Captain H. Jones, M.C.
End of December 1916
The end of the last chapter left the Battalion complaining of our guns and otherwise merrymaking in the front line. A day or two before the New Year, companies marched back to huts near Pioneer Station and the next morning reached Hedauville. Here, shortly afterwards, Christmas dinners, consisting of pigs and plum-pudding, were consumed. It was believed that we had left Regina and Desire for good, were leaving the Corps and likely to do training in a back area for several weeks. Colonel Bellamy went on leave, and Bennett, amid many offers to accompany him as batman, departed for three months’ instruction at Aldershot as a senior officer. A new Major, W. L. Ruthven, arrived in January and temporarily was in command. Loewe and John Stockton returned from hospital and Jones from a Divisional working party, which had been engaged for a month on the wholesale manufacture of duck-boards. Lyon, an officer equally popular in and out of the line, had found egress from the Somme dug-outs troublesome and withdrew for a time to easier spheres. Men’s leave was now going well and frequent parties left Acheux Station for ‘ Blighty.’
28th April 1917
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…..
For their gallantry Corporal Sloper and Sergeant Butcher received the Military Medal and Jones the Military Cross. Corporal Leatherbarrow for his seadfast 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 official 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 our lines. By his courage and initiative he undoubtedly prevented many casualties, and greatly added to the success of the operations.’
On the eve of this great change-importing battle a short review is not amiss of the Battalion’s constitution. A Company still had for its Commander Brown, among whose officers were Coombes, Callender, and Webb. As Company Sergeant Major, Cairns was a tower of strength. John Stockton led B Company, and under him was Moberly. C Company possessed two Captains, Brucker and Harris,
and had as platoon commanders, Hawkes, Matthews, and Jones. D Company was still commanded by the author (C. K. Rose). An acquisition to my company had recently arrived in Scott, the bearer of two wounds received in service with the Oxford Territorials. Scott was the best officer I ever had. Guest, another new officer, before he went into the line showed that he was made of the right stuff; he was commander of No. 16 Platoon. Dawson- Smith, Copinger, Gascoyne, and Hill were other new arrivals in my company. The N.C.O.’s on whom I most relied were Sergeants Palmer, Leatherbarrow, and Sloper, but the real backbone of the Company were the gallant and determined
section leaders whom I had chosen for promotion from the ranks. Of my runners and signallers I was especially proud, and at Company Headquarters there was, of course, the redoubtable Sergeant-Major Brooks, who besides being a great fighter possessed also high organising powers. My total strength on reaching Poperinghe was over 200, which shows that at this time the Battalion was well found in men. It was known nevertheless that some reduction from this maximum fighting force was to take place. One hundred men of the Battalion, including ‘ specialists like Lewis gunners, signallers and runners, were henceforward left out of the line whenever the Battalion went forward to take part in an attack. They were so left in order that, if the casualties were very high, some nucleus of veteran soldiers would still remain around whom the new Battalion could be built. A like rule applied to officers. A month ago the Colonel had decided which of these should not take part in the first Ypres attack. Brown and myself stayed out of the line, and in our stead Callender and Scott respectively commanded A and D Companies.
21st March 1918
At 12 noon, after several patrols had failed to find out whether the enemy had captured Holnon, the Colonel himself went out to see all that was happening. He did not return, and shortly afterwards Headquarters were surrounded by the enemy, who had made ground on either flank. Nevertheless till 4.30 p.m. Cunningham, the officer left in command, held out most manfully. Of all the companies, Jones and less than fifty men had escaped capture. They reached the ‘ Battle Line of trenches east of Holnon Wood, and there joined the Gloucesters, who had not yet been engaged in the fighting. The enemy, having captured Maissemy, Fayet, and Holnon, paused to reorganise as evening fell….
A Battalion is too small for its historian to enter into any controversy upon the measures taken for the defence of the St. Quentin front. Whatever else the Oxfords could have done would have had no effect upon the main issues of this great attack. But for the mist the German onslaught, delivered in the preponderance of four to one, would hardly have achieved the same historical result. The Battalion had stood in the forefront of the greatest battle of the war. Accounts, already growing legendary, tell how our men acquitted themselves that day. Some posts fought on till all were killed or wounded. There were few stragglers. Of B Company, only one man returned from the front line. It is said of A Company that, when surrounded by the enemy, Brown formed the men into a circle, back to back, and fought without surrender.
The monument which stands above Fayet is happily placed. It is inscribed to the sons of
France who fell in action nearly fifty years ago.
On March 21, 1918, it was enriched by its association with a later sacrifice. The credit won in this lost battle gives to the 2 /4th Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry a share of honour in the war equal to that which has been earned by our most successful troops in the advance.
The loss in all ranks had been so heavy that the killed and missing could only be computed by
counting over those few that remained. Bennett and all four company commanders in the line were
missing. The Colonel and Moberly had been sent to England wounded. Jones was the only officer
from the front line who remained safe. Cairns, the Sergeant-Major of A Company, had come through
and earned distinction. The loss in Lewis gunners, signallers, and runners had been especially heavy. Douglas, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, after most valuable work in the Battalion, had been killed. Transport and stores, for extricating which credit was due to Abraham and Murray, alone came out complete.
From The Kaiser’s Battle, by Martin Middlebrook, Pen & Sword Military, 2007 (First published 1976).
When the attacking infantry reached our trench, the fog was still very dense. A shower of stick bombs forced us to leave the trench and we climbed out on to the back to maintain a line, but beyond the range of their bombs. There I met one of our corporals who had got a German prisoner. The German had come in , with a revolver held in both hands, but elaborately looking for someone to take him prisoner. Not wanting to be loaded with a prisoner, I took his revolver away and pushed him back into the trench and, in turning round, I saw six or seven German officers or N.C.O.s in the open looking at a map. They were only three or four yards away so I automatically came up with the revolver I had acquired and that was the only occasion in which I can honestly say that I shot any Germans in two and half years of front-line soldiering. I didn’t wait to see how many.
After that I gathered together about a dozen of my men and attempted to get back to Battalion H.Q. in Enghien Redoubt. I knew that I had to cross a certain sunken road near Fayet above which was a memorial to the Franco-Prussian War. I came to this road but could quite clearly hear Germans talking in it. I decided to cheer and yell and we ran down across the road and up the other side without being fired upon. We got going again in the fog and were fired upon by our own machine guns; we could tell it was one of ours by the sound. By that time we were pretty lively about getting down when anything fired and none of us was hit. I shouted ‘Second Fourth Oxfords’ but this had no effect. One of my men shouted ‘Kamerad‘ and it stopped at once. We found the machine-gunner was as lost as we were and he came with us.
We never got through to Enghien Redoubt but eventually we reached Brigade H.Q. I was the only officer to get back from my battalion and they attached my little party to the 2/5th Gloucesters. (Second Lieutenant H. Jones, 2/4yj Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry).
Lieutenant -Colonel J. H. Dimmer, V.C., M.C., of the 2/4th Royal Berkshires famously died leading his men mounted on horseback. from which he was killed. It was reported that his horse was taken over by Second Lieutenant , later Captain, H. Jones, 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who rode it until the end of the war.
The word ‘return’ should set some readers agog. I am sure no battalion had a better Orderly Room
than the 2 /4th Oxfords. Though only a Company Commander, I was struck by its efficiency when I
joined the Battalion. Units were apt to be judged by the promptness and accuracy of their returns, and Cuthbert, who for longer than anyone was Adjutant of the Battalion, won a deserved reputation in this respect. But inside the Battalion as well as out of it his efficiency was understood and valued. Cuthbert was a good instance of an officer without pre-war training whose commonsense and agreeability made him the equal in his work of any Regular. In the office Sergeant Birt had now for two years been a pillar of reliability; few officers or men of the Battalion but owed something to him. Spring 1918 brought an interregnum in the adjutantcy, till R. F. Symonds, formerly of the Bucks, returned from a staff attachment to take the post. Symonds had a remarkable gift for office work. Wrapped up in the routine of the Battalion, he was never happier than in Orderly Room with a full ‘basket’. Since the gassing of Headquarters, Shilson, a recently arrived officer with antecedents in the A.S.C., had acted adjutant; right creditably did he acquit himself in the duties suddenly cast upon him. Other new officers were now filling
important positions in the Battalion. Faithfull, another disciple from the A.S.C., whom also we got to like very much, was now in command of D Company; Clutsom commanded C, and Young, who had seen long service with the 48th Division, B Company; Jones still led A. Time had wrought
changes among the Sergeant-Majors of the Companies. At this period in Cunningham of A, Mudd of B, Smith of C, and Brooks of D, we had a quartet of tried experience. The recurrent con-
flicts about ‘strength’ a word which in effect meant the number of men employed with Quarter-master’s Stores and at Headquarters were now at a high pitch. After much ‘ camouflage,’ by aid of Bicknell, of the real facts, we had reluctantly to choose between the ‘return to duty’ in the line of either Band or Buglers. The choice was hard, but in the end we kept the Band intact, for loss of a few bandsmen as casualties might leave such gaps as would prevent the Band from playing at all.