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

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1916, NOVEMBER 29th – HEAVY BARRAGE ON REGINA TRENCH

Trenches Near Grandcourt November and Dececember 1916

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose M.C. (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

At 5 p.m. on November 29, 1916, the Germans opened a heavy barrage with howitzers on the front line, giving every indication of impending attack. Regina Trench, where were the headquarters of C and D, the companies then holding the line, was also heavily shelled, and telephonic communication with the rear was soon cut. On such occasions it was always difficult to decide whether or not to send up the S.O.S — on the one hand unnecessary appeal to our artillery to fire on S.O.S. lines was deprecated, on the other, no forward commander could afford to guess that a mere demonstration was on foot; for the appearance of attacking infantry followed immediately on a lifting of the barrage, a symptom in itself often difficult to recognise. On this occasion I intended and attempted to send up a coloured rocket, but its stick became stuck between the sides of the dug-out shaft and, by the time the efforts of Sergeant Collett had prepared the rocket for firing, the barrage died down as suddenly as it had started. This very commonplace episode illustrates the routine of this phase of warfare. The trenches were, of course, blown in and some Lewis guns damaged, but, as frequently, few casualties occurred.

While speaking of the life furthest forward I do not forget the very similar conditions, allowing for the absence of enemy machine-guns and snipers, which prevailed at Battalion Headquarters. Confined to a dug-out (a smaller replica of Regina) in Hessian Trench, with a continual stream of reports to receive and instructions to send out, and being continually rung up on the telephone, Colonel Bellamy and Cuthbert had their hands full, and opportunities for rest, if not for refreshment, were very limited. Nor do I omit our runners from the fullest share in the dangers and activities of this time.

Under battle-conditions life at one remove from the front line was rarely much more agreeable than in the line itself, and was less provided with those compensations which existed for the Infantryman near the enemy. It was necessary to go back to Divisional Headquarters to find any substantial difference or to live an ordered life on a civilised footing; and there, too, responsibility had increased by an even ratio. The Battalion Transport during this time was stationed at Martinsart and its task, along bad roads, in bringing up rations each day was not a light one.

KILLED IN ACTION NOVEMBER 29th 1916

4106 Private William Wilsdon

1916, JUNE 27th – RELIEVED THE 2nd/4th ROYAL BERKSHIRE REGIMENT IN THE FRONT LINE

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose KC (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

On the 27th they returned to the front line. During this time Major D. M. Rose returned to England sick, and Captain Cuthbert became Adjutant.

Killed in Action 27th June 1916

202946 Lance Corporal William Henry Rimmer, (Formerly 1624, Liverpool Regiment)

From the War Diary of the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

1916-06-27

Regiment.2/4th Royal Berkshire

Location France, Trenches

Entry Quiet morning. Relieved by 2/4 OXFORDS. Complete at 9.30pm. Returned to Billets and Posts at LAVENTIE as before. Lt Col M Wheeler relieved of his Command by Major J H Beer 2/8 R WARWICKS, who assumes command from this day.

1917, FEBRUARY 28th – BOMBARDMENT OF THE LINES AND THEN A GERMAN RAID

 Ablaincourt Sector

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose M.C. (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

Morning and afternoon of the next day, February 28, were fine and ominously quiet. Excessive quietness was often no good sign. Presentiments could have been justified. At 4.15 p.m. a strong barrage of trench mortars and rifle grenades began to beat upon the front line, accompanied by heavy artillery fire against communication and support trenches and the back area. This sequel to the previous registration clearly indicated some form of attack by the enemy. The rhythmic pounding of the heavy howitzers, whose shells were arriving with the regular persistency of a barrage table, suggested that a long bombardment, probably until after dusk, was intended. Under such circumstances it was the part of the Company Commander to ‘stand to’ and await events with the utmost vigilance. This never meant that the men should be ordered out into the trenches and the fire-steps manned, for to do so would have invited heavy casualties and demoralised the garrison before the opportunity for active resistance had arrived. To keep look-out by sentries, to watch for any lifting in the barrage, and to maintain communication with H.Q. and with the flanks were the measures required. Otherwise, except to destroy maps and papers, there was nothing to do but wait, for only in the most clumsily organised shows did the other side know zero. On this occasion, at the moment the German raiding party came over, a patrol consisting of Corporal Coles and Timms had only just returned from D Company front line. They said that though the shelling was heavy immediately behind and on the flanks, the wire was intact and there was no sign of attack. At dusk, therefore, there was nothing save the heavy shelling to report to Cuthbert over my telephone, which by luck held until cut by German wire-cutters.

Within a few minutes, shouts and a few rifle shots were heard, and the next moment bombs were being thrown into my dug-out.

The lights went out and the interior became filled with fumes, groans, and confusion.

A German raiding party had penetrated C Company, seized the front line, which was a bare 80 yards from my H.Q., and, without touching my own front (which indeed was 200 yards distant and to the flank), had picketed my dug-out, and awaited their haul of prisoners.

Now, a bombed dug-out is the last word in ‘unhealthiness.’ It ranks next to a rammed submarine or burning aeroplane. For several minutes I awaited death or wounds with a degree of certainty no soldier ever felt in an attack. But in such emergencies instinct, which, more than the artificial training of the mind, asserts itself, arms human beings with a natural cunning for which civilization provides no scope. Life proverbially is not cheap to its owner.

That everyone inside was not killed instantly was due, no doubt, both to the sloping character of the stairs, which made some bombs explode before they reached the bottom, and to the small size of the bombs themselves. A gas bomb finished the German side of the argument. Hunt’s useful knowledge of German commenced the answer. We ‘surrendered.’ I went upstairs at once and saw three Germans almost at touching distance. In place of a docile prisoner they received four revolver shots, after which I left as soon as possible under a shower of bombs and liquid fire. Shortly afterwards, but too late to follow me, Hunt also came forth and found the enemy had vanished. Afterwards the Sergeant Major and Uzzell, sanitary lance-corporal, who on this occasion showed the genius of a field marshal, emerged and prevented the return of our late visitors.

After an hour’s struggle through mud and barrage I reached the two platoons in Trench Roumains, who (I mention this as a good paradox of trench discipline) were engaged in sock-changing and foot-rubbing according to time table! From there the counter-attack described in Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatch of March 1st was carried out. I fear this ‘counter-attack’ was better in his telling than in the doing, for the Germans had already decamped an hour before, taking with them Lieutenant Guildford and some 20 prisoners from C Company, several Lewis guns, and their own casualties.

Against a front line crowded with untried troops (I refer to the new draft of which the platoons holding C Company front line were principally composed) a well-planned raid powerfully pressed home under a severe box barrage and assisted by gas and liquid fire, was almost bound to succeed. The mud, strange trenches and weak artillery support were other factors for which allowance might have been made before such degree of blame was laid upon the Battalion as was seen fit for it to receive. The only cure for being raided is to raid back. That was happily done exactly two months later against the very regiment to which the German raiding party on this occasion belonged. Nor was it true that the enemy was not fought with. Some parties which attacked Brown’s front were, under the able example of that officer, driven off with Lewis guns, and D Company, whose loss in prisoners was nil, also maintained its front intact. Casualties were inflicted on the enemy, but these mostly regained their own lines or were carried back by stretcher parties. Our loss in killed that night amounted to some twenty. The story of this raid I should not have allowed to reach this length but for the fact that the affair created some stir at the time, and correspondence raged on the subject till long afterwards. Hunt, who was with me during the bombardment and the bombing of my H.Q., was not captured on emerging from the dug-out, but himself, some hour or more afterwards, while wandering among the blown-in trenches in an effort to follow me, entered a German listening post and became a prisoner. As a prisoner he was present at a German H.Q. when the details of an exactly similar raid upon a neighbouring division were being arranged; which raid proved for the enemy an equal success.

The aftermath of this fighting proved a trying experience. The dug-out to which I returned to spend the remainder of the tour was a shambles. The stairs were drenched with blood. Of my companions, Thompson, a signaller, Timms, Smith (Hunt’s servant, a fine lad) and Corporal Coles–one of the bravest and most devoted N.C.O.’s the Battalion ever had–were dead or died soon afterwards. Longford and Bugler Wright were severely wounded. Longley and Short had escaped before the first bombs exploded in the dug-out, but the remaining survivors, the Sergeant-Major, Lance Corporal Rowbotham, Roberts and myself were all partially gassed and hardly responsible for further action. Under these circumstances the task of carrying-on involved a strain, lessened, as always on such occasions, by management of everything for the best by Battalion Headquarters.

KILLED IN ACTION FEBRUARY 28th 1917

201534 Corporal Henry Coles

200453 Private Arthur Church

203732 Private Frank Dann (Formerly 20275, Hants Regt.)

203258 Private Alfred George Eno

202370 Private William Gibbons

200350 Private Edward Leach

200844 Private Walter Smith

202162 Private Trainton Thomas Whiting

Enemy bombardment of our lines very severe for 3 ½ hours, and at 6.15 p.m. they raided our trenches, penetrating the centre company front. A counter attack was organized, and the enemy driven out, but not before he had inflicted heavy casualties, as follows: Officers, wounded, 2nd Lieut. Constable; missing, 2nd Lieuts. Guildford and Hunt. Other ranks, killed 6, wounded 18, missing 19. 2nd Lieut. Guildford was captured, together with some 20 men of C Company, in a dug-out in a front line trench less than 100 yards from the enemy’s lines. 2nd Lieut. Hunt was with Captain Rose and D Company when their dug-out was raided. He was wounded by a bomb, losing a finger, but escaped from the dug-out, only, however, to walk into a German listening post and be taken prisoner.

Died of Wounds February 28th, 1917

2nd Lieutenant, Arthur Charles Fry

Fry died at the age of 24 at No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station in France of wounds received in action at Ablaincourt on 28 February 1917, and is buried at Bray Military Cemetery at Bray-sur-Somme (I.C.16). He was listed as dead in The Times of 7 March 1917.

1917, FEBRUARY 22nd – RECONNOITRING THE NEW FRONT LINE AT ABLAINCOURT

Ablaincourt Sector

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose KC (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

It is morning of February 22, 1917. Colonel Bellamy and his four company commanders are setting out to reconnoitre the new front line. Guides are to meet us at Deniécourt Château, a heap of chalk slabs and old bricks, beneath which are Brigade Headquarters. To reach this rendez-vous_ we pass through Foucaucourt and then along a corduroy road through Deniécourt Wood to the village of that name. The wood has been fought through and but few branches remain on the trees, whose trunks, like so many untidy telegraph poles, rise to various heights from the upheaval of shell-holes and undergrowth. Dismal surroundings on a dismal morning, for the frost has relented for several days and already sides of trenches are collapsing (flop go the chunks into the water!) and on top the ground is loading one’s boots at every step.

We change into gumboots in an old cellar and our journey commences. See the Colonel, Cuthbert, Marcon, Brown, Stockton, Robinson and myself lead off down a communication trench behind a guide, pledged to take us to the Berks Headquarters. The going is desperate–water up to our knees; however, each hundred yards brings our goal nearer, and it can hardly be like this all the way. We come to a trench junction, and our guide turns left-handed; presently another–the guide knows the way and again turns to the left. Confound the mud! If we do not get there soon we shall never be home for lunch … but we do not get there soon. The guide, always protesting that he knows the way, has led us in a circle and here we are whence we started an hour ago!

After such well-meaning mockery of our efforts, a route ‘over the top’ is tried. Soon we are outside Battalion Headquarters of the Berks. Whilst we are there, German gas shelling starts–a few rounds of phosgene–and helmets require to be adjusted. It is not everybody’s helmet that fits, this being the first real occasion on which some officers have worn them. There is some laughing to see the strictest censor of a gas helmet (or its absence) in difficulties with his own, when the moment for its adjustment has arrived.

The company commanders duly separate to go up to their own sections of the front. They see the ‘posts,’ or any of them that can be visited in daylight, make notes of local details affecting the relief, and so home independently.

Billets never seemed so comfortable or attractive as on the night preceding a relief. Perhaps they would have seemed more so had the Battalion known, what luckily it could not, that an unpleasant tour was in store, and that afterwards, with the enemy in retreat, there would be no more billets until the summer.

From the War Diary of the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

1917-02-22
Regiment. 2/4th Royal Berkshire
Location France, Trenches Deniecourt
Entry Greater artillery activity. 1 OR wounded (gas).

Captain Robert Frederick Cuthbert

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

“I should like to recall memories of such comrades as Bellamy and Wetherall, Cuthbert, Bennett, Davenport, ‘ Slugs ‘ Brown, Rose, ‘ Bob ‘ Abraham, Regimental Sergeant-Major Douglas, Company Sergeant-Major Brooks, V.C., and a host of other
friends of all ranks.”

“This was the first change which the Battalion had in its Commanding Officer, and it was much regretted. A change in Adjutant had occurred likewise, Major D. M. Rose having been invalided to England early in July and his place taken by R. F. Cuthbert, formerly commander of D Company.”

While speaking of the life furthest forward I do not forget the very similar conditions, allowing for the absence of enemy machine-guns and snipers, which prevailed at Battalion Headquarters. Con- fined to a dug-out (a smaller replica of Regina) in Hessian Trench, with a continual stream of reports
to receive and instructions to send out, and being continually rung up on the telephone, Colonel Bellamy “and Cuthbert had their hands full, and opportunities for rest, if not for refreshment, were very limited. Nor do I omit our runners from the fullest share in the dangers and activities of this time.”

“At dusk, therefore, there was nothing save the heavy shelling to report to Cuthbert over my telephone, which by luck held until cut by German wire-cutters. Within a few minutes, shouts and a few rifle shots were heard, and the next moment bombs were being thrown into my dug-out.”

“In the front line trench-mortaring became frequent. On No-
vember 14 Cuthbert was wounded by a bomb which fell inside the trench, and other casualties occurred, including the General’s runner. Many- new officers and men had joined since Ypres. Wiltshire took up the adjutantcy when Cuthbert left.”

“already at Arras plans for a novel raid were under contem-
plation. Cuthbert had devised a scheme, which Colonel Wetherall adopted and chose B Company, under Moberly, to carry out. The details of this raid, inasmuch as their novelty is of some historical interest, demand an explanation.”

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 common-sense and agreeability made him the equal in his work of any Regular.”

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