As you can see from the War Diary entries below, it was quite a difficult time for the 4th G G
10.04.18 VILLERS BRÛLIN
Wednesday. Reviews by GOC 31st Div at TINCQUES of 4th Guards Brigade. The GOC complimented the Brigade on its appearance.
Sounds of very heavy firing from the BETHUNE – ESTAIRES district. Captain G C SLOANE STANLEY ordered to proceed to report to XIII Corps Agricultural Officer for duty.
Orders for Brigade review attached App 184
Bn received orders to embus that evening to proceed NORTHWARDS to take part in the battle around MERVILLE and ARMENTIERES.
Midnight Account of action of Bn with casualty reports, maps, messages etc attached as App 185
The great German attack on the British Third and Fifth Armies had commenced on 21st March and had had a very considerable success, especially against the latter. The 31st Division, to which the 4th Guards Brigade belonged, were in GHQ reserve on 21st March. The Brigade, which was composed of the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards, 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and 2nd Bn Irish Guards, was moved that day in buses to BLAIRVILLE and took part in ten days active operations, more or less of open warfare. They were just on the RIGHT of the Guards Division, which was fortunate for both, and succeeded in easily repulsing the German attacks, though adjustments of the line held had continually to be made owing to the troops on the RIGHT having to retire. The 4th Bn had the following casualties – 4 officers and 75 men – a great many of these were caused by our own heavy artillery.
The Bn had come out of the battle with their morale very high and quite convinced that they could repel any German attacks. The Division once more returned to GHQ reserve and were billeted at VILLERS BRÛLIN. On 9th April LUDENDORFF inaugurated his NORTHERN offensive with a concentrated attack of nine divisions under VON QUAST on the line NORTH of LA BASSEE. This attack had very considerable success against the Portuguese and the XV Corps and, reinforced by several Corps under VON ARNIM, he pressed his attacks in the direction of HAZEBROUCK – CASSEL – MT KEMMEL and endeavoured to take the YPRES salient, perhaps in the hope of capturing the Channel ports, or at least cutting the British communications. In any event the capture of HAZEBROUCK, CASSEL and MT KEMMEL would have created a very difficult situation for the British troops in the NORTH. Marshal FOCH, in his diary, states that on the 12th he started to take a serious view of the situation.
On the night of 8th April the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant [Captain C R GERARD] had been invited to dine with Lord HORNE, Commander of the First Army, at his HQ some 16 miles behind the front line. As they were leaving, at about 2300 hours, a few shells from German long range guns pitched close to the village; the Army Commander, who was seeing his guests into their car, remarked that he thought that they forebode something and how glad he was that he had ordered the relief of the Portuguese and that it would be completed in two or three days time. But it was not to be, for the attack started next morning.
At about midnight on 9th April the Commanding Officer received a Warning Order that the Bn would move by bus the next day. The next morning, the 10th, this was confirmed, giving a rendezvous to meet the buses on the main road at TINCQUES, near VILLERS BRÛLIN, at 2345 hours.
The Bn arrived there about an hour before the time and were told off into parties ready to ‘embus’. However the buses never arrived until 1130 hours the next morning, the 11th. It was a very cold night, and, by bad staff work, the Bn was kept out all night, unable to sleep and unable to cook any breakfast. Luckily the morale of the troops was so high that it had little effect on their spirits, though a night without sleep is bound to adversely affect the fighting qualities of troops.
For ten hours, very cramped and crowded, the Bn was jolted along in very badly sprung lorries over the pave roads. Sleep was impossible. As we drew closer to the battlefield one could observe signs that all was not well. Men walking down the road without arms or equipment – Portuguese soldiers going WEST. It was reported that they had actually taken off their boots to facilitate their retreat. A Corps HQ was seen packing up in great haste and beds and pianos were being loaded into lorries. The signs of a retreat are bad for advancing troops and during conversation with men who were obviously retreating from the battlefield. The Brigade finally arrived at STRAZEELE at 2100 hours and started debussing. The Coldstream Guards had arrived at 2000 hours.
The Brigade Commander held a conference at LE PARADIS [E11a] where it was stated that the situation in front was obscure but it was believed that the 50th Division were holding a line about PURESBECQUES – PONT RONDIN. The Brigade was to occupy a position from L’EPINETTE [K.11.a.4.5] to KEW CROSS [K6e] on the RIGHT of the 29th Division. The 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards on the RIGHT, the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards on the LEFT and the 2nd Bn Irish Guards in reserve. No definite boundaries were given. There were supposed elements of other divisions on our RIGHT and LEFT but the Brigadier was able to give very little further information.
Bn moved off at about 0230 hours and reached their positions at about dawn. Great difficulty confronted Commanders in settling their Coy localities. It was a pitch black night and the men had had no hot meal for 28 hours and rations had not arrived.
Description of the Battle – 12th April
Under cover of No 2 Coy 2nd Bn Irish Guards, who were sent down the road towards MERVILLE and who met some German transport about PONT RONDIN, the Bn got into position from LE CORNET PERDUE to KEW CROSS [incl] with the Coldstreams on the RIGHT and the Irish Guards in reserve [see sketch]. The 12th Bn KOYLI were at LA COURONNE.
The Coys of the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards were disposed as follows:
No 1 Coy on the RIGHT; No 2 Coy on the LEFT; No 4 Coy in the centre; Bn HQ at GARS BRUGGHE; No 3 Coy in reserve about E30A and D.
Dawn arrived after a very dark night and found the Coys not properly dug in owing to lack of tools and the Coy Commanders having had great difficulty in allotting the platoon areas. The transport had not been sent up – it had arrived later than the Bn. This was another breakdown on the part of the ‘Q’ Staff. The whole front, when visibility became possible, was swept by MG fire and the enemy had many light mortars firing. The men of the 50th Division had come through our line at dawn followed by the Germans. At 0800 hours the Germans attacked and were repulsed. At 0930 hours the Brigadier visited Bn HQ and ordered the Bn with the 3rd Bn Coldstream on the RIGHT to advance at 1100 hours. Patrols were to be sent down the road to LES PURESBECQUES – SINBAD FARM [K17b] – GENT HOUSE [K12c] – NEUF BERQUIN and any success exploited. Special stress was laid on the capture of LES PURESBECQUES – VIERHOUCK and PONT RONDIN. The object was to prevent any enemy movement along the road MERVILLE – NEUF BERQUIN. The open flanks were not considered. The CO 4th Bn Grenadier Guards at this conference definitely told the Brigadier that the enemy was holding a line in strength in front of the Bn. He had received messages that the Germans were occupying positions in front and had endeavoured to advance. [Read PRYCE’s messages] They had attacked at 0500 [?] hours and the attack was seen by Bn HQ.
However, the Brigadier determined to carry out the Divisional Orders – remember that they were situated about 10 miles in rear – and the attack took place unsupported by artillery or even MGs and with both flanks in the air. At 1115 hours, as per sketch map, the 3rd Bn Coldstream and the 4th Bn Grenadier and the Coys of the Irish Guards echeloned in rear started the attack. Some slight progress was made. VIERHOUCK and LES PURESBECQUES being very strongly held. The 3rd Bn Coldstream advanced some 400 yards but could get no further. Nos 1 and 4 Coys Grenadier Guards were held up in the line of LA PLATE BECQUE whilst No 2 Coy took PONT RONDIN.
We will now turn to the fighting of Nos 1 and 4 Coys during the days of the 12th and 13th April from this stand and also refer to the action of the Coldstream and Irish Guards.
After the holding up of the attack and the impossibility of crossing the PLATE BECQUE, the front of Nos 1 and 4 Coys remained the same throughout the day.
At about 1530 hours the Germans made a determined attack on the front held by the Coldstream and Nos 1 and 4 Coys after a short bombardment by trench mortars and light artillery. They endeavoured to outflank the Coldstream and penetrate between the RIGHT and centre Coys. The RIGHT Coy was handled with great skill by a Sergeant as all the officers had become casualties. An immediate counter attack was launched by a Coy of the Coldstream and a Coy of the Irish Guards which was completely successful in restoring the line. Another Irish Guards Coy filled a dangerous gap between the Coldstream and the Grenadiers. The attack was not pressed on the Grenadier front. Again, at 1620 hours, the Germans renewed the attack which was again repulsed with severe losses. About 1730 hours the 5th Division had come up on the RIGHT of the Coldstream and secured that flank. The Irish Guard Coys had again withdrawn into reserve. Both Nos 1 and 4 Coys, by the evening of the 12th, had lost over 60% of their effectives; the Coldstreams had lost about the same.
The Bn had fired 20,000 rounds of ammunition and all the rifle grenades. A disaster had overcome No 1 Coy for the rations had been destroyed by shell fire before they could be distributed. At this time the front had been covered by one battery of artillery. The FOO, Lieut LEWIS, was wonderful. His OP at GARS BRUGGHE was heavily shelled all day, his wires broken, but in spite of it all he caused heavy casualties on the Germans, his personal bravery and that of his linemen being beyond all praise.
No 3 Coy To turn to No 3 Coy, which was in reserve, with its RIGHT 300 yards NE of GOMBERT FARM [E29c] and its LEFT on the road VERTE RUE – LA COURONNE. The Coy throughout the day, several times without orders and on the initiative of its officers, restored the situation on the LEFT of No 2 Coy, owing to the troops on their LEFT, the KOYLI, retiring and leaving an exposed flank. Lieut NASH, the Coy Commander, had his hand shot off by a direct hit from a whiz-bang at 1030 hours, the command of the Coy then falling upon Lieut THOMAS and 2/Lieut COX who, with Sergeant PALETHORPE and two platoons, from 1230 hours until 1800 hours continually, by counter attack and by fire, helped the LEFT of No 2 Coy. The initiative shown by the above was beyond praise. A great many Germans were killed. As mentioned later, the line was readjusted during the night of the 12th and No 3 Coy, as per sketch map No 2, came up into the front line.
To return to Nos 1 and 4 Coys. The line during the night of the 12th and 13th had to be readjusted owing to the uncertain situation. The 3rd Bn Coldstream to hold from [incl] L’EPINETTE to [excl] LE CORNET PERDUE – 4th Bn Grenadier, thence to [incl] LA COURONNE, in touch with the 12th Bn KOYLI on the LEFT. [This was never established]. The Irish Guards in reserve about CAUDESCURE and ARREWAGE. This order lengthened the line to be held by the Brigade by about 1,000 yards. The Grenadier front to be held extending for no less than 1,800 yards. This in spite of the fact that the Bn had had some 250 casualties.
The Commanding Officer, to hold this line of 1,800 yards, moved up No 3 Coy from reserve and hence had all four Coys in the line. The strength of the Bn could not have been more than 250 OR and hence this was about one man per seven yards of front. In spite of the great difficulties and thanks to the great efforts of their Coy etc Commanders the Coys were able to dig themselves in in slits to hold four to five men along the new front.
This entailed considerable hardship and determination on behalf of the Officers and NCOs for the men were dog tired. It was also again a very dark night – Captain MINCHIN had come up from the transport and taken command of No 4 Coy. No 1 Coy had a considerable gap between its RIGHT and the Coldstream LEFT. A picquet was posted there by the Grenadier. Another difficulty was to fetch the ammunition which had been dumped at LA COURONNE in error, under orders of the Staff Captain and the Bn Transport Officer.
Battalion Headquarters at GARS BRUGGHE
During the day, from 0900 hours until dusk, Bn HQ which had been observed by the Germans owing to the number of runners, and also the transport with rations, who had come up at 0800 hours had been fired at by two field guns in the open from L.7.a.3.3 and by a trench mortar and MGs. The farm was set on fire and Captain CHAPMAN, the IO and Lieut ABBEY were killed. The animals, cows etc, were released from the burning buildings. The Bn HQ lost some 50%. The remainder were forced to take up a position behind the wall by the pond. At about 2100 hours the Bn HQ were moved to FARME BEAULIEU [E28d].
At dawn on the 13th the Brigade was dug in, in slits, the 4th Bn Grenadier as per sketch Map No 2.
The morning of the 13th was very foggy. At 0630 hours L’EPINETTE was captured and a German armoured car crossed the BECQUE but retired owing to the fire of the Coldstream. Guardsman JACOTIN of the Coldstream Guards, though alone, held up the advance for 20 minutes until killed by a bomb. The Germans shouted out in English that they were the King’s Coy, Grenadier Guards, Nos 1, 3 and 4 Coys were heavily engaged all day, the Germans working between the widely separated groups of the Coldstream, Grenadier and Irish Guards on the LEFT. At 0915 hours the CO had sent orders that the line must be maintained at all costs. The officers had practically all become casualties – Captain SLOANE STANLEY, No 1 Coy, severely wounded and nearly all the subalterns killed or wounded; and so the battle went on, the Germans continually breaking through the gaps on the Coldstream and Grenadier front handling their MGs with great skill. The Bn HQ who were with the Coldstream HQ at BEAULIEU FARME from 1500 hours was severely engaged by Germans attacking from VERTE RUE and NORTH of it, owing to there being no-one on the LEFT of No 2 Coy. At dusk the survivors of the Coys were over-run but the German attacks were at an end. The 1st Royal Australian Division had established its defended localities just in rear, along the EASTERN edge of the NIEPPE Forest. The Bn HQ and oddments, plus the same from the Coldstream and Irish Guards, held the line on the RIGHT of the Australians until the 14th when they then were relieved.
We will now move to LA COURONNE and describe the battle on the LEFT of the Brigade front.
No 2 Coy This Coy was under the command of Captain PRYCE who had been in the Gloucestershire Regt where he had gained a Military Cross and Bar for gallantry in the face of the enemy. I think that by the end of my description of the action of this Coy it will be proved what can be done with troops led by so gallant and cool a commander who was gifted with natural military instinct. No 2 Coy made a most skilful advance into PONT RONDIN. Led by Captain PRYCE they worked down the road from house to house, which were strongly held by Germans with light automatic guns. Many Germans were killed. Captain PRYCE, armed with a rifle, killed several himself and, from one of the survivors who went with him, I learnt that he led the way personally from house to house and was always first. Two MGs and two prisoners were captured, one a senior NCO who had the Iron Cross and who spoke English, and these were sent to Bn HQ. The skill of this operation was beyond praise as they were heavily shot at, a battery of enemy field guns 300 yards SOUTH of PONT RONDIN firing down the road over open sights.
[Read Captain PRYCE’s messages]. Captain PRYCE then determined that as he was not in touch with the Coy on his RIGHT and that there also seemed to be no British troops on his LEFT, that it was useless to hold this forward position, and sent a message to that effect to Bn HQ. The CO concurred so the line was withdrawn to its original position. The whole of the attack could be seen through glasses from Bn HQ.
This Coy, from now on, was under continual fire from trench mortars, light artillery, machine guns and snipers in the houses. Any movement was fired at. The Germans, during the afternoon made several attempts to advance but their attacks were broken down under the fire of No 2 Coy. The situation was reported as critical; at 1500 hours a message coming from PRYCE that the enemy were in the buildings at ROOSTERS FARM [F25d] and that the KOYLI seemed to be no longer holding any position and a strong German force could be seen in BLEU. The KOYLI had apparently joined in the general retirement which seemed to be taking place on the LEFT. Captain PRYCE adjusted the LEFT of his line on his own initiative to meet the new tactical situation. At one period during the morning there had been a few of the West Yorks there, but they also had gone.
The Coy had lost some 60% of their strength during the day. During the night, as has already been explained, the Brigadier consented to the line being adjusted – the LEFT flank of the Coy to be some 300 yards SOUTH of LA COURONNE.
The CO visited PRYCE during the night and found him occupying a line of trench just in front of a water meadow at E30c – 400 yards SW of LA COURONNE. He had some 40 to 50 men left, dug in in slits along his front. Five boxes of SAA and some rations were got up to him. During the day the 12th Bn KOYLI [Pioneers who had been driven out of LA COURONNE] had retired to FANTASY and LUG FARM [E23d and c] and a few men under the Adjutant returned that night. The attack which had driven the KOYLI out of their position had started from BLEU and consisted of two Bns. No 2 Coy then had to dig themselves in afresh and it was only by superhuman efforts that they were occupying trenches at dawn, dug in in slits which held four to five men.
During the day of the 12th the Coy had fired 20,000 rounds of ammunition, resisted many attacks, had carried out one attack, had their LEFT flank exposed to enfilade fire and had been heavily fired at by light artillery and trench mortars. Lessons may be learnt from the initiative shown by Captain PRYCE and No 3 Coy [who were in reserve] in meeting the danger from the flank so quickly and that a defensive position, even on difficult ground to hold, is very hard to capture when held by determined men who refuse to yield an inch of ground.
The dawn of the 13th broke for No 2 Coy; dug in in slits with a thickish fog shrouding the country and it was found that the Germans had worked closer to our lines with their machine guns. At 0915 hours strong German attacks developed all along the line. Captain PRYCE had received orders from the CO that the present line must be held at all costs. This message was acknowledged. The Germans were in the houses at LA COURONNE and had brought up a field gun to some 300 yards from the LEFT of the Coy where Lieut PHILLIPS was with some six men. The latter moved a Lewis gun to a mould behind where they thought they could fire on the gun’s crew but unfortunately Lieut PHILLIPS and two men were wounded in this operation. Enemy could also be seen in VIEUX BERQUIN. At 1030 hours the Brigade Major [LYTTLETON] and the CO went up to within 50 yards of LA COURONNE where they met Guardsman BAGSHAW, the runner of No 4 Coy, who reported that the centre was still intact. But by 1400 hours the enemy were holding a line in LUG FARM along the line of the stream from LA BECQUE [E23d] to E30a.
Colonel ALEXANDER realised the situation from personal observation and he ordered a Coy of the Irish Guards, under SETTRINGTON, to counter attack. A desperate fight ensued with Germans advancing from LA BECQUE and only six men got back that night. All of the others were casualties, but they had done splendid work and had held up the advance of the Germans, but its failure to drive back the Germans meant that the remainder of No 2 Coy would inevitably be destroyed. The Germans from LA BECQUE, strength about 2 Bns, then hotly engaged Bn HQ and those of the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards, who were still together and who held up the advance. There only remains to tell the final scenes and end of No 2 Coy.
A final message was received by the CO from PRYCE by a runner who crept along a ditch to say that No 2 Coy was practically surrounded and the rest of the story was told by a Corporal who escaped and his in VIEUX BERQUIN and rejoined some 24 hours afterwards.
The coy was reduced to some 30 men by the afternoon and to some 18 men by 1815 hours, by which time the Germans were in VERTE RUE and could be seen advancing towards BOIS D’AVAL. A short time later the Germans determined to mop up the remainder of No 2 Coy and advanced from the road but PRYCE charged with the bayonet, as his ammunition was exhausted, and the Germans retired. However, shortly afterwards, the Germans again charged and the survivors were overwhelmed, fighting to the last. Two Bns had been held up by those few determined men led by an officer who, by his courage, proved himself a heroic leader of men. As one can judge from his epic messages, never once did the thought, though surrounded for several hours, occur to him to yield a single inch. His grave was never discovered. He was awarded a posthumous VC and no man has ever deserved it more. Only 14 men of this Coy of over 120 strong were heard of again, these being mostly wounded prisoners in Germany.
The battle was over but the 4th Guards Brigade had accomplished its object. The 1st Royal Australian Division had detrained and were now holding along the BOIS D’AVAL and NORTH of it.
The remaining Coys of the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards who had lost all their officers were surrounded and the unwounded survivors, some 60 in number, taken prisoner. Lieut BURT, who was wounded in the arm, was shown a large number of German dead in front of the German trenches by an enemy officer. The total casualties of the Bn were 504 OR, or 90% of their strength. That of the Coldstream Guards was practically as heavy and that of the Irish Guards was about 300. Total Brigade casualties were 39 officers and 1,244 OR.
MESSAGE FROM GENERAL DE LISLE [GOC XV CORPS]
“The record of the glorious stand against overwhelming odds made by the 4th Guards Brigade is of exceptional interest. The History of the British Army can record nothing finer than the action of the 4th Guards Brigade on the 12th and 13th April.”
From Lord HAIG’s Despatch
“The performance of all the troops engaged in this most gallant stand, especially that of the 4th Guards Brigade, on whose front of some 4,000 yards the heaviest attacks fell, is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number.”
Lieut KERR, of the 8th Bn Australian Infantry, reported that Sergeant SHAW, 4th Bn Grenadier Guards, collected some men and remained with him in the line when told to go back to Bn HQ and remained there three days longer. He stated “The men of my Coy and Bn are full of admiration for the way in which the Guards’ fought. The morale effect on our troops by their resistance was excellent.”
The 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards were amalgamated into a composite Bn with Major GILLILAN as Second in Command. In all the history of the regiments this has never been done before. They held the line until the 27th and had a certain amount of casualties owing to shelling, two Grenadier officers, ROLFE and RICHARDSON, being killed.
The APM sent a message to the 4th Guards Brigade that not a single straggler from the 4th Guards Brigade had been found on the roads during the 12th and 13th April.
Narrative of events from 10th to 14th April 1918
The Bn, billeted at VILLERS BRÛLIN, received orders to embus on April 10th, the time fixed for embussing at TINCQUES being 11:45pm. The buses did not arrive until 11:30am the 11th when the Bn proceeded to STRAZEELE via ST POL. The Bn debussed at about 9:30pm and marched down to a field by STRAZEELE station near LE PARADIS. The Brigadier there had a conference of Commanding Officers and the Bn had orders to take up a position with the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards on the RIGHT from K.6.b.5.8 to L’EPINETTE, K.11.a.3.4, a frontage of 2,000 yards. There were supposed to be elements of another division on the Bns LEFT and in front. Coys got to their positions just about dawn, marching off from LE PARADIS about 2:30am.
There was a considerable shortage of tools and, when daylight came, the Coys were very insufficiently dug in. No 1 Coy was on the RIGHT, No 4 in the centre, No 2 on the LEFT and No 3 in support. Bn HQ at GARS BRUGGHE K.5.b.5.8.
12th: Immediately it was light the Germans fired very heavily at any movement with machine guns and light field guns, both of which they had a very considerable number. At about 9:30am the Brigadier came up to Bn HQ and ordered that the Bn with the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards should advance and push forward with two Coys as far as possible. Nos 1 and 2 Coys were detailed to send forward two platoons each. No 1 to seize VIERHOUCK, No 2 to seize PONT RONDIN. The attack started about 11am. No 1 Coy was unable to progress at VIERHOUCK owing to very heavy intense machine gun and artillery fire which swept the only road over the stream down which they had to advance; they suffered severe casualties. No 2 Coy made a most skilful advance to PONT RONDIN, the two platoons personally led by Captain T T PRYCE, MC worked down the road from house to house, all of which were occupied by small parties of Germans with light machine guns. Many Germans were killed. Captain PRYCE killing seven himself, giving out fire orders and directing his rifle grenade and rifle fire in a most skilful manner. In the houses captured by this Coy some 30 dead Germans were found; two machine guns and two prisoners were captured, one of which was an NCO decorated with the Iron Cross.
The bravery shown by the Coy Commander and these platoons was beyond all praise, as they were heavily shot at, and there was a battery of enemy field guns some 300 yards down the road SOUTH of PONT RONDIN firing over open sights, also several trench mortars. This Coy had some 20 casualties.
At about 2:30pm the line remained the same; at 3pm Captain PRYCE reported that his LEFT flank was in the air and Germans could be seen in F25d, which was some 1,000 yards to the rear of his LEFT flank, and were shooting at him with trench mortars and field guns over open sights and also the machine gun fire was intense. The whole of his advance could be seen quite plainly from Bn HQ.
He decided to readjust his line with his LEFT at K.6.b.5.8; even then the Germans were well behind his LEFT flank. This he did and held on till dusk when the line was readjusted from Brigade though suffering the severest casualties. His Coy lost 80 NCOs and men and 1 officer during this fighting out of 180 who went into action.
During the day, from 9am till dusk, Bn HQ was fired on by 2 field guns in the open about L.7.a.3.3 and by a trench mortar and very heavily by machine guns. The farm was set on fire and Captain M CHAPMAN, MC and Lieut N R ABBEY of Bn HQ were killed. To some extent this fire was kept down by the skilful and gallant work of Lieut LEWIS of 152nd Brigade RFA who exposed himself continuously to get direct observation and mended his line in the open under heavy fire and, no doubt, inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans of whom many were seen to fall.
The rest of the Bn front remained intact all day although attacked several times, and badly enfiladed in places, No 4 Coy having some 70% casualties including all its officers.
The Bn casualties for the day were about 250 including 8 officers; about 50% of its effectives. Owing to the LEFT flank being in the air, the Brigadier gave orders for the Bn to readjust its line. The RIGHT was to be about K.5.b.6.2 where it would be next to 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards’ LEFT, the Bn left to rest 300 yards SOUTH of LA COURONNE where it was to be in touch with 12th KOYLI.
The Bn, during the day, fired some 70,000 rounds of SAA and had fired all its rifle grenades; the casualties inflicted on the Germans were severe; the work done by the Lewis gunners beyond all praise.
12th/13th: During the night the line was readjusted, the Bn being helped to dig the new line by a Field Coy RE. Four fresh officers were sent up to take the places of some of the losses – namely Lieuts LYON and BURT and Captain MINCHIN to Coys and Lieut MURRAY LAWES to Bn HQ.
The new Bn frontage was 1,800 yards in a line of absolutely flat country with no hedges etc to take advantage of to conceal the trenches. This was held by Coys in isolated posts, the strength of the Bn being nine officers and about 180 OR – one man per ten yards of front.
The Commanding Officer, on going round, found the men cheerful but, of course, tired. Rations and water were sent up and as much SAA as possible as all the men had practically fired all their ammunition and grenades.
Bn HQ was moved to FERME BEAULIEU, E.28.d.3.2.
On visiting No 2 Coy [LEFT Coy] who had some thirty men left under Captain PRYCE, who was occupying a line of trench just in front of a water meadow in E.20c [?E30 in pencil]; 5 boxes of SAA were got up to him. On this Coy of thirty from 9:15am the next morning until 6:15pm at night the bulk of the German fire and heavy infantry attacks fell.
13th: At about 9:15am the next morning, 13th, the Commanding Officer learnt that strong German attacks were developing all along the front, also that his LEFT flank was entirely in the air. He sent orders round to all Coys that they must hold their line at all costs and stay there and fight to the end. This message was acknowledged by all Coys. The orderlies that had to take this message were obliged to go through the heaviest machine gun fire.
At about 10:30am the Brigade Major visited Bn HQ and stated that the centre of the line at GARS BRUGGHE between the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and the Bns front had been penetrated by the Germans. The Commanding Officer and Brigade Major went up and saw the men were in their trenches and line intact. A platoon of the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards was ordered to fill in any gaps which existed but this was impossible for it to do.
On returning to Bn HQ about 1:15pm the Commanding Officer received a message from Captain PRYCE, No 2 Coy, stating that since 9:15am Germans had been in VIEUX BERQUIN and at LA COURONNE and a column estimated at two Bns was advancing from BLEU. He had also been attacked twice on his immediate front but had driven off the Germans who left a number of dead just in front of his trenches. He also stated that, after the failure of the second attack, the enemy had brought up two field guns to a hedge some 300 yards to his front and were flattening out his trench; there were no reinforcements available so the Commanding Officer had no alternative but to tell him to hold his ground with his few available men, some 18 then. The orderly to come and go to his HQ worked up a drain some three feet deep. One last message was received from Captain PRYCE from here about 3pm saying he was surrounded on two sides and was fighting both ways shooting at the Germans. What subsequently happened is related by a Corporal who was with him and who subsequently escaped through the German lines.
At about 6:15pm Captain PRYCE, who realised that the situation was hopeless, as the Germans were already at VERTE RUE and could be seen advancing behind to BOIS D’AVAL, called on his men to charge a party of Germans some 80 yards away, to his immediate front, at the same time exhorting them to fight to the end. The men cheered and followed him and drove this party back; the enemy were unable to fire as their own troops were behind. The party then returned to the trench. The men now had no ammunition left, having fired their 5 boxes SAA sent up at night.
The Germans started working up closer again, Captain PRYCE called for a final charge and the remaining men, some 14 in number, charged with fixed bayonets. The Corporal and one man were stopped by a large ditch from where they saw Captain PRYCE struggling with a large party of Germans. He lay in the ditch till midnight when he worked his way through the German line and joined the Australians in BOIS D’AVAL.
Nos 1 and 4 Coys who had been enfiladed all day long with machine gun and light gun fire had lost all their officers; Captain H H SLOANE STANLEY, MC commanding No 1 Coy had been killed and Captain T W MINCHIN, DSO severely wounded. Captain MINCHIN stated that of his Coy, only 6 men were not casualties, all the rest were killed or wounded. He was shot in three places by different bullets before leaving his trench. No 1 Coy had also suffered almost equally, both subalterns being wounded. No 3 Coy, who were on the RIGHT of No 2, had also suffered severely, losing their Coy Commander who was believed to have been killed. This Coy was seen to be surrounded and the Germans on both sides and about twenty men were taken away as prisoners so the rest must be presumed to be killed or wounded.
The survivors of Nos 1 and 4 Coys held on till night, though by 6:15pm the Germans had already occupied VERTE RUE, directly behind them. Some of them subsequently got through at night and attached themselves to the Australians with whom they stayed in the front line for 24 hours.
At about 5:30pm, when the Germans were at VERTE RUE, some 300 yards away, Bn HQ moved to 2nd Bn Irish Guards HQ at CAUDESCURE as the whole of the LEFT flank had been turned and the Bn surrounded.
The Bn had been three days and nights without rest and fighting and digging trenches almost continuously. Of the 19 officers who went into action, only two were not casualties, ie the Commanding Officer and Adjutant.
The total casualties among the rest of the Bn was 504, some 90% of which 50% were incurred on the first day.
I consider the heroic conduct of Captain PRYCE and No 2 Coy to be beyond all praise and think that the action of this Officer, who, with a small body of men, held the Germans for no less than 12 hours on 13th April from about 8:15am when his LEFT flank had been turned to 6:15pm when he made his final charge, to be difficult to surpass. More especially as his Coy had carried out a determined attack the day before and its LEFT flank continuously since it came into the line had been in the air. How the great influence of this Coy’s action on the general battle front has been remains to be seen; it may well have been the determining factor of the whole British line being completely driven in.
The Officer who had commanded this Coy had already been awarded the Military Cross and Bar for gallantry and had taken part in 7 attacks and raids upon the German trenches during the last three years.
W S PILCHER, Lieut Colonel
Stand of 4th Guards Brigade near VIEUX BERQUIN on 12th and 13th April 1918
On 10th April 1918 the Germans attacked the British and Portuguese line from ARMENTIERES SOUTHWARDS in overwhelming force. Troops were hurried up from all directions to stem the German on-rush but, in spite of this, by nightfall on 11th April the Germans had advanced about 10 miles forcing back our troops before them and there appeared to be nothing to prevent the enemy reaching the important town of HAZEBROUCK next day. Such was the situation at the moment when the 4th Guard Brigade, consisting of 4th Bn Grenadier Guards, 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and 2nd Bn Irish Guards, arrived in motor buses at STRAZEELE at 9pm on 11th April 1918. The Brigade had spent the previous night lying along the roadside in column awaiting the buses. It had spent some 10 hours of the 11th packed in the motor buses. All the men and officers were therefore tired and stiff.
The orders given to the Brigade were to stop the German advance towards HAZEBROUCK at all costs. After a short rest and a meal the Bn moved forward towards the enemy through the dark night, lighted only by the flashes of the German shells as they burst. Each man carried a shovel in addition to his arms, for experience had taught these veterans to value their shovels immediately after their rifles, bayonets and ammunition.
By dawn the Brigade was in position in touch with the enemy and holding an extended front of about 2½ miles with the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards on the RIGHT, the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards on the LEFT and the 2nd Bn Irish Guards in reserve.
As soon as it was light the Germans opened a heavy fire with Field guns, rifles and machine guns and under cover of this fire they recommenced their advance. About 1,800 yards in front of them they could see the trees of the forest of NIEPPE. Once they could gain a footing in this forest, they knew they would have a covered approach which would lead them to within striking distance of HAZEBROUCK and so they pressed forward eagerly intent on sweeping aside all opposition. But as they advanced the thin and scattered line of Guardsmen opened an accurate fire and drove them back. Again they pressed forward, supported this time by their light field guns firing at point blank range, for these had been worked up behind hedges to within 300 yards of the British trenches. But again they were driven back although the guardsmen suffered heavily from their fire. At this moment it was decided to deliver a counter attack along the Brigade front. For this purpose two Coys of the Irish Guards were brought up on the RIGHT flank of the Brigade front and, at 11am, the line composed of two Coys 2nd Bn Irish Guards on the RIGHT, 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards in the centre and 4th Bn Grenadier Guards on the LEFT, advanced and attacked. Although this attack met with heavy opposition and was unable to progress very far, yet it fulfilled its chief object of delaying the enemy’s further advance for several hours. It was on the LEFT of the Brigade line that the best progress was made. This flank was attacking down a broad main road leading from VIEUX BERQUIN to NEUF BERQUIN. No 2 Coy, 4th Bn Grenadier Guards, under the command of Captain T F PRYCE, MC formed this flank. This Coy attacked with marked skill and determined gallantry, covering its own advance with the fire of its own rifles and rifle grenades. They captured the small hamlet of PONT RONDIN through which the main road ran, killing 30 Germans and capturing 2 machine guns and 2 prisoners. Captain PRYCE, the gallant command of this Coy himself killed 7 of the 30 Germans.
At about 3pm the enemy renewed his attacks all along the line and the situation again became very critical for the enemy succeeded in driving in a portion of the Brigade front. But an immediate counter attack, carried out without superior orders, but No 2 Coy of the 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and a Coy of 2nd Bn Irish Guards, drove back the enemy and re-established the situation.
About an hour before dusk the Germans made one more determined effort to gain their goal. But the spirit of discipline of the Brigade of Guards stood firm and, in spite of heavy losses from the fierce artillery, trench mortar and machine gun fire, the Guardsmen drove back the Germans.
Darkness brought a welcome respite from the intense firing, but it brought no further relief or rest to the 4th Guards Brigade. Orders were sent to them to continue their resistance at all costs. The fate of the British Army seemed to hang on their being able to carry out these orders for the last available reinforcements, the 1st Australian Division were being hurried up into the battle to form a solid defensive line which would stop the German onrush effectually. The plan was for the Germans to be held back at all costs while this fresh division formed a well organised and strong line of resistance about 1,000 yards behind the fighting line. It was reckoned that the Australians would require until the following evening to complete this task and it was therefore the duty of the 4th Guards Brigade to hang on until that time.
The night was therefore spent by the Guardsmen in readjusting their line and replenishing their ammunition and preparing themselves in every way for the grim conflict which they knew would recommence at dawn. Although the 4th Bn Grenadier Guards had lost 8 officers and 250 OR and the Bn had lost proportionately heavily yet it was found necessary to increase the frontage occupied by the Brigade in order to cover the required ground.
With the first streak of dawn the German attacks were renewed. A thick fog during the early hours of daylight enabled the Germans to work forward their light machine guns into the intervals between the scattered British posts. They also brought up an armoured motor car against a portion of the Coldstreams line. Throughout the morning the enemy made repeated attacks. These were met and driven back by the gallant determination of the small and scattered bands of heroic Guardsmen. The story of Guardsman JACOTIN of 3rd Bn Coldstream Guard is typical of the spirit shown by all these gallant men. He was one of the garrison of the LEFT post of No 3 Coy 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards. All the men in the post except himself were killed or wounded but yet he fought on by himself and stopped the German advance until he was killed by a hand grenade thrown by a German who had crept up behind the trench while Guardsman JACOTIN was shooting at the Germans in front of him and holding the trench single handed.
And so the fight went on until shortly after noon, when the troops on the LEFT of the 4th Guards Brigade, who had been holding the village of LA COURONNE immediately on the LEFT of the Grenadiers, were driven back by a heavy concentrated German attack. The Germans at once occupied LA COURONNE and, under cover of the houses, they were quickly able to attack the LEFT of the Grenadiers, both from the flank and from the rear. The LEFT Coy of 4th Bn Grenadier Guards was No 2 Coy commanded by Captain PRYCE, the Coy which had counter attacked so successfully on the previous day. The Coy was thus surrounded. They continued fighting on and by so doing they succeeded in delaying the Germans, although they sacrificed themselves. What subsequently happened to this Coy was told by its one survivor, a Corporal who worked his way back to the Australian lines on the following night. He related how, at 6:15pm Captain PRYCE realised that the situation was hopeless as his ammunition was all expended and the Germans were all round him and were being reinforced. At this time a party of the enemy approached to within 80 yards of his trenches.
Captain PRYCE ordered his Coy, which was then 18 strong, to charge with the bayonet. The enemy were luckily unable to fire from the front as their own troops were behind our men and the charge was completely successful in driving back the Germans. Again the enemy worked forward to close quarters and again Captain PRYCE and his gallant band drove them back. But meanwhile the enemy were receiving reinforcements and these eventually turned the scale against this indomitable defence. Captain PRYCE was one of the last of this band of heroes to die. He was last seen fighting in a hand-to-hand struggle against overwhelming odds. By their noble self-sacrifice in their country’s cause they kept the Germans at bay long enough to allow the Australians to form a strong line of defence which the Germans never succeeded in penetrating. By their gallant deaths they all earned for themselves undying fame. His Majesty King George V granted a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to their gallant leader Captain PRYCE.
The remainder of the thin scattered line of the 4th Guards Brigade was almost as this LEFT flank and thus it came about that by nightfall the Germans were able to call themselves masters of the field where these bloody encounters had taken place but only to find that in front of them the 1st Australian Division had securely established themselves as an impenetrable barrier, a result which had only been made possible by the spirit of determination and of devotion to duty of the Brigade of Guards.