small wooded hill known as the Bois des Buttes. The bulk of the fighting troops of the Division, eight battalions and three brigades of field artillery, were on the northern bank. On the southern bank there were only some artillery (One British and one French field brigade and several heavy batteries), and two battalions in Divisional Reserve.
By the broad principles of military science a position of little depth with a large river at its back is usually considered faulty. The British Staff did not like the position; they went so far as to suggest that the ground north of the river should be held as merely an "Outpost Zone" and that a strong "Battle Zone" should be organised south of the river; but the French authorities would have no alteration in the dispositions. They had not learnt, as had the British, from actual experience, that an overwhelming bombardment followed by a swift onrush of tanks and of "shocktroops" with machine-guns can overrun the strongest defences and the stoutest resistance. They had not realised, as had the British, that such an attack can be met only by defence in great depth, with ample troops available for counter-attack. Possibly the rapid advances of the enemy in March and April may have given the French Staff an impression that the British were addicted to unnecessary retirements. Whatever the cause, the result was a formal order that the dispositions were not to be altered: the Division was to fight where it stood: "not a yard of ground was to be given up."
Those orders were conveyed to the troops; they were destined to be nobly and tragically carried out.
For the moment, however, all seemed very well. The trenches were deep, strong and safe, the communications were excellent; no fewer than thirteen bridges spanned the river behind the British front. Gun-fire was rarely heard. The month of May was at its best, the weather and the
countryside alike were delightful, and the enemy's infantry opposite were very quiet: quiet at any rate during the first four days that the 1st Worcestershire spent in the front line. Casualties, 1st Worcestershire, May 12th—16th, 2 wounded. On the night of May 17th/18th the Worcestershire were relieved by the 2nd Northamptonshire and marched back across the river to billets in Ventelay.
After some days spent in training the Battalion moved forward again across the river on the evening of May 24th and relieved the 2nd Northamptonshire in the "battle-zone" trenches of the 24th Brigade. The Northamptonshire took over the " forward-zone " trenches from the Sherwood Foresters, and the Foresters moved back across the river into reserve.
On the left of the 8th Division, the 50th Division now held the front line as far as Craonne: on the right the 21st Division was in position along the canal in front of Cormicy: in reserve was the 25th Division.
THE BATTLE OF THE AISNE, 1918
From 1.0 a.m; on May 27th onwards for some three hours, shells and trench-mortar bombs had been rained upon the British trenches north of the Aisne. At 4.0 a.m. the first "S.O.S." rockets went up from the front line, showing that the enemy were attacking.
The mist was dense, and it was not possible to see more than thirty or forty yards. Through the mist German tanks and infantry advanced. Some of the tanks came up the valley of the Miette and soon the 2nd Northamptonshire were fighting desperately against odds.
The anti-tank guns of the Division were disposed in the second system of defence. In that dense mist they could give no help to the Northamptonshire, two hundred yards in front, and eventually that brave battalion was overwhelmed. The German tanks rumbled forward through the mist, closely followed by their infantry, towards the second system of trenches, the position of the 1st Worcestershire.
The trenches held by the Battalion were strong and well-sited, on the level ground across which runs the main road from Berry-au-Bac to Corbeny (see map above). The first waves of the German attack struck the forward trenches of the 1st Worcestershire about 5 a.m. and were beaten back by rapid fire; but more and more of the enemy came on from every direction through the mist. Light machine-guns were established in shell-holes and raked the defenders' parapets from front and flank while, covered by their fire, parties of "Storm-troops" dashed in to close quarters. At many points there were fierce hand-to-hand struggles, and the crashing roar of the firing echoed through the mist.
Major J. B. F. Cartland
On the right front of the Battalion, "A" Company made a most gallant stand. Captain R. B. Berry was shot through both legs and disabled, 2nd Lieutenant M. R. G. Gardner was killed and 2nd Lieutenant W. Kelly was wounded; but the one surviving subaltern, 2nd Lieutenant A. P. Edgar, took command of the company and inspired all to resist to the last. Ammunition ran short and the enemy closed in from all sides, shooting and bombing, but the brave subaltern called his men up out of the trench on to the parapet to fight it out with the bayonet. The Germans charged inwards, and after a short but desperate struggle the remnant of the company were killed or captured. 2/Lieut. Edgar, although bayonetted in the chest and stunned, fortunately survived.
At other points there was the same story to tell. Everywhere the companies and. platoons made a fierce resistance, holding their ground so long as their ammunition lasted and men survived to shoot. The anti-tank guns smashed the German tanks at point-blank range, while the enemy's infantry, disordered after their battle in the forward trenches, were beaten off again and again by rapid fire of musketry and machine-guns. Confident reports were sent back that the Battalion was holding its ground, and all seemed well when, through the mist, more tanks and fresh waves of the enemy's infantry came surging up from the right rear against the flank of the 1st Worcestershire. The battalions of the 25th Brigade further to the right had been overrun, and the victorious enemy, wheeling to the right, were rolling up the defensive line.
In a short time the Battalion was surrounded and was attacked in front, flank and rear. There was no surrender: all fought to the last. Major J. B. F. Cartland, commanding the Battalion (Colonel Davidge was temporarily sick and back with the transport lines), was killed in the trenches with his men. One by one the platoon posts were overwhelmed. Only a few stragglers came back.
* * * * * * * * * *
After the destruction of the battalions of the 8th Division, the enemy's infantry spread rapidly along the rear of the position and captured the British batteries north of the river. In the mist a certain number of miscellaneous troops of the Division succeeded in making their way back from the ammunition dumps and store depots on the river bank across the bridges. They carried the news of disaster, which soon reached the 8th Division Headquarters at Roucy.
At first the full extent of the disaster was not realised. It seemed impossible that the enemy could have completely broken through the elaborate defences; and in an attempt to maintain those defences the last reserves of the 8th Division were thrown into the battle. Great faith was pinned in the resisting powers of two defended localities which supported the Divisional front: the fortified village of Gernicourt and the wooded hill called the Bois des Buttes. These, it was hoped, would make a long resistance; and to assist their defence the 1st Sherwood Foresters were ordered forward at 6.30 a.m: to take up a line between those two points. But the Sherwood Foresters never reached their intended position. By the time that their leading platoons had reached the bank of the Canal near the Bois de Gernicourt they were fired on and stopped by Germans on the other bank. Their supporting companies made their way up through the mist.and the Foresters deployed along the bank of the Canal.
The Canal and the line of the river had been under an intense bombardment throughout the battle: a bombardment of high-explosive and gas, but principally of gas, for the enemy had no wish to damage the bridges. The sapper detachments detailed to destroy those bridges had been sheltering in their dugouts from the drifting gas, and most of them were surprised and overwhelmed by the enemy before they could carry out their task. Only a few of the bridges were blown up: the remainder were captured intact and secured for the advance of the German forces.
Some remnants of the troops on the northern bank succeeded in crossing the bridges before they were seized by the enemy. Colonel (Then acting Brigadier-General) Grogan, commanding the 23rd Brigade, had been warned just in time before the advancing enemy reached his headquarters. He escaped with difficulty through the mist and the bombardment, crossed the river with a few of bis staff, rallied many stragglers and organised a small mixed force with which he took up a position on the wooded hillock of La Platrerie.
Further to the right a similar little force of survivors was collected and organised by Captain A. B. Pratt of the 1st Worcestershire. Captain Pratt placed his men in position to defend the unbroken bridge at La Pecherie, and for a time he held firm against all attacks; but the enemy closed in from all sides and presently his little force was driven from its position. Most of his men were killed or captured and the remainder dispersed.Captain Pratt himself escaped capture and, with a small party, remained throughout the day concealed in some broken trenches. At nightfall he crossed the river and attempted to regain our lines; but the German advance had been rapid, and he was unable to escape. After many adventures, he and his men were finally captured before dawn on May 30th, while asleep in a wood near Ventelay.
As the daylight grew and the mist thinned it became clear that all the positions on the northern bank were in the enemy's hands. On the left flank of the 8th Division the memorable last stand of the 2nd Devons at the Bois des Buttes was over; further to the left every single battalion and battery of the 50th Division had been destroyed. Away to the right heavy firing showed that the 21st Division also were being attacked. Soon the enemy's infantry came pressing forward in great force to the river banks.
The large number of bridges which had made the communications of the 8th Division so simple now proved disastrous. Orders for the demolition of the bridges had not been received until too late, and as we have seen, the sappers detailed to destroy them were put out of action before they could achieve their purpose. Nowhere had the bridges been thoroughly destroyed, and the big bridge at La Pecherie was undamaged. It was to have been destroyed only by orders of the Higher Command. The orders were never received.
Across those bridges the enemy's advanced troops made their way. Between La Platrerie and the Bois de Gernicourt the crossings were undefended. There the enemy crossed the canal unopposed and then wheeled to take in flank Colonel Grogan's party at La Platrerie and the Sherwood Foresters in front of the Bois de Gernicourt.
Colonel Grogan's party at La Platrerie were thus outflanked, and had to fall back about 8.30 a.m. to escape destruction. Colonel Grogan led his little force back to Roucy, where a new defensive position was being organised.
The new position taken up had been thought out before the attack. South of the River Aisne a steep ridge runs east and west behind Maizy, Concevreux, Roucy, and Bouffignereux to Cormicy. That ridge afforded a fine natural position with good command over the low-lying river valley; and late in the morning (about 10 a.m.) the 8th Divisional Commander decided to use such troops as were still available to defend that "second" position.
Every man who could fire a rifle was ordered up from the rear. Colonel Davidge, who had been lying sick in the transport lines of the 1st Worcestershire, organised a small force from details of the Battalion and from stragglers of other units, and led them forward. The personnel attending the Divisional Lewis-gun School (Previously at Roucy), some 600 N.C.O's. and men drawn from all the nine battalions, took up position (under Major A. H. Cope of the Devons, who had been commanding the school) on the forward slope of the ridge.
On that line the remnants of the 8th Division sorted themselves out. Colonel Davidge was put in charge of a section of the defence. He delegated to Captain F. C. Worster of the 1st Worcestershire the command of his little party of details of the 24th Brigade, which mustered in all 3 officers and 68 N.C.O's. and men.
Colonel Grogan's survivors of the 23rd Brigade aligned themselves on the left of Captain Worster's party, and entrenchment was begun. Then up to the new line came welcome reinforcements, the fresh battalions of the 25th Division.
Captain Worster's party of the 1st Worcestershire had fought desperately in the defence of the trenches near Roucy. Inspired by their leader, they held firm under a storm of fire until the German assault broke the line of the 11th Cheshire on their left. Then the defence gave way, and Captain Worster ordered his party to retreat up the slope. They could muster not more than twenty men by the time that they reached the high ground behind, but they took up position near the edge of the Bois de Rouvroy and for a time they held their ground. Presently a strong force of the enemy encircled their left flank. Captain Worster was mortally wounded (For his gallant leadership in this fight Captain Worster was subsequently awarded the M.C.), and in the retirement which followed his little party dispersed. The survivors of the 1st Worcestershire became intermingled with the disordered groups of British soldiers from many different regiments who were fighting or falling back across the wooded heights.
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