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

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

Archive for the tag “Holnon”

1917, APRIL 26th – BEING BRIEFED FOR A RAID AND RELIEVING THE 2/1st BUCKS NEAR FAYET

By G. K. Rose

By G. K. Rose

The Battalion relieved the 2/1st Bucks in the front line during the night; H.Q. at Fayet; 4 men wounded.

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

 The 184th Brigade had been warned to carry out an ‘enterprise’ against the enemy. During the morning of April 26 I was sent for by the Colonel. I found Headquarters in their new position, an oblong greenhouse over whose frame, destitute of glass, was stretched a large ‘trench shelter.’ They had passed a shell-ridden night. Bennett just now had narrowly eluded a 5.9. This morning shells were falling as usual in Holnon, and pieces occasionally came humming down to earth close by. I listened to the plan of a large raid which with two companies I was soon to perform. Moore was here to outline the scheme and also Colonel Cotton of the R.F.A., whose guns were to support the operation.

The Battalion was mostly fortunate in the opportunity of its reliefs. One always prayed that the time spent in moving up and changing places with troops in the front line would coincide with a period quiet in regard to shelling. One hoped still more that no hostile attack would clash with the relief.

Such prayers and hopes on April 26, when a quiet, easy relief was specially desired, came near to being falsified. At dusk, just as our companies were starting towards Fayet, the enemy commenced an operation against Cepy Farm, a ruined building near the front line, predestined by its position to be an object of contention. The attack was ably dealt with by Tubbs’ company of the Bucks and had proved abortive for the enemy. The circumstance was accompanied by much erratic shelling from both sides. Orders to stand-to were issued rather broadcast, and as the relief was now in progress a degree of confusion resulted everywhere. The destination of my company and half of C was the sunken road leading down into Fayet, but that I found already crowded with troops. Almost all units of the Brigade seemed to be trying to relieve or support each other, and the front line itself was in quite a ferment, nobody actually knowing what the enemy had done, was doing, or was expected to do. Under these conditions it became impossible for me to send patrols to learn the ground from which the impending raid was to be launched. It happened, in fact, that when the time to move forward had arrived, I alone of all the five platoons about to be engaged knew the route to the ‘position of assembly,’ that is to say, the place where the attacking troops were to collect immediately before the raid. That most severe risk–for had I been a casualty the entire enterprise would have miscarried—was owing partly to the accident of the confused relief, but more to the short notice at which the work was to be carried out. Instead of that thorough reconnaissance which was so desirable I had to be content with a visit, shared by my officers and a few N.C.O.’s, to an advanced observation post from which a view was possible of those trenches and woods we were under orders to raid.

The sunken road proved anything but a pleasant waiting place. The shelling of Fayet–fresh-scattered bricks across whose roads showed it an unhealthy place–was now taken up in earnest by the enemy. Partly perhaps from their own affection for such places, but more probably because it was our most likely route to reach the village, the Germans seldom allowed an hour to pass without sending several salvoes of 5.9s into the sunken road. My men were densely packed in holes under the banks. I was expecting large supplies of flares and bombs and all those things one carried on a raid, and had, of course, orders and explanations of their duties to give to many different parties.

Died  of Wounds April 26th 1917

 33451 Private James Owen Wooster

1917, APRIL 22nd – 25th – IN SUPPORT AND WORKING ON LINE OF RESISTANCE

Remained at Holnon in support, working on the line of resistance. Two men wounded.

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

 In Holnon the life was a new sample of unpleasantness. Of accommodation, save for a few low walls and half-roofed cellars, there

was no trace. What Holnon lacked in billets it received in shells. With intervals–possibly only those of German mealtimes–during the day and nearly throughout the night, 5.9s and 4.2s were throwing up the brick-dust, till it seemed reasonable to ask why in wonder’s name the Battalion or any living soul was kept in Holnon. After a few bad nights with little sleep and some close shells, Headquarters moved from their shed, hard by a mound, to a dismantled greenhouse further back. It was a nasty time. The German aeroplanes were very active….

That faint patter of machine-gun fire which comes from aeroplanes circling overhead ends in the descent of one of them. At first it seems to come down normally, yet with a sort of pilot-light twinkling at its head; but, when a hundred feet or so from earth, see it burst into a sheet of flame and shrivel up upon the ground in a column of dark smoke!

I had my company in shelters under a bank, clear of the village but immediately in front of a battery of 18-pounder guns, whose incessant firing, added to the evil whistle of the German shells, deprived the nights of comfortable sleep. But passive experiences were due to give place to active. Events of moment were in store.

1917, APRIL 21st – IN HOLNON, SHELLED DURING THE NIGHT

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,  8.15pm 21 April 1917 Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)  A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards.

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,
8.15pm 21 April 1917
Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)
A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards.

Working on the line of resistance. Holnon was shelled during the night. Battalion H.Q. were driven out during the early hours of the morning.

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

The Battalion spent a week at Holnon village. A line of trenches linking up ‘strong points’ had been designed to guard the ridge which overlooked Fayet and St. Quentin. From Selency Château, whose thickets fringed the sky-line, on the right, to the high-perched windmill above Maissemy on the left, work to consolidate this system had commenced. It remained for us to excavate the chalk trenches deeper and erect wire. The demand for that material exceeded the supply, and it was necessary to salve old German stores. Some excellent coils I found–of American manufacture. Pickets were improvised. Thus liberated by the amateur assortment of our tools from the irksome tyranny of army wiring circulars, we set about the work and soon put up some of the best wire of my experience.

1917, APRIL 20th – MOVED UP TO HOLNON AND RELIEVED THE 16th NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS (32nd DIVISION)

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,  8.15pm 21 April 1917 Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)  A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards.

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,
8.15pm 21 April 1917
Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)
A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards.

The Battalion moved up to Holnon, and relieved the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers (32nd Division.) in the support line, left sub-section; A Company in close support to the 2/5th Glosters.

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

It was hard to believe that any lofty eminence which overlooked our lines was not in constant use by the enemy for observation. The iron towers at Loos, the spire of Calonne, even the crazy relics of the church at Puisieux at different times contributed this uneasy feeling to the denizens of our trenches. But surely never was the sense of being spied on more justified than near St. Quentin, whose tall cathedral raised itself higher than all the roofs of the town and higher, too, than the ridges surrounding it for many miles.

On April 20, 1917, a German observer from the cathedral belfry could have seen the divisional relief which brought the 61st Division back to the line. All day small parties were moving in the forward zone, while further back larger ones crossed and re-crossed the ridge ‘twixt Holnon and Fayet, and in rear again, along the road through Savy to Germaine, columns of Infantry in fours followed by horses, vehicles, and smoking cooker chimneys, were passing one another, some coming, others going back. Those coming made a left-handed turn at Savy, hugged the line of single railway as far as a crucifix at a cross-roads, and were then lost to distinct view amid the abject ruins of Holnon. Those going were the 32nd Division, whose march carried them out of the cathedral’s eye or observation by German balloons.

Among the new arrivals were the 2/4th Oxfords, of whom all companies, followed until the end by cookers and Lewis-gun limbers, disposed themselves in or around Fayet, on whose north side stood a stone monument commemorative of local fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. Near to this monument was found a deep sunken road, broken with two huge craters. It was A Company’s position as support to the Gloucesters, who went into the line.

By G. K. Rose.

By G. K. Rose.

1917, APRIL 30th – RELIEF BY 2/4th ROYAL BERKSHIRE REGIMENT COMPLETE 1.00 AM

Dug Outs in Attilly (near Holnon),  2 May 1917 Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)  A view along a railway track, which runs through a narrow man-made valley bordered by steep earth banks. British soldiers are gathered along the left bank, with men sitting on the ground amongst equipment and stacked rifles.

Dug Outs in Attilly (near Holnon),
2 May 1917
Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)
A view along a railway track, which runs through a narrow man-made valley bordered by steep earth banks. British soldiers are gathered along the left bank, with men sitting on the ground amongst equipment and stacked rifles.

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

Though chased a little on the way by shells, the Battalion had an easy march to Holnon Wood, in which a pleasant resting place was found. The trees and undergrowth, just bursting into green, presented happy contrast to the dust and danger of Fayet.

In the sandy railway cutting, where the single line turns through the wood to reach Attilly, companies sat during the day and slept secure at night. Transport and cookers were near, and for a spell one was on terms of friendship with the world

War Diary of the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

1917-04-29

Regiment. 2/4th Royal Berkshire


Location France, Bois d’holnom


Entry [This entry covers 29th/30th April 1917] The Battn relieved the 2/4 OXFORDS in the front line on night 29th/30th, relief complete by 1am 30th.

1918, MARCH 21st – FROM THE FIFTH ARMY IN MARCH 1918, BY WALTER SHAW SPARROW

Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas By Otto Dix

Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas By Otto Dix

Redoubts 21st March 1918 The Fifth Army in March 1918 Walter Shaw Sparrow

Redoubts 21st March 1918
The Fifth Army in March 1918
Walter Shaw Sparrow

The Fifth Army in March 1918, by Walter Shaw Sparrow, John Lane Company (1921)

An officer of the Sixty-first writes: – “The night was extraordinarily quiet. … I turned in early, about 11 p.m., after telling my signallers to call me at 4 a.m. if nothing happened earlier. I slept well; and at 4 a.m. on the 21st not a sound was to be heard. The line reported all quiet. I went upstairs out of the dugout. A dense ground mist and a light north-west wind. I went back again to bed, and at 4.40 I was wakened by a terrific bombardment.
 Sir Hubert Gough, in his headquarters at Nesle, was awakened also by the same noise. Information was sought by telephone, and a few orders were given. Afterwards nothing more could be done till infantry fighting began. So the General went back to bed and slept, for there would be time for only short half-hours of sleep after the bombardment had passed into its creeping barrage, and it was important to keep as fresh and cool as possible.

Earthquake voices grew louder and louder as twenty or thirty batteries along each kilometre of German front poured shells by the thousand into our defences, particularly between the Rivers Scarpe and Oise, while high-velocity guns aimed at railways and roads far behind. Many communications were cut, many guns were knocked out; and let us try to make real to ourselves the fact that the twenty-one divisions in line on the fronts of our Fifth and Third Armies had each either two or three battalions under shell-fire in the forward zone.

As for the business of manning our battle zone, which began a few minutes after the bombardment started,* men groped through fog to their stations with shells screaming and bursting all around. A curt oath, followed by a hoarse cry through clenched teeth, came here and there from a wounded man; or some one fell with a peculiar, double-sounding thud, a rifle here, a body there, and no movement afterwards. Earth and stones and volcanic smoke fumes spouted into the fog as big new craters were scooped by explosions in and between many thousands of old ones.

* For some time this movement had been heralded by the ” Prepare for Attack” order. This was a piece of Staff work confined to the Fifth Army preparations, and it kept the whole defence alert, like the outposts constantly manned in all zones of defence. Quex writes of March 21, 1918 : ” Had not the ‘ Prepare for Attack ‘ warning come in, I should have been in pyjamas, and might possibly have lain in bed for two or three minutes, listening quietly and comfortably while estimating the extent and intensity of the barrage. But this occasion was different, and I was up and about a couple of minutes after waking. Opening my door, I encountered the not unpleasant smell of lacrymatory gas. . . .” Blackwood’s Magazine, October, 1918, p. 429.

One garrison, there is reason to believe, did not reach its battle station. It set out for Contescourt, but did not arrive there, according to a battery commander whose guns were in this sector. And at Contescourt the Germans got into our battle zone, and made their way by twos and threes down woody swamps of the Somme valley. Who knows how many of our men were either killed or wounded before breakfast by shell-fire ?

If either Nelson or Wellington could have been present, he would have been appalled by the unimaginable hellishness invented since his day by science in slaughter; but mankind being a creature of custom, routine, convention, all in war is right except the unfamiliar.

The Thirtieth, west of St. Quentin, at the usual hour, sent out a couple of patrols, each a platoon strong. One was a patrol from the Second Wiltshires. Out it went into the gathering white mist and disappeared: it was never seen again. The other patrol had men from the Sixteenth Manchesters; and at 4.40 a.m., when German shells began to seek for the lives of men, it was in no-man’s-land, and so cut off. Then our counter-bombardment started, and the patrol found itself between two fires. But it took its chance nonchalantly — or shall we say cigarettefully?—dodging from crater to crater; and after seven o’clock it made its way back into our forward zone, where it fought all day long; and then, with half of its men lost, it withdrew into and through the battle zone. Was it all that remained of the Sixteenth Manchesters? From eight battalions in the front zone of Maxse’s Corps, less than fifty men returned. All had fought to the very last.

The bombardment fell on many wide spans of front, striking broadly east and north-east of Reims, and also here and there between the Scarpe and Lens. Our positions from south of the La Bassee Canal to the River Lys were profusely shelled with gas, and battery areas between Messines and the Ypres-Comines Canal were actively engaged. Dunkirk was bombarded from the sea; and Ludendorf in his first bulletin made astute reference to the firing duel in Belgian Flanders, on both sides of Reims, in the Champagne, along the Lorraine front also, and at Verdun. “Our artillery,” he said, “continued its destruction of enemy infantry positions and batteries before Verdun.”

These were diversions to detain the Franco-British reserves. South of the Scarpe as far as La Fere, the shelling, carefully disciplined, was in deadly earnest. Byng’s Army grew taut and keen throughout its ten line divisions: and Gough’s Army, which started with about 66,000 infantry in first line, and about 16,500 in reserve, was ready. Owing to the fog, our airmen could not go out to attack all enemy batteries in action and troops on the move.*

* But since March 10, two hours before dawn every day, airplane patrols of the Fifth Army had reconnoitred the German front system as far back as a general line, about three miles east of our outposts. Flares were employed, but it was impossible to see German movements along roads.

While the artillery work continued, many German divisions trudged from anti-aircraft shelters to their places in the storming line, or from villages in the rear to their support stations. Now and then a British shell tore gaps in the marching ranks. Secret night marches to the battlefield must have tired a big percentage of men in each battalion. Divisions chosen to begin the battle were disposed variously for attack, but the formation most often used was this: two regiments in the front line (six battalions) and a regiment (three battalions) in divisional reserve. A regiment was echeloned in depth, having, as a rule, two battalions in first line. It was reinforced in numbers more or less strong with elements from the following units: companies of stormtroops, companies of pioneers, companies of flame-throwers, and mine-throwers, and cyclists ; also one and a half extra machine-gun companies. A brigade’s reserve seems to have had an independent detachment of two cyclist companies and an assault company. Half an hour after the attack began, and at arranged times through about three hours, a division’s artillery -— twelve field batteries and six heavy batteries—were to be moved forward.

During five hours of intensive bombardment every unit in these German forces moved in the white fog, learning from officers how the shelling advanced through its seven stages or periods. Every fixed target was known to the German gunners; its position had been accurately mapped and its range correctly measured; the errors of each German gun had been noted and tabulated, and allowed for when firing, like errors of the day caused by wind and atmospheric density. In this way it was possible to determine, by means of simple tables for any gun at any time, how much should be added to, or subtracted from, the normal elevation of any target. Of course, maps had to be faultless, and among the necessary preliminaries was the determination trigonometrical and topographical of all battery zero points on the ground. The most watchful care had to be shown in marking targets on maps, as determined by sound-ranging, flash-spotting and aerial photography. What in finite patience! Ludendorff says that this new artillery procedure set gunners by the ears, particularly the senior gunners, but that “it fulfilled all expectations.” He exaggerates, for a good many of our guns had been moved to alternative positions not yet discovered by the enemy.

At first, for two hours, the German gunners searched for our guns ; then for thirty minutes, going through three periods, one half of the bombardment tired gas and high explosive shells into our infantry positions, while the other half went on with its attack on our guns and mortars. Afterwards, through a hundred and forty-five minutes, special parts of our infantry defences were ransacked by every German gun that did not belong to the counter-battery groups ; and hundreds of mortars, heavy, medium, and light, took part in a crescendo of studied fire; light mortars beginning to bark thirty minutes before a creeping barrage started to travel from our outposts up the forward zone to our line of redoubts at the far end and farther west.

We must linger over this routine because it was the most important factor, in the foe’s opening assault. Ludendorff thought of it with great anxiety during his preparations, and his chosen storm troops practised with a barrage of live shells, in order that they might learn to keep close behind a creeping protection which exploded violently. They were trained to advance in a thin wave constantly renewed from behind. In all the German training loose formations, with infantry group tactics carefully worked out, were compulsory. Ludendorff said : “We must not copy the Allied mass tactics, which offer advantages only in the case of untrained troops.” As it was quite impossible for him to foresee what form the fighting would take when his infantry emerged from the protecting barrage, anxiety caused him to be present at various exercises and to converse with many regimental officers. discovered that it was not at all easy for his troops to adopt the open formation which he held up to them as essential. Right up to the middle of March every moment of time available for training was urgently needed for attack rehearsals, in which every infantry group was expected to act with swift initiative.

The barrage caused the greatest worry: — “It was evident that the closer the infantry could keep to the barrage, the less time the English would have to leave their dugouts, and the more chance there was of surprising them in their dugouts. Consequently the barrage must not advance faster than the infantry could follow. This pace had to be fixed beforehand, for, in spite of hard thinking and experiments, it had been impossible to discover any means of controlling the barrage. The nature and state of the ground had also to be considered, as regards their effect on the infantry’s advance and the consequent pace of the barrage. Stronger lines required a more prolonged bombardment, and the barrage had to dwell on them longer. So it came about that an advance of one kilometre (eleven hundred yards) required as much as an hour. It was always a great misfortune if the barrage got ahead; the attack was then held up only too easily. It could not be brought back again without great loss of time, and the infantry suffered losses which it was the duty of all commanders to avoid.”*

* Ludendorff, vol, ii., p, 579,

In these time matters, happily, fog was a great help to our defence, impeding the attack when it passed over trench systems and over ground profusely cratered with shell-holes, while the routine barrage thundered onward. As the range increased shorter range guns dropped out, so the barrage grew thinner and thinner, till at last, beyond extreme range, it ceased, leaving the fog-bound attack unprotected. Some artillery was moved up as rapidly as possible to support a further advance, but hitch after hitch was inevitable, happily, in such a fog and across ground which in peace manoeuvres, aided by broad daylight, would have been indescribably difficult.

A regular scheme for bringing up a large force of artillery and even larger masses of ammunition had been prepared, but Ludendorff says that often too many guns were pushed up compared with the ammunition that could be brought in wheeled vehicles over shell-holes and the German and British systems of trenches and wire. Vast quantities of gear were needed to bridge the defensive belts. No one could see what was happening fifty yards away ; and, happily, few German divisions knew anything about the country ahead of them. They had been trained to show initiative anywhere except in a fog. Even our own men felt lost on ground that they knew perfectly. Thus, at 6.15 a.m. the commander of one battalion, the 2/Fourth Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, had a baffled adventure. He was in the forward zone of the Sixty-first, holding Enghien Redoubt with a company. He had orders to leave his redoubt if a great deal of gas collected there; and gas becoming worse and worse, he went out in the fog to see whether he could move his company to Champagne trench, a better spot. Though the Colonel knew by heart every nook and corner in his neighbourhood, he lost his way before he had gone fifty yards; and it took him about fifteen minutes to find his way back. He and his men remained in the dugout, with gas blankets put down, knowing that the Germans would not attack until they believed all gas had cleared away. But an officer went up frequently to put his ear on the bombardment.

At half-past seven gas shelling ceased, and Enghien Redoubt was pounded with high explosives from four batteries. Shell after shell exploded, above all in the quarry, a space about fifty yards by sixty.

Nearly two hours later there were barrage symptoms east-ward that an attack through the fog had begun to play at blind man’s buff with Destiny. How soon would it reach the line of eight redoubts ending the forward zone of Maxse’s Corps? Would the attacking troops have courage enough to keep close to this exploding barrier of projectiles? Every one under- ground in Enghien Redoubt made ready for a rush upstairs.*

The barrage passed over : and when our men came up they had to grope their way to their lonely posts.

To be unable to see more than a few yards was a great ordeal –sometimes too great — when a company of young troops in a redoubt was divided between many isolated posts, and attack came all at once from many (quarters, with the hiss and ping of bullets. A brave officer, Lieutenant Bassett, fell, shot in the head. Not a German could be seen and for several minutes the garrison groped with strained eyes into the fog, and breathed almost as swimmers do when tired and cold.

Near the quarry was a sunken road connecting Fayet on the east with Holnon on the south-west ; and suddenly, close by, some fifty Boches climbed out of this road. Bullets welcomed them; and about five-and-twenty went down. The rest sought seclusion in the roadway. But Fayet had fallen, and just before ten o’clock the foe entered a part of Enghien Redoubt, capturing the sandpit.

At once a bombing reprisal was arranged. It went briskly, led by Captain Rowbotham, and the sandpit was our own again. Only five posts now remained in the enemy’s hands ; the rest of Enghien was Oxford and Bucks.

Soon after eleven o’clock the Germans tried their luck with bombs, assailing from three sides, and with a skill that looked menacing. But our men had warmed to their work their hearts were in it, for now they were freed from the cold, clammy demon that rules over most young soldiers when the blood is iced before battle by lonely waiting and a troubled consciousness of past joys and present dangers. Set firmly in a proper fighting vein, cool, firm, and fierce, they stopped the attack, then drove it back.

Foiled, the enemy persisted, surrounding the whole ground included in Enghien Redoubt and its posts. A rear post, No.12, only about three hundred yards from Holnon village, was in the thick of it, till a Vickers gun shot more than fifty attackers. They could be seen through the fog, these dead or wounded men, huddled into wire entanglements. No wonder a German war correspondent wrote of the blasts of death that blew around the Holnon district. Twelve hours later, when the war correspondent of the Berlin Gazette visited the scene, wounded men were still there in long lines, Germans on one side, our own men on the other and near by, in the

sunk road, was a terrible wreckage of guns, and horses, and dead soldiers. For both sides had fought their best, each in its own way. German platoons and companies came on as blurred targets through the fog, and hour after hour handfuls of British troops held them at bay. Self was lost in duty and this fact was equally active all along our firm line of redoubts. Tommy had no time to cry : “Outnumbered again ! Why? Isn’t the war nearly four years old?”

Towards midday the fog began to shred upwards, uncovering Enghien. At any moment enfilade fire might commence from the rear. What was happening to the Fifth Gordons in Fresnoy Redoubt, two thousand yards northward? And to the 2/Eighth Worcesters in Ellis Redoubt, about a thousand yards due south. Germans had passed between these strongholds; but had they settled themselves in Holnon village? If so, nothing but a barrage from our eighteen- pounders could save the quarry garrison at Enghien from shots in the back.

Some one must visit Holnon before the fog dispersed. Some one—but who? The only other officer at Battalion H.Q. in Enghien, Lieutenant Cunningham, had been so busy, with a bravery all of a piece with Chinese Gordon’s, that Colonel Wetherall thought it would be unfair if he did not go himself. So he chose two men and stole across the strip of land separating No. 12 post from Holnon. The village was empty.

On their way back one of our men was shot, while the Colonel was captured, with his other companion. Captors and captives made their way to a shell-hole; and there they sat peaceably until a quarter to five in the afternoon. The Germans chose many things from their prisoners’ pockets, but found no use for the Colonel’s watch.

Cigarettes they liked very much, yet were willing to share them with their owner; and Tommy also might have one if his Colonel did not mind. There was no unkindness, but just a compulsive communism in a shell-hole while a vast battle raged. Many bullets were flying about,and the Boches were glad to regard two prisoners as quite enough for a day’s peril. At a quarter to five one German went away, while the others took their prisoners to the rear, passing between Enghien and Ellis Redoubts towards the Faubourg St. Jean at St. Quentin. All at once, about fifty yards off, a British 6-inch shell exploded, and another was heard coming.

The Germans ran forward to a shell-hole. Their prisoners ran back to an old trench, there to begin new adventures. They were surrounded by Boches, who moved here and there by companies and platoons. Yet all went well until they reached our old line between Holnon and Round Hill, where many Germans were busy on the toil named “consolidating “;

and busy so close together that it was impossible to pass between them. An hour toiled through its long seconds. It seemed an eternity. At last a platoon finished its work and moved oft”, leaving a gap through which an escape could be made into other hazards.

Near midnight the Colonel reached Attilly, his brigade headquarters, where he got his first drink since daybreak, and where he learnt that Enghien Redoubt had made a big name under Cunningham. Not till half-past four in the afternoon did the position there become hopeless. Then Cunningham, completely surrounded with overwhelming numbers, sent a telephone message to his Brigadier, seeking final orders. On the chateau side his quarry was enfiladed. What was he to do?

The Brigadier, Robert White, having praised a great defence, told Cunningham to cut his way out after destroying the telephone gear. Parts of the redoubt were strewn with German dead, and its garrison, in proportion to its number of men, had suffered as heavily. Game to the last, it began to cut its way through, and just a few machine-gunners, with Lieutenant Richards, had fortune for their friend, reaching our battle zone more than a mile westward. And Cunningham? He was captured and, I fear, wounded.

1918, MARCH 21st – ENGHIEN REDOUBT ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE

Redoubts 21st March 1918 The Fifth Army in March 1918 Walter Shaw Sparrow

Redoubts 21st March 1918
The Fifth Army in March 1918
Walter Shaw Sparrow

The British Campaign in France and Flanders, January – July 1918, A. Conan Doyle

As it is impossible to give the experiences of each redoubt in detail, the story of one may be told as being fairly typical of the rest. This particular one is chosen because some facts are available, whereas in most of them a deadly silence, more eloquent than words, covers their fate. The Enghien redoubt was held by Colonel Wetherall with a company of the 2/4 Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry upon the front of the Sixty-first Division. The redoubt formed the battalion headquarters, and was connected to brigade headquarters by a cable buried Battle eight feet deep. In front were two companies of the battalion in the outpost line; behind was the fourth company ready for counter-attack. Early in the morning heavy trench-mortar fire was raining bombs upon the redoubt, and the wire was flying in all directions. At 6 the redoubt was so full of gas that even the masks could not hold it out, so the men were ordered below and put up gas blankets to fend it off. This could be safely done, as when gas is so thick it is not possible for the stormers to advance. At 6.15,what with fog and gas and blurred respirators, it was hardly possible to see anything at all. At 7.30 the gas cleared and there was a shower of high explosive shells with shattering effect. At 9.30 the barrage lifted and the garrison rushed up from their shelters and manned their posts, but the fog rolled white and thick across their vision. The cloud banked right up to their wire, while from behind it came all the noises of the pit. So nerve-shaking was the effect that some of the outlying men came creeping into the redoubt for human company. At 9.40 the whizzing of bullets all around showed that the infantry was on the move. The garrison fired back into the mist, whence came vague shoutings and tramplings. A request was cabled back for a protective barrage, but the inadequate reply showed that the British guns had suffered in the shelling. Suddenly the mist darkened at one point; it broke into running figures, and a wave of men rushed forward, scrambled through the broken wire, and clambered into the redoubt. The Oxfords rushed across and bombed them back into the mist again. There was a pause, during which the attack was reorganised, and then at 11 o’clock the German stormers poured suddenly in from three sides at once. The garrison stood to it stoutly and drove them out, leaving many bodies on the broken wire. The fort was now entirely surrounded, and there was a fresh attack from the rear which added fifty or sixty more to the German losses. At 11.45 there was some lifting of the fog, and Colonel Wetherall endeavoured to get across to the village, 300 yards behind him, to see if help could be obtained. He found it deserted. Stealing back to his fort he was covered suddenly by German rifles, was dragged away as a prisoner, but finally, late in the evening, escaped and rejoined the main body of his own battalion. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cunningham had taken over the defence of Enghien redoubt, assisted by Lieutenant Richards with the machine-guns. Hour after hour fresh attacks were repelled, but showers of bombs fell in the confined space, and the garrison were continually thinned out. Despairing messages—” What shall we do? What shall we do? “—were sent back over the cable, but nothing could be done, for these outliers are the enfants perdus of the army, marked from the first for destruction. Finally, at 4.30, the great deep all around them sent one heavy wave to submerge them, and the cable was for ever silent.

Such is the typical history of a redoubt. Some succumbed more readily, some survived until the afternoon of the next day ; but the difference may sometimes have depended upon the various degrees of severity of attack, which was by no means the same upon all sectors. The total effect was the complete destruction of the eleven gallant battalions which held the advanced line of the Fifth Army, and the loss of all material therein. One can but hope that the enemy paid a full price. Occasionally a sudden rise of the mist gave the defence a splendid opening for their machine-guns. On one occasion such a chance exposed a German officer standing with a large map in his hand within thirty yards of the fort, his company awaiting his directions beside him. Few of them escaped.

1917, APRIL 21st – IN HOLNON OVERLOOKING SAINT-QUENTIN, SHELLED DURING THE NIGHT

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,  8.15pm 21 April 1917 Rose, Geoffrey K (MC) 1917-04-21 A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards. G. K. Rose would have been around Holnon at this time.

St Quentin on Fire During German Retreat,
8.15pm 21 April 1917
Rose, Geoffrey K (MC) 1917-04-21
A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards. G. K. Rose would have been around Holnon at this time.

Working on the line of resistance. Holnon was shelled during the night.

By G. K. Rose.

By G. K. Rose.

1917, AUGUST 2nd – DUG OUTS AT ATTILLY, NEAR HOLNON

Attilly2nd51917

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

At night another minor operation preceded the relief. Orders were given for B Company, which held the right of the Battalion’s line, to seize the much-disputed Cepy Farm and hand it over to the incoming Berks. Moberly, who had recently rejoined his old Battalion, was in command of this enterprise. The farm was reached and duly occupied, but when the time for handing over to the Berks arrived our post was driven out by a strong party of the enemy. This was the first of many similar encounters at Cepy Farm. Luckily it did not long prejudice the relief. Though chased a little on the way by shells, the Battalion had an easy march to Holnon Wood, in which a pleasant resting place was found. The trees and undergrowth, just bursting into green, presented happy contrast to the dust and danger of Fayet. In the sandy railway cutting, where the single line turns through the wood to reach Attilly, companies sat during the day and slept secure at night. Transport and cookers were near, and for a spell one was on terms of friendship with the world.

Marched into divisional reserve, and billeted at Vaux and Etreillers; H.Q. and A Company at Vaux.

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.

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