Posted 03 January 2006 - 08:27 pm
A post by Stiletto in April is concerned with the 8th Division on 27th May 1918
He has kindly transcribed this extract from: 8th Division 1914 - 1918, by Lt.-Colonel J.H. Boraston & Bax
Yet the feeling of silence persisted. Not a shell came from the enemy, and his quietness removed any lingering doubts as to his intentions.
How that evening dragged. The time crept slowly on towards zero hour till only a few minutes were left.... Suddenly two German Gas shells burst close at hand, punctual heralds of the storm. Within a second, a thousand guns roared out their Iron hurricane. The night was rent with sheets of flame. The earth shuddered under the avalanche of missiles... leapt skywards in dust and tumult. Ever above the din screamed the fierce crescendo of approaching shells, ear splitting crashes as they burst... all the time the dull thud, thud of detonations... drum fire. Inferno raged and whirled round the Bois des Buttes. The dug outs rocked... filled with the acrid fumes of cordite, the sickly sweet tang of gas. Timbers started, earth showered from the roof, men rushed for shelter, seizing kits, weapons, gas masks, message pads as they dived for safety. It was a descent into hell. Crowded with jostling, sweating humanity the dug outs reeked and to make matters worse Headquarters had no sooner got below than gas began to filter down.
Gas masks were hurriedly donned and anti gas precautions taken- the entrance closed with saturated blankets, braziers lighted on the stairs. If gas could not enter, neither could air. As a fact both did in small quantities and the long night was spent forty feet underground, at the hottest time of the year, in stinking overcrowded holes, their entrances sealed up and charcoal braziers alight drying up the atmosphere - suffocation rendered more complete by the gas mask with clip on nostrils and gag in teeth.
It was one o'clock in the morning of the 27th May, punctual to the predicted time, that the German bombardment was loosed. The whole of IX Corps front and many back areas - railheads, ammunition dumps and the like - were drenched with gas shell. Outpost lines were assailed in addition by trench mortars of every calibre, and the Battle Zone received the terrible bombardment from artillery of all natures which has just been so graphically described. Our artillery positions were also violently attacked with gas shell and H.E. and had area shoots carried out upon them, with the result that by 6am most of our guns North of the river were out of action. A mist which rose into being with the opening of the bombardment, as though evoked at the will of the German Higher Command and in fact accentuated by the enemy's gas and smoke shells, grew steadily thicker as the night proceeded and made the task of defence additionally difficult.It was indeed, almost uncanny how in this spring of 1918 the luck of the weather favoured the Germans in attack. On each preceding night spent on the new front the weather had been clear and when, for the third time, the troops of the division found their defence hampered by a dense blanket of fog, men and officers began firmly to believe that the enemy had discovered means to put down a mist whenever it was wanted.
The first Infantry attack, assisted by tanks which flattened out the wire, was delivered, it is probable, at about 4 o'clock in the morning, against the angle of the salient in our right sub-sector (25th Infantry Brigade). Owing to the dense mist and to the fact that nearly all units in the Outpost Zone were cut off to a man, it is difficult to reconstruct precisely the sequence of events. It is only at intervals that a clear message comes back out of the chaos and coonfusion which the fog necessarily produced. Even such a message only serves to emphasize the assistance which the lack of visibility and the exposed position of our troops in the salient gave to the enemy in his attack. Take for instance, the following pidgeon message, the following pidgeon, timed at 5.15am, which was received at Divisional Headquarters at 6.05am: HQ 2nd R.Berks Regt, consisting of Lieut-Col Griffen, Capt Clare, RSM Wokins, Sergt Trinder, Corpl Dobson, Ptes Stone, Gregory, Slee, and QM surrounded. Germans threw bombs down dug outs and pressed on. Appeared to approach from right rear in considerable strength. No idea what has happened elsewhere. Holding out in hopes of relief.
Such hopes were alas in vain.
The attack swept forward, and although our troops resisted stubbornly for a time in the Battle Zone and caused severe losses to the enemy on this line, the defence was overwhelmed by weight of numbers. Brigade HQ had been early involved in the fighting, being practically surrounded before it was known that the front line had gone. It was near here that the brigade major, Captain B.C. Pascoe, M.C., Rifle Brigade, was killed while making a gallant stand. General Husey and what remained of his HQ staff fought their way out and moved back to Gernicourt to organise its defences. At 6.30am General Husey reported to Divisional HQ that he was holding the river line there with the remnants of his brigade. At 7.15am he further reported that all the bridges east of the junction of the Miette and Aisne had been blown up and that he was holding the high ground west of Gernicourt. Later in the morning General Husey, who had only taken command of the brigade front (vice General Coffin, promoted to Divisional Command) on the 7th May, was badly wounded and gassed, and he died a few days after in German hands.
Meanwhile the fortunes or misfortunes of the other two brigades remain to be considered. These two brigades do not appear to have been seriously attacked until about 5am. The front line battalion of the 24th Infantry Brigade (2nd Northamptonshire) was then gradually driven back to the Battle Zone. Tanks do not appear to have been used on this front, but as the light increased enemy aeroplanes were observed flying low over our forward system and firing into the trenches. Colonel Buckle, whose conduct and example had been an inspiration to his men, was killed outside his Battalion HQ, but his battalion fought on and in the Battle Zone in this sector the enemy's advance was definetely checked. The position here was very strong and repeated attacks were beaten off bith by the 2nd Northamptons and 1st Worcestershires.
The last message sent by Colonel Buckle to his front line companies a short time after the German bombardment started, is recorded in tribute to a very gallant officer, and as an example of the spirit in which the defence was made. It ran
"All Platoon commanders will remain with their platoons and ensure that the trenches are manned immediately the bombardment lifts. Send short situation wire every half hour. No short bombardment can possibly cut our wire and if sentries are alert it cannot be cut by hand. If they try it shoot the devils.
This message was found pinned on the wall of the battalion HQ dug out by Colonel Buckles father, who visited the spot after the Armistice. He found his son's grave close to the entrance, and on each side of the grave a German had been buried. Those who knew Colonel Buckle felt sure he would fight to a finish and never surrender.
The position here was, as has been said, so strong that our troops might well have held out indefinetely against any frontal assault, but the enemy was able to profit by his success on our right. At 5.45am large numbers of Germans were suddenly observed from the 24th Brigade H.Q. approaching along the line of the Miette Stream which they had crossed south of the Battle Zone. The main line of defence was taken by this movement in flank and rear and its defenders were cut and surrounded. Major Cartland, commanding the 1st Worcestershires, was killed in the trenches with his men and, at 6am, Brigade HQ was itself attacked from the rear. The staff captain to the brigade was taken prisoner, and General Haig, and his acting brigade Major (Capt. F.C. Wallace, M.C.) both of whom were suffering from gas, had great difficulty in getting clear. A few others, including the signalling officer, intelligence officer and some of brigade H.Q personnel, managed to fight their way back to la Pecherie bridge, the defence of which they organised under Captain Pratt, M.C., 1st Worcetershire. The Germans, however, were seen shortly afterwards to have worked round behind Capt. Pratt's party and appear to have cut them off. Soon after 9 o'clock in the morning the collected remnants of this brigade, now numbering 3 officers and 68 other ranks only, were holding a trench on the north east side of Roucy.
The 23rd Infantry Brigade had been attacked at about the same time as the 24th Brigade. The enemy were held for a short time by the forward battalion (2nd West Yorkshire) who were then forced back to the Battle Zone, where, with the 2nd Middlesex they held their ground against all attacks. The 2nd Devonshire maintained their positions in the Bois des Buttes with equal stubborness. The enemy brought up tanks against these troops, but these were destroyed by the French anti-tank guns. At 7am these battalions were still holding out. Once again, howveer, the gallant frontal defence was of no avail. The turning movement which had got round the flanks and rear of the 24th Brigade was continued against the 23rd Brigade, and not only so but a breach had been made in the right front of the 149th Infantry Brigade (50th Division), the neighbouring brigade on the 8th Divisions left. As a result of this double thrust the unfortunate West Yorkshire and Middlesex were taken in rear from both flanks and cut off.
Here is an account of the receipt, turn by turn, of these disastrous tidings at Brigade H.Q. "Dawn began to break, but no news came of any Infantry attack. The Brigade intelligence officer reported that a heavy ground mist rendered observation impossible, but shortly afterwards sent the amazing message: "Enemy balloons rising from our front line." Hot upon this message came another from the 24th Brigade: "Enemy advancing up Miette Stream. Cannot hold out without reinforcements." Such news was startling in the extreme, but worse was still tocome, for at about 5.30am the 149th Brigade on the left reported: "Enemy has broken our Battle Line and is advancing on Ville au Bois." Thus before word had come of the brigade front being assaulted, the enemy had turned both flanks and was advancing on the Butte des Buttes."
The 2nd Devonshire here posted were soon in desperate straits. Heavily attacked in front and on both flanks, the battalion slowly fell backwards towards Pontavert. When some distance north of the town the gallant commanding officer, Lieut-Col. R.H. Anderson-Morshead, D.S.O., refused to retire further and called upon his battalion to take up a position and protect the crossing. This they did, but the enemy coming in from the east along the river finally got into Pontavert itself and thus surrounded them and cut them off. The fact that the Germans were behind them made no difference to the dauntless spirit of the Devons. There they remained, an island in the midst of a sea of determined enemies, fighting with perfect discipline, and, by the steadiness of their fire, mowing down assault after assault. A battery commander, who was an eye witness, gives the following account of the action:
"At a late hour in the morning I, with those of my men who had escaped the enemies ring of machine guns and his fearful barrage, found the C.O. of the 2nd Devon Regiment and a handful of men holding on to the last trench north of the canal. They were in a position in which they were entirely without hope of help, but were fighting on grimly. The Commanding Officer himself was calmly writing his orders with a perfect hail of H.E. falling round him. I spoke to him and he told me that nothing could be done. He refused all offers of help from my artillerymen, who were unarmed, and sent them off to get through if they could. His magnificent bearing, dauntless courage and determination to carry on to the end moved one's emotion."
Refusing to surrender and preferring to fight to the last, this glorious battalion perisheden masse, its losses comprising the C.O., 28 officers and 552 N.C.O.'s and men. In fit acknowledgement of its splendid choice the battalion was "cited" in French Army Orders and awarded the Croix de Guerre. Its self sacrifice enabled Brig-Gen Grogan to organise, with the remnants of his brigade, a defensive position on the high ground about la Platrerie, due south of Pontavert and across the river, to which he moved his H.Q. The command of such troops as were left was entrusted to Capt. Clive Saunders, Adjutant of the 2nd West Yorkshire.
Thus, by early morning, the remnants of the division were all across the river and the enemy, rapidly following up, was crossing the river also. Before continuing the further narrative of the battle it will, however, be convenient to consider what what had happened to our artillery during the progress of the initial attack.
There can be no doubt that our battery positions were known to the enemy and when his artillery was loosed at 1am all our gun positions were heavily shelled, at first with gas shells and later with H.E., or mixed with H.E. and gas. H.E and gas in mixed doses following the preparatory gas says one battery report, and the enemy shooting seemed uncannily accurate. Under these conditions it was, in many cases, impossible to carry on the counter preparation and harassing fire which was to have continued all night, but it was maintained whenever possible and for as long as possible. The 5th battery (XLV Brigade) for instance, continued to fire throughout the night until, at about 6.30am the enemy appeared on the battery position. Many guns, however, were early put out of action by direct hits. The three guns at the main position of the 57th battery (Major B.W. Ellis) of the same brigade hade been absolutely wrecked by 2.30am and the fourth pit (which was unoccupied) had been set on fire. The 1st battery (Major M.T. Bargh), also of the XLV brigade, similarly had three guns put out of action by hostile shell fire.
The 8th Divisions Artillery dispositions when the battle opened were as follows: The zone of the 25th Infantry Brigade on the right, was covered by the French Group Pau, under Commandant Paul.This group of 75mm guns was located south of the Aisne. The 24th Infantry Brigade, in the centre, was covered by the XXXIII Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut-Col H.G. Fisher, D.S.O.) while the XLV Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut-Col J.A. Ballard), covered the zone of the 23rd InfantryBrigade. Both these brigades of 18 pounder guns were north of the river. Owing to the circumstances and as a result of the rapid German penetration which has already been described, the personnel of the two British brigades became involved, between 6 and 7am in hand to hand fighting, and such guns as had not been previously destroyed were ultimately captured by the enemy. The 1st battery was completely surrounded by 7am. Breech blocks were taken out to render the guns useless to the enemy and the men fought with rifles and lewis guns, but of the whole battery only 2 Sergeants and 6 men succeeded in breaking their way through and getting back to the wagon lines.
When the enemy in like manner approached the position of the 32nd battery ( XXXIII Brigade) Major A.G. Ramsden, the battery commander, had one of his guns run out of its emplacement, so as to give it a wider arc of fire, and with it kept the enemy off at close range, the remaining gunners and N.C.O.'s assisting with lewis and rifle fire. The gun was eventually placed on a small railway truck, and after all the maps, records, kits etc etc, which could not be moved had been burnt and the other guns had been rendered useless by the removal of the breech blocks and sights, Major Ramsden retired down the Miette valley fighting a rearguard action with his one gun. Although nearly surrounded and ultimately forced to abandon his gun, he was finally able to get the remaining personnel of his battery across the canal.
A detailed account has been compiled from survivors statements of the heroic action of the 5th battery (XLV Brigade), already mentioned, and it may be quoted fairly fully here as a typical example of the appalling trials which our gunners on ths night had to undergo, and of the magnificent spirit with which they were met.
The battery was carrying out its counter preparation work when the deluge from the enemies guns broke over it.
"Gas masks were instantly adjusted and about ten minutes later the rocket sentry reported S.O.S. rockets on the front. The call was immediately responded to by our gunners, Capt. J.H. Massey controlling the fire of the battery, while Lieut. C.E. Large and 2nd Lieut. C.A. Button commanded their sections. To continue to serve the guns indefinetely during such a terrific bombardment was a physical impossibility for any one man, and Capt. Massey, realizing this, organised a system of reliefs, two gunners and one N.C.O. manning each gun. The remainder of the personnel took cover until their turns came round to take their place at the guns.
After the customary period of fire on the SOS lines, guns were once more laid on counter preparation lines and a steady rate of fire was continued during what seemed an interminable night.
Lieut. Large and 2nd Lieut. Button frequently took their places with the gunners in the reliefs, while Capt. Massey kept moving from pit to pit and dug out to dug out and then to the detached sections, encouraging the detachments and telephonists and reminding them of the splendid traditions of the Royal Regiment.
By about 5am No 4 gun had been put out of action owing to a shell splinter tearing up the guides. The detachment was withdrawn and sent in to reinforce the other detachments.
The strain on all concerned was terrific, but at last at about 6.45am the enemies barrage lifted clear of the position. Instead, however, of the expected respite, large numbers of German Infantry and gunners came into view less than 200 yards from the battery position. A few rounds were fired at point blank range, but it was then reported that Germans were coming up in rear. There was nothing left but to resort to rifles and lewis guns. Capt. Massey, realizing the situation a little earlier, had called for volunteers and pushed off with 4 gunners and a lewis gun to a small eminence to the eastward in an endeavour to protect the flank. Nothing more has been heard of Capt. Massey and his men. Lieut. Large, although wounded in the foot, took the other lewis gun, 2nd Lieut. Button, after having destroyed all the maps, papers and records, was last seen moving off with a rifle to assist Capt. Massey. The remainder of the battery fought to the last with their rifles till overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers."
Only three gunners who were unarmed and were ordered to retire, and one with a rifle who fought his way out, survived.Of the two F.O.O.'s, 2nd Lieut. C. Counsell and 2nd Lieut. H.Reakes, and their telephonists nothing was heard of again. The 5th battery shared with the 2nd Devonshire the honour of being "cited" in French Army Orders and awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Many a similar conflict, carried to the same grim, gallant and inevitable end, must have been fought in the dim and misty dawn on that tract of coutry north of the Aisne, where were collected on the night of the 26th May the fighting troops of the 8th Division.
To continue now with the main story. By 6.30am the right of the line rested on the Gernicourt position, but between this and the right of the 24th Infantry Brigade there was a gap. The battalion in divisional reserve (1st Sherwood Foresters) was ordered to move forward and fill it, and succeeded in preventing the enemy crossing the river on its front in the vicinity of la Pecherie bridge. Elsewhere, however, he was getting across and, well covered by artillery (of which the 8th division now possessed none), he outflanked and drove back General Grogan's party (23rd Brigade), which was holding the high ground above la Platerie. The enemy drove forward thence and the Sherwood Foresters and the other defenders of the Gernicourt position were ultimately cut off. The great natural strength of the position, which must have made it a most serious obstacle to a direct assault, was thus of no avail. It was turned from the south westahe ttle passed it by. The garrison, including the French Territorial Troops, appear to have put up a good fh, but they were surrounded and, later in the morning, were overpowered. All the French 75's and the guns of the VX brigade, R.F.A. which were in action in this neighbourhood were lost.
In view of the rapid advance of the enemy the divisional commander decided, shortly after 10am, to use his remaining reserves - some 600 men from the lewis gun school, men from the transport lines etc - to hold the second position. This ran alongbthe northern slopes of the high ground south of the river Aisne on the general line Bouffignereux - Roucy - Conevreux. Troops of the 25th Division were already moving up to this line in accordance with corps orders. At 1.20pm the 75th Infantry Brigade, which had originally been ordered forward from 25th Division division in reserve to fill a gap between the remnants of the 8th division and what was left of the 50th division, was put under General Henekers orders and the line about this time was held generally as follows. On the right front, isolated and surrounded, remnants of the 22nd Durham L.I. and 1st Sherwood Foresters were still holding portions of the Bois de Gernicourt. The 75th infantry brigade was holding the second position from Bouffignereux to Concevreux as follows: On the right, from Bouffignreeux to Roucy, the 2nd South Lancashire with remnants of the 24th and 25th Infantry Brigades: on the left, from Roucy to Concevreux, the 11th Cheshires, with the remnants of the 23rd infantry brigade. The 8th Border Regiment was in close support behind Roucy. On the divisional right the forward swell of the hill on the right of Bouffignereux was occupied by the 7th infantry brigade of the 25th Division, on its left at Concevreux wa the 74th infantry brigade.
During the afternoon there was a lull in the fighting. "The day was extremely hot, the sunshine brilliant and, but for the deep drone of heavy shells winging their way rearwards, all sounds of battle were temporarily stilled. Viewed from the hills above Roucy the battle area presented a vivid spectacle. The Aisne and its attendant canal glittered like silver ribbons in the sun, while in the vacated trench area beyond hung a pall of haze and dust, which lifting at intervals revealed the roads thick with marching regiments in field grey, with guns, lorries and wagons.
Above, like great unwinking eyes rode observation balloons, towed along by motor transport. These balloons were brought up very close and the German preparations fro a fresh assault continued methodically and with hardly any molestation.
Between 4 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon, under cover of heavy fire from trench mortars and machine guns, the attack was renewed all along the line. Our line on the right, at the point of junction with the 7th infantry brigade, was pierced and the village of Bouffignereux was captured. This success was vigorously exploited and our whole line forced back. By 7.15pm it had been pushed back some 3000 yards and ran along the tops of the hills seperating the valley of the Aisne from the valley of the Vesle. The GOC 75th infantry brigade (Brig-Gen H.A Kennedy) was calling urgently for reinforcements and ammunition. The latter was sent at once. To meet the former demand, General Heneker sent out officers to collect all the stragglers they could find and these, supplemented by his HQ guard and the personnel of his HQ - a total force of some 500 men - were sent forward under his ADC, Major G.R. Hennessy and were handed over to General Kennedy at 10pm. Our line, often out of touch with adjacent formations, continued to fall back and, before midnight, Ventelay and Bouvancourt were in the hands of the enemy. So rapid was the enemy's advance that in the latter village the entire 25th Ambulanc was captured. The village was surrounded before the ambulance knew that any danger existed. Subsequently the OC, Lieut-Col T.P. Puddicombe, D.S.O., and another officer, Lieut. Kelly, an American Doctor, managed to escape and to regain our lines.
Divisional HQ, which had already at 5 o'clock that afternoon fallen back to Montigny-sur-Vesle, were opened at 11.30pm at Branscourt to the south of that river, but during the night the enemy succeeded in turning our right flank, our troops were forced to fall back to the line of the river Vesle, and Divisional HQ had again to retire, opening at Faverolles at 9.45 am on the 28th May. Meanwhile General Grogan, GOC 23rd infantry brigade was ordered at 6am, to assume command of all troops in the vicinity of Jonchery and to hold a front on the river Vesle extending 1 mile on either side of that town.
(most of the information supplied to the regimental historians for this account came from Captain Sidney Rogerson of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment)
If anyone has any photographs of men mentioned in this extract I would be grateful if they could post them on.