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

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The Divisions Involved in the Battle of Hazebrouck, 12th – 15th April, 1918

The Battle of Hazebrouck, 12 – 15 April 1918

First Army (Horne)
I Corps (Holland)
3rd Division, fought in the defence of Hinges Ridge
4th Division, fought in the defence of Hinges Ridge
55th (West Lancashire) Division
3rd Brigade of 1st Division.
XI Corps (Haking)
5th Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
50th (Northumbrian) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
XV Corps (Du Cane) transferred to Second Army at noon on 12 April 1918
29th Division, less 88th Brigade, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
31st Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
33rd Division
40th Division
1st Australian Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
Composite Force, comprising personnel from Ii and XXII Corps Schools, 2nd New Zealand Entrenching Battalion, two companies of the 18th Middlesex Regiment and the XXIII Corps Reinforcement Battalion.

The sixth Despatch of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders. This was a very long despatch covering the winter operations preceding the German offensives, the 21 March 1918 attack and subsequent developments (Operation Michael), the Battles of the Lys (Operation Georgette) and the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

“The Fall of Merville.
(56) On the morning of the 11th April the enemy recommenced his attacks on the whole front, and again made progress. Between Givenchy and the Lawe River the successful resistance of the past two days was maintained against repeated assaults. Between Locon and Estaires the enemy, on the previous evening, had established a footing on the west bank of the river in the neighbourhood of Fosse. In this area and northwards to Lestrem he continued to push westwards, despite the vigorous resistance of our troops. At Estaires, the troops of the 5th Division, tired and reduced in numbers by (the exceptionally heavy fighting of the previous three weeks and threatened on their right flank by the enemy’s advance south of the Lys, were heavily engaged. After holding their positions with great gallantry during the morning, they were slowly pressed back in the direction of Merville. The enemy employed large forces on this front in close formation, and the losses inflicted by our rifle and machine-gun fire were unusually heavy. Our own troops, however, were not in sufficient numbers to hold up his advance, and as they fell back and their front gradually extended, gaps formed in the line. Through these gaps bodies of German infantry worked their way forward, and at 6 p.m. had reached Neuf Berquin. Other parties of the enemy pushed on along the north bank of the Lys Canal and entered Merville. As it did not appear possible to clear the town without fresh forces, which were not yet available, it was decided to withdraw behind the small stream which runs just west of the town. This withdrawal was successfully carried out during the evening.

The Withdrawal from Nieppe and Hill 63.
(57) Heavy fighting took place on the remainder of the front south of Armentieres, and the enemy made some progress. In this sector, however, certain reinforcements had come into action, and in the evening a counter-attack carried out by troops of the 31st Division, recently arrived from the southern battle-field, regained the hamlets of Le Verrier and La Becque. Meanwhile, north of Armentieres strong hostile attacks had developed towards midday and were pressed vigorously in the direction of Nieppe and Neuve Eglise. In the afternoon, fierce fighting itook place about Messines, which the enemy had regained. Beyond this, his troops were not able to push .their advance, being checked and driven back by a counterattack by the South African Brigade. South of Hollebeke the 9th Division had again been heavily attacked during the morning, but had held their positions. Owing to the progress made by the enemy in the Ploegsteert sector, the position of the 34th Division at Nieppe, where .they had beaten off a determined attack during the morning, became untenable. Accordingly, in the early part of the nigiht our troops at Nieppe fell back under orders to the neighbourhood of Pont d’Achelles. Still further ,to shorten our line and economise men, our troops between Pont d’Achelles and Wytschaete were withdrawn to positions about 1,000 yards east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem. This withdrawal involved the abandonment of Hill 63 and of the positions still iheld by us about Messines.

The Southern Flank steady.
(58) Though our troops had not been able to prevent the enemy’s entry imto Merville, their vigorous resistance, combined with the maintenance of our positions at Givenchy and Festubert, had given an opportunity for reinforcements to build up our line in this sector. As troops of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 31st, 61st and 1st Australian Divisions began to arrive, the southern portion of ithe battle front gradually became steady. Time was still required, however, to complete our dispositions, and for the next two days tihe situation in this area remained critical. A sudden attack just before dawn on the 12th April broke through the left centre of the 51st Division about Paoaut and Riez du Vinage, and but for the gallantry and resource of two batteries of the 255th Brigade, R.F.A., commanded respectively by Major L. N. Davidson, D.S.O., and Major F. C. Jack, M.C., might have enabled the enemy to cross the La Bassee Canal. Each of these batteries as it retired left a gun within 500 yards of the canal and, assisted by a party of gunners who held the drawbridge with rifles, worked with them to such good purpose .that the en-emy’s advance was stopped. The 3rd Division was already in action on the right of the 51st Division about Locon where, though forced ito fall back a short distance, our troops inflicted very heavy casualties upon an enemy greatly superior in numbers. On the left of the 51st Division, tihe 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence River. Both ithe 3rd and the 61st 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 of the front was definitely checked. At Merville also, our troops, though compelled to give ground somewhat during the morning, thereafter maintained themselves successfully.

The Thrust towards Hazebrouck.
(59) Meanwhile, a situation which threatened to become serious had arisen north of Merville. At about 8 a.m. the enemy attacked in great strength on a front extending from south of the Estaires-Vieux Berquin Road to the neighbourhood of Steenwerck. After very lieavy fighting, in the course of which, the 1st Battalion Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, 29th Division, Major-General D. E. Cayley, C.M.G., commanding the division, did gallant service, he succeeded in the afternoon in overcoming the resistance of our troops about Doulieu and La Becque, forcing them- back in a north-westerly direction. As the result of this movement, a gap was formed in our line .south-west of Bailleul, and bodies of the- enemy who had forced their way through seized Outtersteene and Merris. In the evening a brigade of the 33rd Division, Major-General R. J. Pinney, C.B., commanding the division, with a body of Cyclists, a Pioneer battalion, and every available man from schools and reinforcement camps, came into action in this sector. On their left, troops of the 25th, 34th, and 49th Divisions, Major-General N. J. G. Cameron, C.B., C.M.G., commanding the last mentioned division, though heavily attacked, maintained their positions to the south and south-east of Bailleul, and before midnight our line had been reformed.

Next day, the enemy followed up his attacks with great vigour and the troops of the 29th and 31st Divisions, now greatly reduced in strength by the severe fighting already experienced and strung out over a front of nearly 10,000 yards east of the Foret de Nieppe, were once more tried to the utmost. Behind them the 1st Australian Division, under command of Major-General Sir H. B. Walker, K.C.B., D..S.O. was in process of detraining, and the troops were told that the line was to be held at all costs, until the detrainment could be completed. During the morning, which was very foggy, several determined attacks, in which a German armoured car came into action against the 4th Guards Brigade on the southern portion of our line, were repulsed with great loss to the enemy. After the failure of these assaults, he brought up field guns to point blank range, and in the northern sector with their aid gained Vieux Berquin. Everywhere except at Vieux Berquin, the enemy’s advance was held up all day by desperate fighting, in which our advanced posts displayed the greatest gallantry, maintaining their ground when entirely surrounded, men standing back to back in the trenches and shooting to front and rear. In the afternoon the enemy made a further determined effort, and by sheer weight of numbers forced his way through the gaps in our depleted line, the surviving garrisons of our posts fighting where they stood to the last with bullet and bayonet. The heroic resistance of these troops, however, had given the leading brigades of the 1st Australian Division time to reach and organise their appointed line east of the Foret de Nieppe. These now took up the fight and the way to Hazebrouck was definitely closed.

The performance of all the troops engaged in this most gallant stand, and especially that of the 4th Guards Brigade, on whose front of some 4,000 yards the heaviest attacks fell, is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number. The action of these troops, and indeed of all the divisions engaged in the fighting in the Lys Valley, is the more noteworthy because, as already pointed out, practically the whole of them had been brought straight out of the Somme battlefield, were they had suffered severely and had been subjected to a great strain. All these divisions, without adequate rest and filled with young reinforcements which they had had no time to assimilate, were again hurriedly thrown into the fight and, in spite of the great disadvantages under which they laboured, succeeded in holding up the advance of greatly superior forces of fresh troops. Such an accomplishment reflects the greatest credit on the youth of Great Britain, as well as upon those responsible for the training of the young soldiers sent out from home at this time.

The Struggle for Neuve Eglise.
(60) On the afternoon of the 12th April sharp fighting had taken place in the neighbourhood of Neuve Eglise, and during the night the enemy’s pressure in this sector had been maintained and extended. By the morning of the 13th April his troops had forced their way into the village, but before noon were driven out by troops of the 33rd and 49th Divisions by a most successful counter-attack in which a number of prisoners were taken. In the coarse of this day, also, a succession of heavy attacks were driven off with great loss to the enemy, by the 33rd and 34th Divisions about Meteren and La Creche. In the evening further attacks developed on this front and at Neuve Eglise. The pressure exercised by the enemy was very great and bodies of German infantry, having forced their way in between La Creche and Neuve Eglise, began a strong encircling- movement against the left of the 34th Division north and east of the former village.

During the early part of the night our troops maintained their positions, but before dawn on the 14th April withdrew under orders to a line in front of the high ground known as the Ravelsburg Heights between Bailleul and Neuve Eglise, the enemy having been too severely handled to interfere. At Neuve Eglise the enemy again forced his way into the village, and heavy and confused fighting took place throughout the night. A party of the 2nd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, 33rd Division, maintained themselves in the Mairie until 2.0 p.m. on the 14th April, and during the morning of this day other troops of the same division were reported to have cleared the village with bombs. The enemy persisted in his attacks, however, and by midnight Neuve Eglise was definitely in his possessfon. Other attacks delivered on the 14th April between Neuve Eglise and Bailleul and south-east of Meteren were repulsed. Farther south, local fighting had taken place meanwhile both on the 13th and 14th April at a number of points between Givenchy and the Foret de Nieppe. In these encounters the enemy had met with no success. On the other hand, a local operation carried out by the 4th Division on the evening of the 14th April resulted in the recapture of Riez du Vinage with 150 prisoners.

The Capture of Bailleul.
(61) On the morning of the 15th April the 19th Division repulsed hostile attacks about Wytschaete. Late in the afternoon fresh assaults in great strength, in which the Alpine Corps and two other fresh German divisions were engaged, developed against Bailleul and the Ravelsberg Heights. After heavy fighting the enemy gained a footing on the eastern end of the high ground and, though driven back by a counter-attack, re-established his position there and worked west along the ridge. By 7.0 p.m. the whole of it was in his possession, .and the retention of Bailleul itsejf became very difficult. Two hours later, hostile infantry forced their way into the town, and our troops, who were being heavily attacked from the east and south, were compelled to fall back to positions between Meteren and Dranoutre.

The Withdrawal at Passchendaele.
(62) In order to set free additional British troops for the battle and to delay the execution of any plans which the enemy might be entertaining for extending the flank of his attack to the north, I approved of putting into execution the scheme for the gradual evacuation of the Ypres salient. The first stage in this withdrawal had been carried out on the night of the 12th-13th April, since which date our positions on the Passchendaele Ridge had been held by outposts only. On the night of the 15th-16th April the withdrawal was carried a stage further, our troops taking up positions along the line of the Steenbeek River and the Westhoek and Wytschaete Ridges.”

Also see:

Battle of Lys, 14th April 1918

The Divisions involved in the Battle of Estaires, 9th – 11th April 1918

The Battle of Estaires, 9 – 11 April 1918, was one of the opening phases of the Battle of Lys.

First Army (Horne)
XI Corps (Haking)
3rd Division
51st (Highland) Division
55th (West Lancashire) Division, which fought the defence of Givenchy
61st (2nd South Midland) Division
2nd Brigade of 1st Division
2nd Portuguese Division
3rd Brigade of 1st Portuguese Division.
XV Corps (Du Cane)
29th Division, less 88th Brigade
31st Division
34th Division, less 102nd Brigade
40th Division
50th (Northumbrian) Division
74th Brigade of 25th Division.

The sixth Despatch of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders. This was a very long despatch covering the winter operations preceding the German offensives, the 21 March 1918 attack and subsequent developments (Operation Michael), the Battles of the Lys (Operation Georgette) and the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

“(51) The persistence of unseasonably fine weather and the rapid drying up of the low lying ground in the Lys Valley enabled the enemy to anticipate the relief of the 2nd Portuguese Division. On the night of the 7th April, an unusually heavy and prolonged bombardment with gas shell was opened along practically the whole front from Lens to Armentieres. At about 4 a.m. on the 9th April the bombardment recommenced recommenced with the greatest intensity with both gas and high explosive shell. The enemy’s attack in the first instance was launched on the northern portion of the front of General Sir H. S. Horne’s First Army, held by the XI and XV Corps under command respectively of Lt.-General Sir R. C. R. Haking, K.G.B., K.C.M.G., and Lt.-General Sir J. P. Du Cane, K.C.B. On the 10th April the right of General Sir H. C. O. Plumer’s Second Army, held by the IX Corps under command of Lit.-General Sir A. Hamilton Gordon, K.C.B., was also involved. In the early stages of the battle the XV Corps was transferred to the Second Army, and at later dates the extension of the battle front led to the intervention of the I Corps, under command of Lt.-General Sir Arthur Holland, K.C.B., M.V.O., D.S.O., on the First Army front, and of the XXII Corps, under command of Lt.-General .Sir A. J. Godley, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., on the Second Army front. Subsequently the II Corps of the Second Army, under command of Lt.-General Sir C. W. Jacob, K.C.B., became involved in the withdrawal from the Passchendaele salient.

At about 7 a.m. on the 9th April, in thick fog which again made observation impossible, the enemy appears to have attacked the left brigade of the 2nd Portuguese Division in strength and to have broken into their trenches. A few minutes afterwards, the area of attack spread south and north. Shortly after 7 a.m. the right brigade of the 40th Division reported that an attack had developed on their front and was bedng held, but that machine gunners near their right-hand post could see the enemy moving rapidly through the sector to the south of them. Communication with the divisions in line was difficult, but during the morning the situation cleared up, and it became apparent that a serious attack was in progress on the front of the 55th Division, under command of Major- General H. S. Jeudwine, C.B., and of the 2nd Portuguese and 40th Divisions from the La Bassee Canal to Bois Grenier. Meanwhile, shortly after the opening of the bombardment, orders had been given to the 51st and 50th Divisions to move up behind Richebourg-St. Vaast and Laventie and take up their positions in accordance with the pre-arranged defence scheme. Both these divisions lhad also been heavily engaged in the Somme battle, and had but recently arrived in the neighbourhood. The 1st King Edward’s Horse and the 11th Cyclist Battalion had been sent forward at once to cover their deployment. Between 8 a.m. and 9.0 a.m. the enemy succeeded in occupying the forward posts of the right battalion of the 40th Division and attacked northwards along the Rue Petillon and Rue de Bois. Our machine-gun posts in this area continued to fight until all but one of their machine guns were destroyed, and by their fire greatly delayed his progress. At 10.15 a.m., however, his troops were already in Rouge de Bout, more than 2,000 yards in rear of the headquarters of the 40th Division’s right battalion, which, at this hour, were still holding out at Petillon. Later in the morning, the 40th Division was pushed back by pressure on its front and flank to a position facing south between Bois Grenier, Fleurbaix and Saillysur- la-Lys, its right brigade in particular having lost heavily. South of the Portuguese sector, the 55th Division was heavily attacked on its whole front, and by 10.30 a.m., its left brigade had been forced back from its outpost line. The main line of resistance was intact and a defensive flank was formed facing north between Festubert and a strong point just south of Le Touret, where touch was established later with troops of the 51st Division. Throughout the remainder of the day, the 55th Division maintained its positions against all assaults and by successful counter-attacks captured over 750 prisoners. The success of this most gallant defence, the importance of which it would be hard to over-estimate, was due in great measure to the courage and determination displayed by our advanced posts. These held out with the utmost resolution though surrounded, pinning to the ground those parties of the enemy who had penetrated our defences, and preventing them from developing their attack. Among the many gallant deeds recorded of them, one instance is known of a machine gun which was kept in action although the German infantry had entered the rear compartment of the ” pill-box ” from which it was firing, the gun team holding up the enemy by revolver fire from the inner compartment. To the north the positions held by the 55th Division, the weight and impetus of the German attack overwhelmed the Portuguese troops, and the enemy’s progress was so rapid that the arrangements for manning the rear defences of this sector with British troops could scarcely be completed in time. The 1st King Edward’s Horse and the 11th Cyclist Battalion, indeed, occupied Lacouture, Vieille Chapelle and Huit Maisons, and by their splendid defence of those places enabled troops of the 51st and 50th Divisions to come into action east of the Lawe River between Le Touret and Estaires. East of Estaires our troops found the enemy already in possession of the right bank of the river, and touch between the 50th and 40th Divisions could not be established. After heavy fighting the right of the 40th Division was forced back upon the Lys, and early in the afternoon withdrew across the river at Bac St. Maur. The remainder of the 40th Division, reinforced by troops of the 34th Division, established themselves in a position covering the approaches to Erquinghem and Armentieres, between Fort Rompu on the Lys and our old front line north-east of Bois Grenier. Here they successfully maintained themselves, although the line was not readily defensible and was constantly attacked. In this fighting very gallant service was rendered by the 12th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, 40th Division, who held out in Fleurbaix until the evening, though heavily attacked on three sides. During the afternoon troops of the 51st and 50th Divisions (chiefly composed of drafts hurriedly sent up to join their regiments) were heavily engaged east of the Lawe River and were gradually pressed back upon the river crossings. The enemy brought up guns to close range and in the evening crossed at Estaires and Pont Riqueul, but in both cases was driven back by counter-attacks. At the end of the day the bridgeheads were still held by us as far east as Sailly-sur-la-Lys. In the course of the night our troops at Estaires and in the sector to the south were withdrawn to the left bank of the Lawe and Lys Rivers, after sharp fighting about Pont The bridges across both rivers were blown up, though, as had been the case in the Somme battle, in some instances their destruction was incomplete.

The Crossing at Bac St. Maur. (52) East of Sailly-sur-la-Lys the enemy had followed closely the troops of the 40th Division who had crossed at Bac St. Maur and, though here also the bridge had been blown up, at about 3 p.m., succeeded in passing small parties across .the river by an emergency bridge under cover of machine-gun fire. During the remainder of the afternoon and evening the strength of his forces north of tthe river steadily increased, and pushing northwards they reached Croix du Bac. At this point they were counter-attacked early in the night by a brigade of the 25tfh Division, and pressed back. Our troops were unable, Jiowever, to clear the German infantry completely from the village, and during the night the enemy established himself firmly on the north bank of the river.

The Struggle for Estaires.
(53) Early in the morning of the 10th April, the enemy launched heavy attacks covered by artillery fire about the river crossings at Lestrem and Estaires, and succeeded in reaching the left bank at both places; but in each case he was driven back again by determined counter-attacks by the 50th Division. The enemy continued to exercise great pressure at Estaires, and fierce street fighting took place, in which both sides lost heavily. Machine guns, mounted by our troops in the upper rooms of houses, did great execution on has troops as they moved up to the attack, until the machine guns were knocked out by artillery fire. In the evening the German infantry once more forced their way into Estaires, and after a most gallant resistance the 50th Division withdrew at nighitfall to a prepared position to the north and west of the town. East of Estaires the enemy had already crossed the Lys in strength, with artillery in close support of his infantry, and by the evening had pressed back our troops to a position north of Steenwerck. Thereafter, the arrival of British reinforcements for the time being held up his advance.

The Attack at Messines.
(54) Meanwhile, after an intense bombardment of ouir front and support lines and battery areas between Frelinghien and Hill 60, strong hostile attacks had developed at about 5.30 a.m. in this sector also. The outpost positions of the 25th and 19th Divisions in line north of Armentieres and east of Messines were driven in, and during the morning the enemy worked his way forward under cover of mist along the valleys of the Warnave and Douve Rivers, on the flanks of our .positions in Ploegsteert Wood and Messines. By midday he had gained Ploegsteert Village, together with the south-eastern portions of Ploegsteert Wood, and had captured Messines. North of that village the area of attack extended during the afternoon as far as the north bank of the Ypres – Comines Canal. In tihis new sector the enemy carried our forward positions as far as Hollefoeke, pushing back our line to the crest of the Wytschaete Ridge. Messines was retaken early in the afternoon by the South African Brigade, 9th Division. During the night this division cleared Wytschaete of parties of German troops. North of Hollebeke our positions astride the Ypres – Comines Canal were substantially unchanged, and on this front the 9th Division killed great numbers of the enemy.

The Withdrawal from Armentieres.
(55) The enemy’s advance north of Armentieres made the position of the 34th Division in that town very dangerous. Though it had not yet been attacked on its own front, its available reserves had already been heavily engaged in protecting its southern flank. As the northern flank also had now become exposed, it was decided to withdraw the division to the left bank of the Lys. The early stages of tlhe movement were commenced shortly after midday. Though the operation was closely followed up by tihe enemy and pressed by him on all sides, it was carried out with great steadiness and in good order, and by 9.30 p.m. had been completed successfully. All the bridges across the river were destroyed.

The Fall of Merville.
(56) On the morning of the 11th April the enemy recommenced his attacks on the whole front, and again made progress. Between Givenchy and the Lawe River the successful resistance of the past two days was maintained against repeated assaults. Between Locon and Estaires the enemy, on the previous evening, had established a footing on the west bank of the river in the neighbourhood of Fosse. In this area and northwards to Lestrem he continued to push westwards, despite the vigorous resistance of our troops. At Estaires, the troops of the 5th Division, tired and reduced in numbers by (the exceptionally heavy fighting of the previous three weeks and threatened on their right flank by the enemy’s advance south of the Lys, were heavily engaged. After holding their positions with great gallantry during the morning, they were slowly pressed back in the direction of Merville. The enemy employed large forces on this front in close formation, and the losses inflicted by our rifle and machine-gun fire were unusually heavy. Our own troops, however, were not in sufficient numbers to hold up his advance, and as they fell back and their front gradually extended, gaps formed in the line. Through these gaps bodies of German infantry worked their way forward, and at 6 p.m. had reached Neuf Berquin. Other parties of the enemy pushed on along the north bank of the Lys Canal and entered Merville. As it did not appear possible to clear the town without fresh forces, which were not yet available, it was decided to withdraw behind the small stream which runs just west of the town. This withdrawal was successfully carried out during the evening.The Withdrawal from Nieppe and Hill 63.
(57) Heavy fighting took place on the remainder of the front south of Armentieres, and the enemy made some progress. In this sector, however, certain reinforcements had come into action, and in the evening a counter-attack carried out by troops of the 31st Division, recently arrived from the southern battle-field, regained the hamlets of Le Verrier and La Becque. Meanwhile, north of Armentieres strong hostile attacks had developed towards midday and were pressed vigorously in the direction of Nieppe and Neuve Eglise. In the afternoon, fierce fighting itook place about Messines, which the enemy had regained. Beyond this, his troops were not able to push .their advance, being checked and driven back by a counterattack by the South African Brigade. South of Hollebeke the 9th Division had again been heavily attacked during the morning, but had held their positions. Owing to the progress made by the enemy in the Ploegsteert sector, the position of the 34th Division at Nieppe, where .they had beaten off a determined attack during the morning, became untenable. Accordingly, in the early part of the nigiht our troops at Nieppe fell back under orders to the neighbourhood of Pont d’Achelles. Still further ,to shorten our line and economise men, our troops between Pont d’Achelles and Wytschaete were withdrawn to positions about 1,000 yards east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem. This withdrawal involved the abandonment of Hill 63 and of the positions still iheld by us about Messines.

The Southern Flank steady.
(58) Though our troops had not been able to prevent the enemy’s entry imto Merville, their vigorous resistance, combined with the maintenance of our positions at Givenchy and Festubert, had given an opportunity for reinforcements to build up our line in this sector. As troops of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 31st, 61st and 1st Australian Divisions began to arrive, the southern portion of ithe battle front gradually became steady. Time was still required, however, to complete our dispositions, and for the next two days tihe situation in this area remained critical. A sudden attack just before dawn on the 12th April broke through the left centre of the 51st Division about Paoaut and Riez du Vinage, and but for the gallantry and resource of two batteries of the 255th Brigade, R.F.A., commanded respectively by Major L. N. Davidson, D.S.O., and Major F. C. Jack, M.C., might have enabled the enemy to cross the La Bassee Canal. Each of these batteries as it retired left a gun within 500 yards of the canal and, assisted by a party of gunners who held the drawbridge with rifles, worked with them to such good purpose .that the en-emy’s advance was stopped. The 3rd Division was already in action on the right of the 51st Division about Locon where, though forced it to fall back a short distance, our troops inflicted very heavy casualties upon an enemy greatly superior in numbers. On the left of the 51st Division, the 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence River. Both ithe 3rd and the 61st 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 of the front was definitely checked. At Merville also, our troops, though compelled to give ground somewhat during the morning, thereafter maintained themselves successfully.”

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

“We marched, however, from Avesne on April 11th happy ignorance of this new battle. Not till Hangest, and there by means of a Continental Daily Mail, was the changed prospect of our destination revealed. The Hangest R.T.O. was half beside himself with excitement and delay. There were several hours to spend in waiting, and during this time the kits were retrieved from the station yard and a prudent change was made from soft hats into shrapnel helmets and fighting equipment. After a rapid entrainment we at last pulled out at about 2 p.m. So strong was the Battalion that D Company, which itself numbered over 200, was unable to travel with us and had to follow by a later train. In its early stages the journey, though similar to most of the kind, produced one formidable incident, for at the top of the steep gradient between Candas and Doullens the train snapped in half ; its hind portion was left poised in a cutting for an hour, until two locomotives arrived to push it on to Doullens, whither the forward half, in gay ignorance, had run. The night was overcast, a fact which doubtless saved us from the attention of enemy aeroplanes. The journey from St. Pol through Chocques and Lillers to Steenbecque is stamped on the memory by its more than many halts, the occasional glare of mines and munition factories which, in anticipation of another break-through, seemed to be working at tensest pressure to evacuate coal and manufactured stores from capture by the enemy; by the loud booming of artillery, to which the train seemed
to draw specially near at Chocques and Isbergues; and the final sudden grinding of the brakes at Steenbecque, distracted railwaymen, and the small hut in which Bennett and the Brigade Staff were exhibiting a mixture of excitement, impatience and a sort of reckless familiarity with this apparent repetition of the Somme retreat. At Steenbecque station, which is three miles short of Hazebrouck and hidden behind the Nieppe Forest, we received the latest news of the battle into which we were being so dramatically plunged.”

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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