Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (The 2/4th Battalion)

Research and Resources around the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry during WWI

Archive for the tag “20th Division”

Refitting 1st – 11th April 1918

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

“To Avesne, a remote village behind Amiens, the 2 /4th Oxfords were withdrawn early in April for completion with new drafts and for refitting. An amalgamation which was a great advantage to both units of the Battalion with the Bucks now took place. As the 25th Entrenching Battalion the Bucks had been engaged in the fighting round Nesle, when they became attached to a Brigade of the 2Oth Division. They were now most anxious to be sent to join us or at all events to rejoin the 61st Division. Unable to obtain the orders they
desired, the Bucks availed themselves of the prevailing confusion to march away ‘without authority’ and were already at Avesne when the Oxfords arrived.

The addition of some 300 N.C.O.s and men, with whom came such valued officers as Clutsom, Buttfield, Kemp, Lodge, Boase, Kirk, and several others, acted as an infusion of new blood and vigour into the Battalion which had given nearly all of its best in the St. Quentin fighting. As the senior officer now present, I was placed in command of the Battalion after the amalgamation, for which no more suitable surroundings could have been found than Avesne, whose chateau and grounds we had to ourselves. On April 7, before the regimental tailors had half finished substituting the red circles for the black ones previously carried by the Bucks, a large draft of 431 men joined the Battalion from England. Many of these were boys, but among them stood a few veteran soldiers who had been out before and been wounded. With this draft, which I believe was posted without the knowledge that the Bucks had joined us, the Battalion reached the strength of over 1,000 men. It was a goodly force, unhampered by passengers. With Abraham, Murray, and Regimental Sergeant-Major Hedley (from the Bucks) those departments of the Battalion not purely tactical were sure to be well managed. I felt quite confident in the command of this force of men, and General Pagan, the new Brigadier, was kind enough to express his confidence in my ability.

Our billets at Avesne the entire Battalion was accommodated in the buildings of a large chateau from which some army school had been precipitated by the German advance were too good for much hope to be entertained of a long stay in them. The unified command from now onwards brought more rapid moves than formerly had been the custom. Thus at a few hours’ notice ‘billeting parties’ were ordered, not back towards Amiens, but to Merville and St. Venant. The 61st was to become a Division in G.H.Q. reserve behind the old Laventie
sector. But before Battalions could follow their representatives and while the billeting was still in progress the Germans attacked and broke through on the Lys, south of Armentieres. We marched, however, from Avesne on April 11th happy ignorance of this new battle.

Story of the 2/5th Battalion the Gloucester Regiment 1914-1918
ed by A.F.Barnes
ISBN: 9781843427582
Format: 2003 N&M Press reprint (original pub 1930) 192pp with 39 b/w photos and 12 maps.

1st – 8th April 1918
“The 61st Division occupied the Berthaucourt-Gentelles defences from the Bois I’Abbe to the Amiens-Domart road, which line was improved and wired, until the Division was withdrawn on the night of the 2nd to Longueau, leaving behind a composite Company of machine-guns under the orders of the 18th Division. The composite Company rejoined the Division on the 8th.”

Interview with Sir Hubert Gough, The First World War 1914-1918, Personal Experences of Lieutenant-Colonel C. a Court Repington

From The First World War 1914-1918, Personal Experiences of Lieutenant Colonel C. a Court Repington, C.M.G, Commander of the Order of Leopold, Officer of the Legion of Honor, Volume II, London, Constable and Company Ltd., 1920

“Sunday, April 7. Sir Hubert Gough telephoned in the morning and came up to dinner at Maryon. He had been sent home by order of the War Cabinet, who are searching for military scapegoats in order to deflect criticism from themselves. It would have been more just if they had sent themselves home. He was looking uncommonly fit and well, and told me all the story of the 5th Army during the days of March 21-28. His forces were :

8th Army Corps, Butler: 58th, 18th, and 12th Divisions; 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions.

18th Army Corps, Ivor Maxse: 36th, 30th, and 61st Divisions; 20th Division in reserve.

19th Army Corps, Watt: 24th and 66th Divisions, 50th Div. and 1st Cav. Div. in reserve.

7th Army Corps, Congreve; 16th, 21st, and 7th Divisions; 39th Division in reserve.

Total : 14 divisions, about 100,000 rifles, and 1500 guns.

He was reinforced by one more division, the 8th I think, in the evening of the 23rd. He had against him Von Hutier’s 18th Army, with four Army Corps of 40 divisions, of which 23 in first line and 17 in close support, with 3500 guns. These figures are confirmed by our printed G.H.Q. Intelligence Report which he showed to me. Gough’s front extended for 40 miles, and was too thinly held. No more reserves were available for him. His troops were insufficiently trained and rested, and, on an average, only one week’s training had been given to them since Jan. 20, when they took over the line. He had instructions that it would be better to lose ground than men. Also, the reorganisation had only just been completed, and the change from 12 battalions to 9 in all divisions had greatly disturbed people, besides reducing the infantry by 25 per cent, of its strength. He had also reported that the Press attacks on generals were liable to undermine the confidence of the men.

Gough had known for a month that he would probably be attacked, and Petain had been sure he would be ever since Von Hutier’s Army appeared in Gough’s front. Gough had a well- placed outpost line, or forward zone, running from Amigny along the river Oise to Moy, thence west of St. Quentin, and so along the road to Le Catelet. It had strong posts which mutually flanked each other. His battle zone was behind this, running past Tergnier, Essignol, Roupy, Massemy, Hargicourt, Lempire, past Epehy, to the north of Gouzeaucourt, and thence to Metz-en-Couture. He had 11 divisions in front line and 3 in reserve, plus his cavalry. He had never heard such a bombardment as that which opened on him on March 21. There was a dense mist, and
the Boche masses flowed in between his outpost positions, cutting the wire and isolating the posts which were turned and captured, though many held out for long after being surrounded. The firing was all done at 50 yards, and no mutual support was possible. On the Oise front the enemy prepared bridges and rafts overnight. The two months of dry weather had made all the marshes by the river dry. His men had fought well, but by the end of the second day the enemy had broken four gaps in his battle line by taking the fortified points of Tergnier, Essignol-le-Grand, Massemy, and Hargicourt, and he had to decide whether to fight on where he stood and be broken, or to go back fighting. He
chose the latter course, which was in consonance with his instructions and really the only course practicable, as he was overwhelmed by numbers.

After the 8th Division, his first reinforcement was a division sent by Franchet d’Esperey. Then Pelle came up with his Corps, but the French would not place them- selves under his command. Gough claims that his Army, as a whole, was never broken, and that it retained its alignment during the eight days, March 21 to 29. He
lost about 60 per cent, of his strength in killed, wounded, and missing, and some 600 guns. He brought with him some of Maxse’s notes, which mentioned particularly the fine conduct of the 61st Division, under Colin Mackenzie. Maxse mentions the 2nd Wilts and 16th Manchesters of the 30th Division as having heroically resisted five hours of furious bombardment and then the attack of two German divisions. Their H.Q. in the redoubt line were holding out and fighting hard several hours after they were surrounded by masses of the enemy. Several others held their redoubt line till late in the evening, and the division fought steadily back to Moreuil, which it reached on the 29th. The 36th Ulster Division had had three battalions overwhelmed in the forward zone similarly, and men of the 12th Royal Irish were still holding out in the racecourse redoubt after 24 hours of incessant fighting. The 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Fontaine-les-Clercs repulsed 12 desperate attacks. The retreat was effected in good order, and there were daily rearguard actions. Maxse notes that
some of his artillery served under French generals in the ‘last critical days ‘ of these operations.

One of Gough’s papers gives a German order on Field Strengths, dated Jan. 26 last. This shows infantry battalions to be 870 all ranks, or 1004 with their M.G. com- panies. This is called the Feldstdrke, and the term * fighting strength ‘ is no longer to be employed. Evidence shows that in the northern portion of the battle front from the river Sensee to the Cambrai-Bapaume road, 9 miles, there were 9 Boche divisions in line and 8 in reserve. On the front from the Cambrai-Bapaume road to La Vacquerie and La
Fere there were 23 divisions in line and 17 in close reserve. Therefore we were opposed by 61 divisions on the battle front on March 21. A further 22 divisions came up later. It is reported that the Crown Prince’s Group of Armies comprises the Argonne group under the orders of the 16th Corps Staff. This group extends as far east as Varennes.

So far as I can make out from Gough’s account, the retreat of the 5th Army before overwhelming numbers was the only course open after the four holes had been punched in his battle line. He is rather sore at being sent no reserves except the one division. He told me that Haig had told him that he expects to be sent home in a week’s time. Drove Gough down to London. Gough had taken over two Corps from Byng, Dec. 18 ; one Corps front, 18,000 yards, from the French on Jan. 20 ; and the remaining Corps front, 30,000 yards, about Feb. 15.”

61st (South Midland) Division

From The territorial divisions, 1914-1918 (1922) by John Sterling

61ST (SOUTH MIDLAND) DIVISION
Second Line

The Division went to France in May 1916. On I9th-20th July they and an Australian division made an attack in the Neuve Chapelle district. Ground was gained but could not be held as the guns on the Aubers Ridge had command of it.

The despatch from Sir Douglas Haig, dated 31st May, 1917, paragraph 13, Messrs. Dent’s edition, shows that the 61st was one of the divisions employed in pursuing and pressing the enemy when he retreated from the neighbourhood of the Somme
battlefield in March 1917. On 17th March the 61st and 2nd Australian Divisions captured and Bapaume.

The Division was for a time in the Third Battle of Ypres and, as part of the XIX. Corps, attacked on 22nd and 27th August and 5th September, 1917.

The Cambrai despatch of 20th February, 1918, paragraph 9 (Dent’s edition) and map opposite p. 163, shows that the 61st was in reserve on 30th November, 1917, when the enemy made his great counter-attack. On the night of the 1st December
they took over from the 12th in the neighbourhood of La Vacquerie and for some days thereafter had to fight hard to stem the German flood; in this they were successful.

The Division saw a great deal of heavy fighting in 1918 and was frequently mentioned in despatches. It formed part of the XVIII. Corps, Fifth Army, in March of that year and was engaged throughout the whole of the British retreat. At the end of ten
days’ continuous fighting the strength of the Division was down to about 2000. They came out of the battle with a splendid reputation, which was to be enhanced later, on the Lys.

In the telegraphic despatch of 26th March, 1918, Sir Douglas Haig said: “In the past six days of constant fighting our troops on all parts of the battle-front have shown the utmost courage,” and
among divisions which had exhibited “exceptional gallantry ” he mentioned the 61st.

In the written despatch of 20th July, 1918, paragraph 15, which deals with the 21st March, it is stated: “Assisted by the long spell of dry weather hostile infantry had crossed the river and canal north of La Fere, and, south of St. Quentin, had penetrated into the battle-zone between Essigny and Benay. At Maissemy, also, our battle positions were entered at about noon, but the vigorous resistance of the 61st and 24th Divisions, assisted by troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, prevented the enemy from developing his success.”

The Division held its battle position intact against the assaults of three German divisions, and only retired in the afternoon of the 22nd when ordered to do so in consequence of the enemy’s progress at other parts of the line.

In his History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders, vol. v.. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives a full account of the very arduous work of the XVIII. Corps in the March retreat, and frequently
refers to the conduct of the 61st Division in terms of very high praise. He gives a detailed description of the most heroic resistance of the battalions in the front line on the morning of 21st March and, as an example of what was done, he tells the story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light
Infantry which, under Colonel Wetherall, held out in the Enghien Redoubt until it was finally submerged by the ever increasing waves from the three German divisions which attacked the front of the 61st. This took place about 4.30 p.m.

Mr. Sparrow in his The Fifth Army in March 1918, also gives many particulars of the splendid defence put up by the forward battalions of the 61st, on the 21st, as well as of the endless en-
counters they had during the retreat. On p. 239 he mentions that parts of the Division were first attacked at 5 a.m. on the 21st, and were only two miles back at 3 a.m. on the 23rd, although for
48 hours the 6ist was attacked by three German divisions. On p. 102 he refers to it as ” this brave Division ” and says that a Special Order of the day, dated 18th April, stated that between 21st March and that date the 61st had been opposed by 14 German divisions.

At p. 287 Mr. Sparrow remarks that the 61st had been continuously in the line since 27th August, 1917, except when moving from one part to another, and “then fought for twelve continuous days.”

Paragraph 24 of the despatch states that on the morning of the 23rd the Commander of the Fifth Army ordered ” a gradual withdrawal to the line of the Somme.”

Paragraph 26: A gap occurred in our line near Ham and bodies of Germans succeeded in crossing the river. ” In the afternoon these forces increased in strength, gradually pressing back our troops, until a spirited counter-attack by troops of the 20th and 61st Divisions about Verlaines restored the situation in this locality.”

The fighting between 21st-23rd March is now designated the “Battle of St. Quentin.”

Paragraph 31, ” The Fight for the Somme Crossings”: On the 24th various bodies of the enemy had been able to effect crossings at different points. “During the remainder of the day the enemy repeated his attacks at these and other points, and also exercised strong pressure in a westerly and south-westerly direction from Ham. Our troops offered a vigorous resistance and opposite Ham a successful counter-attack by the 1/5th (Pioneer) Battalion,
Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, 61st Division, materially delayed his advance.”

Paragraph 44: On 28th March the British were almost back to the Amiens defences and the enemy were seriously pressing the French on our right. “A gallant attempt by troops of the 61st Division to regain Warfusee-Abancourt and lighten the pressure
from the north proved unsuccessful. … At nightfall we held approximately the Amiens defence line on the whole front south of the Somme.”

Fortunately that same day the enemy had been defeated north of the Somme (see 56th, 42nd and 62nd Divisions), and in a few days his offensive on the front south of Arras ceased.

In his account of the 28th, Mr. Sparrow deals with the work of ” the intrepid 61st,” and remarks ‘one and all behaved with the greatest gallantry.”

In Charles a Court Repington’s Memoirs, The First World War, Constable, vol. ii., p. 269, there is detailed a conversation, on 7th April, 1918, with General Gough, the Commander of the Fifth
Army. After some particulars of the great struggle there occurs the sentence, ” He brought with him some of Maxse’s notes, which mentioned particularly the fine conduct of the 6ist Division, under Colin Mackenzie.” Lieut. General Maxse commanded the
XVIII. Corps.

The despatch of 20th July, 1918, deals also with the Lys battle which began on 9th April, 1918 (see 55th, 49th, 50th and 51st Divisions). Paragraph 58 shows that several divisions were brought straight from the Somme fighting to the Lys area. Among
these was the 61st. Deahng with the 12th April, the despatch states: ” On the left of the 51st the 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence river. Both the 3rd and 6ist Divisions had been engaged in many days of continuous fighting south of Arras ; but with the arrival of these troops, battle-weary though they were, the enemy’s progress in this sector was definitely checked.”

The fighting 12th-15th April is now the ” Battle of Hazebrouck.”

Paragraph 65 deals with the great effort made by the enemy on 18th April on the southern front of his salient. ” At certain points there was severe and continuous fighting. . . . Elsewhere the enemy failed to obtain even an initial success, being repulsed, with exceedingly heavy loss, at all points, by the 4th and 61st Divisions.” And, referring to a few days later: “Further west the 4th Division, in co-operation with the 61st Division, carried out a series of successful local operations, north of the La Bassee canal, resulting in the capture of some hundreds of prisoners, and a considerable improvement of our positions between the Lawe and
Clarence rivers.” The action on i8th April is now the ” Battle of Bethune.”

The Division joined the XVII. Corps early in October 1918, and with it took part in the ” Advance to Victory.”

The despatch of 21st December, 1918, as to the final British offensive, paragraph 47, Battle of the Selle River, I7th-25th October, shows that the 61st Division, as part of the XVII. Corps of the Third Army, attacked on 24th October. ” About many
of the woods and villages which lay in the way of our attack there was severe fighting, particularly in the large wood known as the Bois L’fiveque, and at Pom.rnereuil, Bousies Forest and Vendegies-surficaillon. This latter village held out till the afternoon of the 24th October when it was taken by an enveloping attack by troops of the 19th Division and 61st Division.”

Paragraph 49, ” The Battle of the Sambre,” 1st-11th November: As a preliminary to the main attack it is stated that on 1st November ” the XVII. Corps of the Third Army and the XXII. and Canadian Corps of the First Army attacked on a front of about six miles south of Valenciennes and in the course of two days of heavy fighting inflicted a severe defeat on the enemy. During these two days the 6ist, Major-General F. J. Duncan, 49th and 4th Divisions crossed the Rhonelle river, capturing Maresches and Preseau after a stubborn struggle, and established themselves on the high ground two miles to the east of it. On their left the 4th Canadian Division captured Valenciennes and made progress beyond the town.”

The fighting on ist-2nd November is now designated the ” Battle of Valenciennes.”

On the 3rd November the enemy withdrew, and the British line was advanced.

The XVII. Corps was again employed on the left of the Third Army in the Battle of the Sambre on the 4th November when ” the enemy’s resistance was definitely broken.”

Battalions from the Division were selected for the Armies of Occupation, as follows: Western Front, 2/6th and 2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment and 1/5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantiy (Pioneers). For Egypt,
2/8th Worcestershire Regiment, 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment.

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