The Raid Near St. Quentin, 28th April 1917
Extract from The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by G. K. Rose
“At this point I must explain for the benefit of lay readers the difference between a raid and an attack. The purpose of the latter was to drive the enemy from ground he occupied and stay there.
Early attacks upon the Western Front were usually directed against trenches, of which successive lines, reaching to a distance or ‘depth’ of several thousand yards, were often out goal or ‘objective.’ So that our Infantry could enter hostile trenches it was invariably necessary to destroy the wire in front or make a pathway through it. Many attacks ailed because the wire had hot been cut. Before the days of Tanks the means employed consisted, broadly speaking, in artillery tire, which it was also hoped would put the enemy’s machine-guns out of action and frighten his garrison. Our Infantry advanced immediately this fire had ceased or lifted’ to the next objective. During the Battle of the Somme it was found that the enem often left his actual trenches and came forward into shell holes in No-Man’s-Land so as to escape the fire of our artillery. To counter this manoeuvre the ‘creeping barrage’ was devised. Out shells were fired so as to form a moving curtain of destruction immediately in front of out men in their advance, whilst at the same time the enemy’s trenches were bombarded. Attacks on any scale were planned to capture and hold against the enemy some ridge, by losing which he lost observation of out lines, while we, in gaining it, saw more of his and also were enabled to advance our guns.
The purpose of a raid was to penetrate a portion of the enemy’s front, to kill or capture as many Germans as possible, and then retire. Raids differed materially from attacks in this respect, that
no attempt was made in the former to hold the ground won longer than was necessary” to satisfy” the plan. Raids were usually supported by artillery and took place at night; but daylight raids, though less common or successful, were sometimes made, and ‘ silent raids,’ when no artillery was used, were also tried.
This explanation, dull to military readers, will serve to indicate what operation I was now about to
undertake. The scheme, of which the General and his Brigade Major were the authors, was to pass
a body of men through a gap in the unoccupied portion of the German trenches opposite Fayet,
deploy, and sweep sideways against some other trenches, thought to be held, and through several
copses which Bucks patrols had pronounced weakly garrisoned by the enemy. These copses, which were expected to yield a few handfuls of runawav bovs in German uniform, would be attacked by us in flank and rear at the same time. The scheme promised well, but the proposed manner of retirement, which would be in daylight and across nearly a mile of open ground, presented difficulties. The more to overcome them and to be fresh for the event, D Company and the platoons of C selected for the task were to stay in the sunken road north of Fayet, while A and B
Companies went to garrison the outpost line.
The Battalion was mostly fortunate in the opportunity of its reliefs. One always prayed that the time spent in moving up and changing places with troops in the front line would coincide with a period quiet in regard to shelling. One hoped still more that no hostile attack would clash with the relief.
Such prayers and hopes on April 26, when a quiet, easy relief was specially desired, came near
to being falsified. At dusk, just as our companies were starting towards Fayet, the enemy commenced an operation against Çepy Farm, a ruined building near the front line, predestined by its position to be an object of contention. The attack was ably dealt with by Tubbs’ company of the Bucks had proved abortive for the enemy. The circumstance was accompanied by much erratic shelling from both sides. Orders to stand- to were issued rather broadcast, and as the relief was now in progress a degree of confusion resulted everywhere. The destination of my company and half of C was the sunken road leading down into Fayet, but that I round already crowded with
troops. Almost all units of the Brigade seemed to be trying to relieve or support each other, and the front line itself was in quite a ferment, nobody actually knowing what the enemy had done, was
doing, or was expected to do. Under these conditions it became impossible for me to send patrols to learn the ground from which the impending raid was to be launched. It happened, in fact, that
when the time to move forward had arrived, I alone of all the five platoons about to be engaged knew the route to the ‘position of assemby,’ that is to say, the place where the attacking troops were to collect immediately before the raid. That most severe risk- for had I been a casualty” the entire enterprise would have miscarried–was owing partly to the accident of the confused relief, but more to the short notice at which the work was to be carried out. Instead of that thorough reconnaissance which was so desirable I had to be content with a visit, shared by my officers and a few N.C.O.’s, to an advanced observation post from which a view was possible of those trenches and woods we were under orders to raid.
The sunken road proved anything but a pleasant waiting place. The shelling of Fayet–fresh- scattered bricks across whose roads showed it an unhealthv place–was now taken up in earnest by the enemv. Partly perhaps from their own affection for such places, but more probably because it was out most likely route to reach the village, the Germans seldom allowed an hour to pass without sending several salvoes of 5-9s into the sunken road. My men were densely packed in holes under the banks. I was expecting large supplies of flares and bombs and all those things one carried on a raid, and had, of course, orders and explanations of their duties to give to many different parties.
All this made April 27 a vexatious day. During the early part of the night men from my company had to carry rations to the front line companies. At midnight, while resting in a wretched lean-to in the sunken road, I had tidings that Corporal Viggers and several others had been hit by a shell, which destroyed all C Company’s rations. Of these casualties there was a man whose name I forget, who insisted on going, not back to hospital, but into the raid a few hours afterwards. He went, and was wounded again. It is a privilege to place on record the valorous conduct of this unnamed soldier.
While I was receiving the serious news which deprived me of a valuable leader and several picked men, a shell pitched a few yards from the spot I occupied. The light went out, and I was half covered with dust and rubbish. To move was second nature. Followed by Taylor I ‘moved’ 100 yards down the road to the rest of my company. My kit and maps were later rescued from the dirt and brought to my new position. Company Headquarters should be mobile, and on occasions like these were volatile.
At 1 a.m. I roused the men, some 150 all told, and the responsible task of issuing the bombs, wirecutters, and other things commenced. All these, invoiced with excellent precision by the Brigade Major, Moore, had been carried up by the Berks. The shelling rarely ceased, and I owed everything on this occasion to Corporal Leatherbarrow, who showed not only steadfast bravery but skill. The platoons could not, on account of the shells which sometimes fell in the roadway itself, be paraded, and each received its share of bombs piecemeal by sections. Food, to supplement which I did not scruple to issue some of the next day’s rations, was partaken of at 2 a.m., but it took long, and half an hour later the whole party should have started upon its journey across the mile of open fields to reach the assembly post. Disposal of the bombs, the meal, and those many last attentions which breed delay had taken longer than I had allowed. Time was getting very short. I wanted to dodge the shelling, but had missed a quiet interval that occurred at 2.30 a.m. At 3 a.m. I moved, leading the party in a long column over the open ground north of Fayet to reach its eastern side. The inevitable ‘wire mats’, an encumbrance without which few raiding parties ever started, hampered the progress. It was a pitch dark night, nor was I certain of the way. To cover the mile and then pass 150 men, ignorant of their whereabouts, silently and in single file through a gap into No-Man’s-Land ere dawn broke and our bombardment started now seemed impossible. It was a serious quandary. To go on might be to compromise not only the operation, but the lives of 150 men, who would be discovered in daylight and in the open near the enemy. But to go back was to jeopardise the reputation of the Battalion.
I went on.
Great darkness preceded the dawn, which was expected shortly after 4 a.m. I round the road, the first crater, the narrow track through the wire, and the empty ground beyond. A few minutes after the last man had reached his place our barrage opened. Shells fell spasmodically here and there for a few seconds; then all our batteries were shooting together. Their fire was admirable, heavv and well-directed.
In the stumbling rush forward to reach the nearest wood–C Company to the second crater on the Fayet Road–waves and platoons were rapidly confused. The Germans, who found themselves attacked in flank and rear, were totally surprised. They had not stood-to and many were yet asleep.
Some lights went up and a few sentries’ shots were fired, but it appeared that small resistance to our progress would be made. The wire was trampled through, and for some minutes our men played havoc with the Germans, who ran, leaving draggled blankets and equipment in their trenches. Dugouts were generously bombed, and explosions filled the air as our men hastily used the weapons brought to hurt the enemy. Three machine-guns fell into our hands. A miniature victory was in progress.
But a turn of events followed- the trenches and woods beyond those we had first entered were
neither unoccupied nor weakly” held. A force certainly equal to ours was in opposition. After their
first surprise the Germans recovered, manned their reserve machine-guns, and opened a fierce fire from front and flanks upon their assailants. Many of were hit, including Taylor, the officer of No. 15 Platoon, who was severely wounded in the thigh. In No. 13 Platoon, which lost most heavily, Allden and his Platoon Sergeant, Kilby, were killed. The full programme could not be effected. It was getting light; so I decided to withdraw. Most of D Company I round had already done this in their own way, but the remainder now collected at my summons. Lance-Corporal O”Connor with his tvo Lewis guns did yeoman service to stem what had become the German counter-attack. Ammunition was running short, and German stick-bombs obliged me, in order to save from capture those less badly hit, to leave Taylor, whose wound made him quite helpless. The wire, through which Sergeant Mowby had been busy cutting a path, was safely passed, and an hour afterwards we had regained the sunken road. I learnt that Jones, who had led the right of the advance, had not returned. He with his men had narrowly missed being cut off when the dawn broke. During the ensuing day this party had to lie scattered in shell-holes till darkness enabled them to reach our lines.
The raid was hailed as a signal success for the Battalion. Two machine-guns and one protesting
prisoner had been dragged back to our lines. The German trenches had been over-run and many of their occupants had been killed or wounded. By a satisfactory coincidence the troops whom we surprised were a battalion of the Jaegers, the very regiment which after three hours’ bombardment
had raided us exactly two months previously at Ablaincourt.
Our losses, considering the scope of the operation, were heavy, but not so proportionately to the
number of troops of both sides engaged nor to the severe nature of the fighting. Most of our casualties had bullet wounds. The list, officially, was” Killed, 1 officer and 10 other ranks; wounded, 2 officers and 41 ; missing, I officer and 2. Of Taylor I regret to say no news was ever heard. I left him wounded, probably fatally, and quite incapable of being moved. The likelihood is that he died soon afterwards and was buried by the enemy in the trench where he lay. Allden and Kilby were a serious loss to the fighting efficiency of D Company.
For their gallantry Corporal Sloper and Sergeant Butcher received the Military Medal and Jones the Military Cross. Corporal Leatherbarrow for his steadfast conduct in the sunken road was mentioned in dispatches. To Sergeant-Major Brooks fell the honour of the Battalion’s first V.C., of which the offïcial award ran as follows “–
For most conspicuous bravery. This Warrant Officer, while taking part in a raid on the enemy’s trenches, saw that the front wave was checked by an enemy machine-gun at close quarters. On his own initiative, and regardless of personal danger, he rushed forward from the second wave with the object of capturing the gun, killing one of the gunners, with his revolver and bayoneting another. The remainder of the gun’s crew, then made off, leaving the gun in his possession. S.M. Brooks then turned the machine-gun on to the retreating enemy, after which he carried it back to out lines. By his courage and initiative he undoubtedly prevented many casuaIties, and greatly added to the success of the operations.’
Killed in Action, 28th April 1917
Sergeant Herbert Kilby, 200603.
Corporal Harry Harbud, 201477.
Corporal Frederick Harris, 201083.
Lance Corporal George Hutchins, 200190
Lance Corporal Albert Henry Souch, 203761,
Private James Edgar Cockridge, 203458.
Private Stanley George Dade, 200445, age 20.
Private Thomas Ginger, 203534.
Private Willie Goffe, 203839, age 27.
Private Reginald Jack High, 203497.
Private Alfred Hyams, 203484
Private William John Murphy, 203502, Age 26
Private Charles Frederick Phillpott, 203510,
Private John Henry Shepherd, 200361, age 18.
Private William Waite, 202139, age 29.
Private George Walker, 201381, age 22
Private John Thomas Williams, 203762.