The Attack on Hill 35, 10th September 1917
From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
At 4 p.m.’ said the 61st Divisional Summary for the twenty-four hours ending I2 noon, September II, I917, ‘we attacked the Battery
Position on Hill 35. This attack was not successful.’ A grim epitaph. The terse formula, as though wasted words must not follow wasted lives, was the official record of the seventh attempt to storm Hill 35.
Against the concrete gunpits which crowned this insignificant ridge the waves of our advance on July 31 had lapped in vain. Minor attacks designed to take Gallipoli, a German stronghold set behind the ridge, and against the sister position of Iberian on its flank, proved throughout August some of the most costly failures in the 5th Army operations. The defence of the three strongholds,
Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli provided a striking example of German stubbornness and skill, but added an object-lesson in the squandering of our efforts in attack. Operations upon a general scale having failed to capture all three, it was fantastically hoped that each could be reduced separately. Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli supported one another, nor was it feasible to hold any without holding all. Yet to take Hill 35 on September 9 the 2/4th Oxfords were specially selected. The spirit of A and D Companies, chosen b Colonel Wetherall for the attack, was excellent. We confidently believed that we could succeed where others failed. Optimism, so vital an ingredient in morale, was a powerful assistant to the English Army. It was fostered, perhaps unconsciously, throughout the war by the cheerful attitude preserved by our Generals and staff, but its foundation lay, in our great system of supply. The A.S.C., which helped to win our victories, helped, too, to temper our defeats.
On September 7 Brown and myself went up through Ypres to view the scene of the attack. At Wieltje, where Colonel Wetherall and B and C Companies already were, we descended to a deep, wet dug-out and that night listened to a narrative brought by an officer who had participated in the last attempt to take the hill. He dispensed the most depressing information about the gunpits, the machine-guns, the barrages, and last, but not least terrible (if believed), the new incendiary Verey lights used by the Germans to cremate their assailants. The description of a piece of trench, which we were to capture and block, particularly flattered our prospects. ‘Wide, shallow trench, enfiladed from Gallipoli, filled with the Division dead,’ it ran. The tale of horror becoming ludicrous, we soon afterwards clambered on to the wire bunks
and slept, dripped on, till the early morning.
The next day was misty. Our 15-inch howitzers, on whose ability to smash the enemy’s concrete strongholds reliance was staked, could not fire. The attack was postponed until September 10, but that decision came too late to stop our companies quitting the camp according to previous orders and marching up through Ypres. They could have stayed at Wieltje for the night, but the men’s fear that by so doing they would miss their hot tea, decided their vote in favour of a return to Goldfish Château. Tea is among the greatest bribes that tan be offered to the British soldier.
Accordingly the march through Ypres, or rather, round it (for no troops chose to pass its market place) as repeated on the morrow.
The tracks towards the line were shelled on our way up, but we came safely through. Dusk was awaited in a much war-worn trench in front of Wieltje.
As daylight fades we file away, each man with his own thoughts. Whose turn is it to be this journey ?
Along the tortuous track of tipsy duckboards we go for a mile, until acrid fumes tell that the German barrage-line is being passed. This is a moment to press on! To get the Company safely
across this hundred yards is worth many a fall. Presently the shattered pollards of the Steenbeek are left behind and flickering Verey lights cast into weird relief the rugged surface of the earth.
At Pommern Castle our front trenches, in which figures of men loom indistinctly, are reached. At one corner, where the trench is littered with fragments, we are cautioned by a sentry, whose voice is a little shaken, not to linger; the entrance to a pill-box (which faced the enemy) was hit a short rime ago. From the trench we proceed further into No-Man’s-Land, where the Bucks are said to have linked up shell-holes since night-fall. (Those will be our “assemblv position’ for the attack tomorrow afternoon). By now all shells are passing over our heads; we are level with where Verey lights are falling, and the sweep of bullets through the air shows that the enemy is not far off. Figures appear as if by magic. All at once there is a crowd of men, rattling equipment and talking in suppressed voices. A few commands, and the relief is complete. We are in No-Man’s-Land, strung in a line of shell-holes, from which in sixteen hours’ time the attack is to start.
Soon after 3 a.m. I set out to visit all the scattered groups of men to give my last instructions, for from dawn onwards no movement would be possible. It was an eerie situation. The night was filled with multifarious noise–peculiar poops,’ the distant crash of bombs, and all the mingled echoes of a battlefield. At one time German howitzers, firing at longest range, chimed a faint chorus high above our heads; anon a hissing swoop would plant a shell close to our whereabouts. Lights rose and sank, flickering. Red and green rockets, as if to ornament the tragedy of war, were dancing in the sky. Occasionally a gust of foul wind, striking the face, could make one fancy that Death’s Spectre marched abroad, claiming her children …..
Our guns fired incessantlv. Their shells came plunging down with an arriving whistle that made each one as it came seem that it must drop short –and many did. Mist drifted fitfullv around and
hid, now and again, two derelict tanks, at which a forward post of my company was stationed. This post I was on my way to visit, when, suddenly, what seemed trench-mortar bombs began to fall. About twenty fell in a minute, the last ones very close to where I stood. They were gas. It was a sickening moment; surprise, disaster, and the possibility that here was some new German devilry fired at us from behind, joined with the fumes to numb the mind and powers. Half-gassed ] gave the gas-alarm. By telephone I managed to report what had happened. The Colonel seemed to understand at once; ‘l’ve stopped them,’ conveyed everything of which it was immediately necessary to make certain. For it was an attack by out own gas. Some detachment, without notifying our Brigade staff or selecting a target which sanity could have recommended, had done a ‘shoot’ against my company’s position under the mistake that the enemy was in it. Two casualties, which I believe proved fatal, resulted. Many men vomited. I was prostrated for two hours. “The effect on the morale of some of my men was as pitiable as it was amply justifiable.
For this dastardly outrage I fancy that no person was ever brought to book. Infantry loyally condoned the so-called ‘short shooting’ by our guns. Out of thousands of shells fired at the enemy some must and did rail in our lines. But from such condonation is specifically to be excepted this instance of a gas projection carried out with criminal negligence upon my comrades. For or
by its perpetrator no excuse was offered: and yet the facts were never in dispute.
Proverbially the worst part of an attack was waiting for it. On September 10, from dawn till 4 p.m., A and D Companies lay cramped in shell-holes on the slopes of Hill 35- In my own hole,
so close that out knees touched, sat Sergeant Palmer, Rowbotham, my signalling lance-corporal, Baxter, another signaller, Davies, my runner, and myself. With us we had a telephone and a basket of carrier pigeons.
At 8 a.m., while some of us were sleeping heavily, there came a crash and a jar, which shook every fibre in the body. An English shell had burst a yard or two from the hole wherein we lay. Voices from neighbouring shell-holes hailed us- ‘Are you all right?'” and we replied ‘We are.’ We had no other shell as close as that, but all day long there were two English guns whose shells, aimed at the Germans on the ridge in front, fell so near to where we lay- that we became half-used to being spattered with their earth. As the air warmed the error of these guns decreased, but we counted the hours anxiously until the attack should liberate us from such cruel jeopardy.’
The intolerable duration of that day baffles description. The sun, which had displaced a morning mist, struck down with unrelenting rays till shrapnel helmets grew hot as oven-doors. Blue- bottles (for had hot six attempts failed to take the hill ?) buzzed busily. The heat, our salt rations, the mud below, the brazen sky above, and the suspense of waiting for the particular minute of attack, vied for supremacy in the emotions. The drone of howitzers continued all the day. Only at 2.30 p.m., when a demonstration was made against Iberian, did any variety even occur. There was no choice nor respite. Not by one minute could the attack be either anticipated or postponed.
Of the attack itself the short outline is soon given. Promptly at 4 p.m. the creeping barrage started. In a dazed way or lighting cigarettes the men, who had lost during the long wait all sense of their whereabouts, began to stumble forward up the hill. Our shrapnel barrage was not good. One of the earliest shells burst just behind the hole from which I stepped. It wounded Rowbotham and Baxter (my two signallers) and destroyed the basket of carrier pigeons. Of other English shells I saw the brown splash amongst our men. Prolonged bombardment had ploughed the ground into a welter of crumbling earth and mud. Our progress at only a few dozen yards a minute gave the Germans in their pill-boxes ample time to get their machine-guns going, while correspondingly the barrage passed away from our advance in its successive lifts. Heavy firing from Iberian commenced to enfilade our ranks. Long before the objective was approached our enemies, who in some cases left the pill-boxes and manned positions outside, were masters of the situation. The seventh
attempt had failed to struggle up the slopes of Hill 35-
Despite the disappointment of this immediate failure of the enterprise, I realised at once the impossibility of its success. Yet on this occasion less was done by the men than the conduct of their leaders deserved. Almost as soon as bullets had begun to bang through the air some men had gone to shelter. Those who stood still were mown down. A handful of D Company, led by the company commander, by short rushes reached a ruined tank, close to the enemy, but the remainder disappeared into shell-holes, whence encouragement was powerless to more them. Only in A Company was any fire opened.
No sense of anti-climax could be demanded of the English soldier, whose daily shilling was paid him whether he was in rest-billets, on working-party, or sent into the attack.
On the part also of the Artillery less was done than the scheme promised or our attacking Infantry had counted on. By shell-fire the issue of Hill 35 was to have been placed beyond doubt.
When the artillery machine broke down, achievement of success demanded more initiative on the part of the Infantry than if no artillery had been used. In a sense our loss of a hundred guns at
Cambrai a few weeks later became a blessing in disguise, for it restored the scales in favour of the Infantryman as the decisive agent on the field of battle.
So ended the attack on Hill 35- Upon its slopes were added our dead to the dead of many regiments. But our casualties were few considering that the attack had been brought to a standstill by machine-gun fire. Of D Company officers Guest was wounded (he had behaved with gallantry in the attack) and Copinger missing. Viggers, a very brave sergeant, was killed. Three lance-corporals, Wise, Rowbotham, and Goodman, had been wounded. The total casualties to the Battalion, including several in B Company Headquarters from a single shell and others in passing afterwards through Ypres, were, happily, under fifty.
A few days after its attack on Hill 35 the Battalion marched away from Ypres, never to
Nowhere is this truth better expressed than in the words
of “Tommy’s own song, the refrain of which ends :-But you get your bob a day, never mind!” return. What credit had been earned there by the 61st Division was principally associated with the work of the I84th Infantry Brigade and of the 2/4th Oxfords. Improvement in morale flowed from the test of this great battle. The losses of the BattaIion had been heavy; fourteen officers
and 26o men were its casualties. The final winning of the war could not be unconnected with such a sacrifice. Like others before and others after it, the Battalion at Ypres gave its pledge to posterity.
“At this stage in the war the barrels of many of our guns and howitzers in use on the Western Front were very worn. That fact alone and not any want of care or devotion on the part of our artillery or staff would have accounted for the ‘short shooting’ which I record. To locate a worn barrel, when scores of batteries were bombarding together according to a complicated programme, was naturally impossible. Infantry recognised this.”
“Nowhere is this truth better expressed than in the words
of “Tommy’s own song, the refrain of which ends :-But you get your bob a day, never mind!”