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

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Excerpt from the Fifth Army in March 1918, by Walter Shaw Sparrow

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 2/4th Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, had a baffled adventure. He was in the forward zone of the Sixty-first Division, holding Enghien Redoubt with a company. He had orders to leave his redoubt if a great deal of gas collected there and with the 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 neighborhood, 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 if 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 HoInon 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 it’s 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 this 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 2/8th 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 offioer at Battalion H.Q. in Enghien, Lientenant 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 tho 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 off, 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 Bedoubt 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.

Similar great deeds, let us remember, were achieved by the other redoubts, Enghien is only an example.

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