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

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

Archive for the tag “Colonel Bellamy”

Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall, D.S.O., M.C.

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

Late April 1917
“Colonel Bellamy’s successor, H. de R. Wetherall, was a young man whom ability and leadership had already lifted to distinction in his regiment and placed in command of an important military school. From now onwards he is the outstanding figure in the Battalion’s history. In the new Colonel a quick brain was linked with vigorous physique. In spite of his Regular training, Wetherall could appreciate and himself possessed to no small degree the peculiar virtues of the temporary officer, who based his methods on common sense and actual experience in the war rather than servile obedience to red tape and ‘Regulations.’ He had studied during the war as well as before it, with the result that military tradition – his regiment was the Gloucestershire – and his long service in the field combined to fit him for command of our Battalion.”

June 1917
“A totally different spirit characterised training in France. Colonel Wetherall was a master of the art of teaching. His emphatic direction and enthusiasm earned early reward in the increased efficiency of all ranks.”

August 1917
“The capture of this had been assigned to the 48th Division, but as a measure of abundant caution Colonel Wetherall had detailed a special Berks platoon to tackle it. This platoon, assisted by some Oxfords on the scene, captured the gun-pit and nearly seventy prisoners, but failed to garrison it.”

September 1917
“The defence of the three strongholds, Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli provided a striking example of German stubbornness and skill, but added an object-lesson in the squandering of our efforts in attack. Operations upon a general scale having failed to capture all three, it was fantastically hoped that each could be reduced separately. Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli supported one another, nor was it feasible to hold any without holding all. Yet to take Hill 35 on September 9 the 2/4th Oxfords were specially selected. The spirit of A and D Companies, chosen by Colonel Wetherall for the attack, was excellent. We confidently believed that we could succeed where others failed. Optimism, so vital an ingredient in morale, was a powerful assistant to the English Army. It was fostered, perhaps unconsciously, throughout the war by the cheerful attitude preserved by our Generals and staff, but its foundation lay in our great system of supply. The A.S.C.,
which helped to win our victories, helped, too, to temper our defeats.

On September 7 Brown and myself went up through Ypres to view the scene of the attack. At Wieltje, where Colonel Wetherall and B and C Companies already were, we descended to a deep, wet dug-out and that night listened to a narrative brought by an officer who had participated in the last attempt to take the hill. He dispensed the most depressing information about the gun_pits, the machine-guns, the barrages, and last, but not least terrible (if believed), the new incendiary Verey lights used by the Germans to cremate their assailants. The description of a piece of trench, which we were to capture and block, particularly flattered our prospects. ‘Wide, shallow trench, enfiladed from Gallipoli, filled with the Division dead,’ it ran. The tale of horror becoming ludicrous, we soon afterwards clambered on to the wire bunks
and slept, dripped on, till the early morning.”

November 1917
“A series of gas projections. smoke barrages, and raids were to take place. The better to maintain secrecy from the German ‘listening-sets’ no telephones were used. The Battalion bore its share in the programme: already at Arras plans for a novel raid were under contemplation. Cuthbert had devised a scheme, which
Colonel Wetherall adopted and chose B Company,under Moberly, to carry out.”

“Now it was planned by Wetherall to fire lethal gas against the enemy for several nights. On the night of the raid and during it, non-lethal only would be used. The two gases smelt alike and the presumption was that on the night of the raid the enemy would wear gas-helmets.”

21st March 1918
“At Enghien Redoubt Battalion Headquarters had received no news of the attack having begun; the dense mist limited the view to fifty, yards. The earliest intimation received by Colonel Wetherall of what was taking place was enemy rifle and machine-gun tire sweeping the parapet.”

22nd March 1918
“Early on Match 22 Colonel Wetherall, limping and tired, arrived. He bore the tale of his adventure. During the 21st we saw him disappear from Enghien Redoubt to go on a reconnaissance. Near Holnon he was surrounded by an enemy patrol and led a prisoner towards St. Quentin but when the fire of 6-inch howitzers scared his escort into shell-holes, the Colonel escaped, and the same night, choosing his opportunity to slip between the German digging parties, contrived to reach our lines.”

“Colonel Wetherall had already started on the way to Languevoisin but was caught up at Matigny. He the same night (22nd) regained the Beauvoir line and took command of the Brigade.”

24th March 1918
“On the same day of which I was last speaking, March 24–the 184th Brigade, minus those Oxfords who were in action with the 20th Division. though sadly wasted in numbers, formed up again to make a stand. Colonel Wetherall, the acting Brigadier, had received orders to hold the line of the canal east and south-east of Nesle.”

25th March 1918
“At 11 a.m. on March 25 the enemy attacked. As often during these days, when a line was held solidly in one place, it broke elsewhere. By noon the enemy had captured Nesle, and the left flank of the Brigade was turned. During the fight Colonel Wetherall was wounded in the neck by a piece of shell and owed his life to the Brigade Major, Howitt, who held the arteries.”

“The line was driven back to Billancourt and the same night (25th) the remnants of the XVIII Çorps withdrew in darkness to Roye, a town where our hospitals were still at work, evacuating as fast as possible the streams of wounded from the battle. One of the last patients to leave by train was Wetherall, who at this crisis passed under the care of Stobie, the Oxfords’ old M.O.”

From a letter by Brigade-Major Harold Howitt, 183rd Brigade, 61st Division, to his wife Dorothy, 30/3/1918. Found in full in To The Last Man, Spring 1918by Lyn Macdonald, Carroll & Graf, 1998.

“Col. Wetherall got a nasty wound & I am going to boast that he owes his life to me.  An H.E. splinter got him in the throat whilst talking to me and severed one of the main arteries & cut his throat – he gushed all over me & it was a long time before I could stop it, but he was a model of self-possession & I lay with him for over an hour till a doctor could be found. All the time the Hun was attacking & I had to keep one eye on him & the other on messages that were coming in & yet not let Wetherall know. Finally the Hun was right round us for he had taken Vesle on our left & there was nothing for it but to make tracks at once – we had no stretcher so output the old Colonel on a bike and pushed him along. I hear is all right & you can look for his name in the future as one of the soldiers of our day – and I ave never met a finer fellow.”

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

Mid-April 1918
“About this time Colonel Boyle, who had commanded the 6th Oxfords until their disbandment, arrived to assume command of the Battalion. He remained till Wetherall, whose wound had taken him to England, returned.”

End of May 1918
“Towards the end of May Colonel Wetherall returned to take command of the Battalion. To be his Second in Command was both a pleasure and a privilege, similar feelings were evoked towards the Brigadier, General Pagan, in whose small frame beat a lion’s heart.”

7th/8th August 1918
Throughout the night of August 7/8, when things generally were very active, a heavy gas-bombardment was kept up. The Colonel was away from his headquarters at the time. He returned after the shelling to find that gas helmets had been taken off. No harm was expected, but the next day after the sun’s heat had awakened dormant fumes, the Colonel, Symonds (the adjutant), Kirk, who had brought up the rations, and Cubbage, as well as the Regimental Sergeant-Major and many signallers and runners, all round that the were gassed. Their loss was serious. It was known that Wetherall would soon have to leave the Battalion, for he had been appointed to a command in the Machine Gun Corps; indeed alreadv his successor, Colonel Woulfe-Flanagan, had arrived to take his place. Under the present unlucky auspices (for more than half Headquarters were knocked out) the interchange took place.

Herodotus says of the kings of Sparta that the last was always regretted as the best the country had ever had. Colonel Wetherall’s merit did not depend on his being the last of a series. Phrases such as ‘he was worshipped by the men’ have become so hackneyed as to be meaningless, nor shall I use an even worse commonplace, that ‘he was sparing of his words.’ Wetherall was just a rattling good Commanding Officer, a true friend, and a fine soldier.”

Further military career:

Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall

Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall (born 1889; died 1979) was an officer in the British Army during World War I and World War II.

Lieutenant-General Wetherall commanded the 11th African Division during the East African Campaign. He was part of the “Southern Front” for this campaign. Wetherall commanded the 11th African Division during the advance from Kenya, through Italian Somaliland, and into Ethiopia.

On 23 November 1941, with the campaign all but over, the 11th African Division was disbanded. Wetherall became the acting General Officer Commanding of the East Africa Force.

In 1943, Wetherall moved on to British Ceylon.

Command history

* 1936 to 1938 Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment
* 1938 to 1940 Commanding Officer, 19th Brigade
* 1940 General Officer Commanding, 1st African Division, East Africa
* 1940 to 1941 General Officer Commanding, 11th African Division, East Africa
* 1941 Acting General Officer Commanding, East Africa Force
* 1941 to 1943 General Officer Commanding, Command Area, East Africa
* 1943 to 1945 General Officer Commanding, Ceylon
* 1945 to 1946 Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon
* 1946 Retired

Soldiers of Gloucestershire have a photograph of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall and Major-General C.E.A. Firth. Service of Commemoration and Intercession. Gloucestershire Regiment. Gloucester Cathedral, 17th June 1951.

Arras and Afterwards, May – July 1917

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

“The next battlefield to which the Battalion’s steps were turned was Arras. Early in May the French came to relieve the 61st Division at St. Quentin. It was said, perhaps with little truth, that the ban which forbade our guns to shell that town in such manner as, from a purely military standpoint, it deserved, induced this re-arrangement of the front. Certainly the French had tried in April, before the German retreat had definitely stopped, to encircle the town and capture it without bombardment, and possibly their staff yet hoped that it might fall undamaged into their hands. The attitudes of English and French artillerymen towards large towns which they saw opposite to them were naturally different. On this particular front St. Quentin was a potent hostage in the enemy’s power and one which accounted for the extremely quiet conduct of the war in that sector after the English had left.

On its backward march – moves by divisions up and down the front were always made at a good distance behind the line through districts known as ‘staging areas’ the Battalion spent a few days close to Amiens, and thence marched through Doullens
to familiar billets at Neuvillette.

The I84th Infantry Brigade reached Arras at the end of May, and went into the line on June 2.”

A Map of the area from a great free resource: The Times History of the War, 1914-18 Volume 14

During this move Colonel Bellamy, who had commanded us since August, 1916, left the Battalion. He shortly afterwards succeeded to the command of the 2nd Royal Sussex, his former regiment. A man of tact and ripe experience, he had done much to improve the Battalion during his stay. He lacked few, if any, of the best qualities of a Regular officer. His steady discipline, sure purpose, and soldierly outlook, had made him at once Commanding Officer, counsellor and friend. Latterly he had been somewhat vexed by illness, but had refused to allow his activity to be handicapped thereby. His stay had not coincided with the brightest nor least difficult epochs in the Battalion’s history, for which reason, since he was not unduly flattered by fortune, his merit deserves recognition.

Colonel Bellamv’s successor, H. de R. Wetherall, was a young man whom ability and leadership had already lifted to distinction in his
regiment and placed in command of an important military school. From now onwards he is the outstanding figure in the Battalion’s history. In the new Colonel a quick brain was linked with
vigorous physique. In spite of his Regular training, Wetherall could appreciate and himself possessed to no small degree the peculiar virtues of the temporary officer, who based his methods on common sense and actual experience in the war rather than servile obedience to red tape and ‘Regulations.’ He had studied during the war as well as before it, with the result that militarv tradition – his regiment was the Gloucestershire – and his long service in the field combined to fit him for command of our Battalion.

The Division’s share in the Arras Battle, 1917, was small. Already at the time of out arrival the later stages of the fighting had been reached. The British advance astride the River Scarpe had stopped on its north side beneath the low ridge spoken of as Greenland Hill and on its south below a wood known as the Bois du Vert……””

The scene around Arras
The pictures below were taken in April 1917 around Arras. They can be found for free at The Times History of the War, 1914-18 Volume 14 It gives a good idea of the landscape the battalion was moving into.

Another image of the locality is from the sketch book of Fred A Farrell, The 51st Division War Sketches

“9th Royal Scots Attack “Crump Trench.” Description below:

“On April 23, 1917, the 9th Royal Scots took part in an attack on Roeux. Advancing along the side of the river Scarpe, with Roeux Wood on the right and Mount Pleasant Wood on the left, they were held up at the edge of the wood. With the assistance of a tank, however, they took the trench which was impeding the advance, together with a number of prisoners.The drawing shows the men rising from “Creek Trench” to attack “Crump Trench,” where the enemy were stubbornly holding out. Monchy is in the distance. Names of Men appearing in the Sketch.— Coy. Sergeant-Major D. Walker; Corporal J. Hanna; Privates R. Jameson and C. Arnott.

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

As on the Somme in November, 1916, local actions were continuing. To prepare for an attack on Infantry Hill, a position held by the enemy south-east of Monchy-le-Preux, the 2/4th Oxfords went into the front line on June 6.

Map of battlefield around Monchy le Preux. From ‘Haig’s Dispatches’, April 1917

Orders were received to advance across No-Man’s-Land and link up a line of shell-holes as a ‘jumping-off place’ for the subsequent attack. A Company successfully accomplished the task, and the Battalion earned a message of thanks from the Division which a few days afterwards made the designed attack.

Apart from this achievement, the confused network of old and new trenches occupied during this period offered few features of special interest.

C and A Companies and part of D were in the front line, which ran through chalk and was unsavoury by reason of the dead Germans lying all about. The enemy’s fire was of that harassing kind which began now to mark the conduct of the war. In the old days conventional targets such as roads, trenches, and villages within a mile or two of our front were generally shelled at times which could be guessed and when such places could be avoided. These methods changed. Wherever Infantry or transport were bound to go at special times during the night, the German shells, reserved
by day, were fired. Roads, tracks, and approaches, where in daylight English nursemaids could almost have wheeled perambulators with confidence, by night became hated avenues of danger for our Infantrymen moving up the line or ration carrying to their forward companies. The fire to which they went exposed was the enemy’s ‘harassing fire,’ and we, in our turn, very naturally ‘harassed’ the Germans. At this time a crater on the Arras-Cambrai road which must needs be passed and a shallow
trench leading there from, known as Gordon Alley, were the most evil spots. Monchy, the hill-village which had cost us so many lives to capture, was heavily shelled by German howitzers both day and night; below its slopes lay several derelict tanks.

Our gun positions, in proportion to the new increase in counter-battery work, were also often shelled. Though unconnected with any artillery, our doctor, Stobie, and with him Arrowsmith had a bitter experience of German shells. One fine summer morning the enemy commenced a programme of destructive fire upon some empty gun-pits where the Doctor had his dressing-station. Stobie and Arrowsmith, with their personnel, received a high explosive notice to quit, and their descent into a wrong-facing shaft was next followed by the partial destruction or their only exit. They escaped safely and arrived in a state of pardonable excitement at the deep cave under Les Fosses Farm, where my Company Headquarters and many others were. This cave, perhaps, will bear a short description. In Artois and Picardy where chalk strata prevailed, deep subterranean passages and caves abounded. Under Arras itself sufficient room existed to hold many thousands of out troops, who were housed underground before the battle opened. The Germans more than ourselves exploited this feature of geology. Under Gommecourt and Serre their reserve troops had lurked deep in caves.

In the Champagne more striking instances occurred of whole battalions issuing from hidden passages and exits to the fight. The cave below Fosses Farm was about 40 feet below the ground. Of most irregular shape, it branched and twisted into numerous alleys and chambers through the chalk. In it lived representatives of the Artillerv, Royal Engineers, New Zealand Tunnellers, the whole of B Cmpany, parts of Headquarters, the Doctor’s personnel, and my own Company Headquarters.

The cave was dimly lit by a few candles. Throughout the day and night there were perpetuaI comings and goings, and it was common to sec men, dazzled by the outside sun, come stumbling
down the stairs and tread unseeing on the prostrate forms of those asleep below. The bare chalk was floor, bed, and bench to ail alike. The shadows, the dim groups of figures, and the rough pillars forming walls and roof, gave the impression of some old cathedral. Atone end a hole communicating with the ground above served as the only chimney for the incessant cooking that was going on. The fumes of this huge grill-room, which did duty, not only for the 400 men or so within the cave itself, but for as many situated at a distance in the outside world, lent a primeval stamp to the surroundings. We were cave-dwellers, living in
partial darkness and lacking even the elements of furniture.
Caves, cellars, and deep dug-outs had a demoralising influence upon their occupants. The utter security below, contrasted with the danger overhead–for often the entrances to these refuges were particularly shelled – and the knowledge that at any moment the former might have to be exchanged for the latter could deal a subtle injury to one’s morale. It was a golden rule, one perchance followed by many of out leaders, to make each day some expedition afield before the sun had reached its meridian. On the whole one was happier without deep dug-outs – and safer, too, for to become a skulker was equivalent to death.

In quoting things to show how little picnicing there was in the war I feel it opportune to mention a fresh shape in which danger now appeared, not only for the Infantry, but for others formerly immune in sheltered positions far behind the front. I refer to bombing aeroplanes. The warm clear summer nights were now, for the first rime in common experience, marked by the loud droning of the enemy’s machines and by the crash of bombs dropped upon huts and transport lines and along roads and railways in our back area. Arras was often severely bombed. The German aeroplanes on any fine night came to be regarded as inevitable. Bombing might be continued until nearly dawn. When no bombs fell close there was always the constant drone announcing their possibility. To men in huts or in the open, without lights or any means of shelter, the terror carried nightly over- head was greater far than that which ever served to depress Londoners.

Another development which was destined to play an ever increasing part in the war and to make its closing phases worse in some respects that its early, was the long-range high-velocity gun. Though fully seven miles behind the line, Arras was shelled throughout the summer with very heavy shells. The railway station was their principal target, but the 15-inch projectiles fell in a wide radius and caused great destruction to the houses and colleges still standing in the city. Yet to the Arras citizens now eager to return and claim their property shells seemed a small deterrent.

Our star up in the line was short, but we had casualties. Lindsey, a new officer in D Company, was killed on his first visit to the trenches, and Herbert, of B, was wounded. D Company also lost as casualties Sergeant Buller and Lance Corporal Barnes and half-a-dozen Lewis gunners in the line. The night of our relief was spent in bivouacs near Tilloy. A violent thunderstorm, which was the expected sequel to the fortnight’s intensely warm weather we had been experiencing, drenched our surroundings and gave the hard earth, trampled by summer tracks, a surface slippery as
winter mud.

On June 11 the Battalion was back in billets at Bernaville, a village four miles west of Arras, and it appeared that the Division of
which the 184th Brigade alone had been into the line had completed its tour in the Arras sector.
I rejoice that the few pleasant phases of the Battalion’s experiences in France elapsed less rapidly than I describe them. At Bernaville the weather continued fine and warm; in fact, some of the hottest weather of the year occurred. A busy training programme was in swing. To escape the heat, companies paraded at 7 a.m. and worked till 11, and again in the evening at 5 and worked till 7. This training must not be judged by readers according to style and methods possibly seen by them on English training grounds during the war.

At home, after the last divisions of Kitchener’s Army went abroad, no officers trained their own men whom they would lead in battle. The men were usually the rawest drafts, while the officers in home battalions were too often those who had never gone and never would go to the front. A totally different spirit characterised training in France.

Colonel Wetherall was a master of the art of teaching. His emphatic direction and enthusiasm earned early reward in the increased efficiency of all ranks.

At Noeux, near Auxi-le-Château, whither we moved on June 23, the Battalion’s midsummer respite was continued; we were in G.H.Q. reserve.

Rumour, not false on this occasion, predicted the Division’s share in a great battle between Ypres and the coast which was due to happen before the autumn. Expectancy was rife to the effect that
cooperation from the sea was to assist in driving the Germans from the Belgian coast. News, big in its effects, was read one morning in the Daily Mail. The enemy had attacked our lines at Nieuport and driven our garrison across the Yser. A valuable footing had been lost. Happy memories are associated with Noeux. It was a pretty village, girt by rolling hills crowned with rich woods. ‘Wood-fighting’ (which I always said should literally mean the fighting of woods, and indeed it often resolved itself into a contest of man verses undergrowth) was a frequent feature
in the training programme. What was sometimes lost in ‘direction’ was as often gained in naughty amusement at the miscarriage of a scheme. For off-duty hours the wild-boars of Auxi woods and
the cafés in that small town provided varied attractions and romance. The General, who was delighted with the war and the Battalion, was more vigorous and inspiring than ever. It was owing
largely to him that the 184th Brigade became the best in the Division. This good time, which had for its object, hot enjoyment, but preparation for more fighting, came all too soon to an end.

On July 26 the Battalion said good-bye to Noeux. Its inhabitants, of whom an old lady called ‘Queen Victoria’ (La Reine Victoria, as she was known even by her fellow-villagers) was typical, gave us a hearty send-off. Three hours after leaving it we again passed through the village, this time by train. We reached St. Orner in the evening and marched to a scattered Flemish hamlet called Broxeele. Here a stay longer than was expected was made; the 61st Division was in reserve to the 5th Army. The introduction bv the Germans of the celebrated mustard-gas at Ypres had caused many thousand casualties in the line and lent new urgency to our gas drill.

At Broxecle on August 6 the Corps Cmmander, General Hunter Weston, paid a memorable visit of inspection to the Battalion. Long waits, succeeded by tedious processions of generals and
decorated staff-officers of every grade, are usually associated with inspections. General Hunter Weston was more than punctual. His knowledge of all military appurtenances was encyclopedic. A
rigorous examination of revolvers, mess tins, and similar accessories at once commenced. Companies, instead of standing like so manv rows of dummies, were given each some task to perform.

Suddenly in the midst of everything a loud crv of ‘Gas’ is emitted by the General. Not unprepared for such a ‘stunt’ as this, the entire party scrambles as fast as possible into gas-helmets. I think we earned high marks for out gas-discipline. This inspection made a strong impression on the men, who afterwards remembered the occasion and often spoke of it.

Towards the end of July the weather, hitherto so fine, broke hopelessly. Torrential rains followed, which inundated the flat country far and wide. After several postponements the Third
Battle of Ypres commenced on July 31. Some two weeks later the Battalion moved forward by train from Arnecke to Poperinghe. We awaited our share in the fighting which was to make this battle
the most bloody and perhaps least profitable of the whole war.

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