The Battle of Estaires, 9 – 11 April 1918, was one of the opening phases of the Battle of Lys.
First Army (Horne)
XI Corps (Haking)
51st (Highland) Division
55th (West Lancashire) Division, which fought the defence of Givenchy
61st (2nd South Midland) Division
2nd Brigade of 1st Division
2nd Portuguese Division
3rd Brigade of 1st Portuguese Division.
XV Corps (Du Cane)
29th Division, less 88th Brigade
34th Division, less 102nd Brigade
50th (Northumbrian) Division
74th Brigade of 25th Division.
The sixth Despatch of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders. This was a very long despatch covering the winter operations preceding the German offensives, the 21 March 1918 attack and subsequent developments (Operation Michael), the Battles of the Lys (Operation Georgette) and the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
“(51) The persistence of unseasonably fine weather and the rapid drying up of the low lying ground in the Lys Valley enabled the enemy to anticipate the relief of the 2nd Portuguese Division. On the night of the 7th April, an unusually heavy and prolonged bombardment with gas shell was opened along practically the whole front from Lens to Armentieres. At about 4 a.m. on the 9th April the bombardment recommenced recommenced with the greatest intensity with both gas and high explosive shell. The enemy’s attack in the first instance was launched on the northern portion of the front of General Sir H. S. Horne’s First Army, held by the XI and XV Corps under command respectively of Lt.-General Sir R. C. R. Haking, K.G.B., K.C.M.G., and Lt.-General Sir J. P. Du Cane, K.C.B. On the 10th April the right of General Sir H. C. O. Plumer’s Second Army, held by the IX Corps under command of Lit.-General Sir A. Hamilton Gordon, K.C.B., was also involved. In the early stages of the battle the XV Corps was transferred to the Second Army, and at later dates the extension of the battle front led to the intervention of the I Corps, under command of Lt.-General Sir Arthur Holland, K.C.B., M.V.O., D.S.O., on the First Army front, and of the XXII Corps, under command of Lt.-General .Sir A. J. Godley, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., on the Second Army front. Subsequently the II Corps of the Second Army, under command of Lt.-General Sir C. W. Jacob, K.C.B., became involved in the withdrawal from the Passchendaele salient.
At about 7 a.m. on the 9th April, in thick fog which again made observation impossible, the enemy appears to have attacked the left brigade of the 2nd Portuguese Division in strength and to have broken into their trenches. A few minutes afterwards, the area of attack spread south and north. Shortly after 7 a.m. the right brigade of the 40th Division reported that an attack had developed on their front and was bedng held, but that machine gunners near their right-hand post could see the enemy moving rapidly through the sector to the south of them. Communication with the divisions in line was difficult, but during the morning the situation cleared up, and it became apparent that a serious attack was in progress on the front of the 55th Division, under command of Major- General H. S. Jeudwine, C.B., and of the 2nd Portuguese and 40th Divisions from the La Bassee Canal to Bois Grenier. Meanwhile, shortly after the opening of the bombardment, orders had been given to the 51st and 50th Divisions to move up behind Richebourg-St. Vaast and Laventie and take up their positions in accordance with the pre-arranged defence scheme. Both these divisions lhad also been heavily engaged in the Somme battle, and had but recently arrived in the neighbourhood. The 1st King Edward’s Horse and the 11th Cyclist Battalion had been sent forward at once to cover their deployment. Between 8 a.m. and 9.0 a.m. the enemy succeeded in occupying the forward posts of the right battalion of the 40th Division and attacked northwards along the Rue Petillon and Rue de Bois. Our machine-gun posts in this area continued to fight until all but one of their machine guns were destroyed, and by their fire greatly delayed his progress. At 10.15 a.m., however, his troops were already in Rouge de Bout, more than 2,000 yards in rear of the headquarters of the 40th Division’s right battalion, which, at this hour, were still holding out at Petillon. Later in the morning, the 40th Division was pushed back by pressure on its front and flank to a position facing south between Bois Grenier, Fleurbaix and Saillysur- la-Lys, its right brigade in particular having lost heavily. South of the Portuguese sector, the 55th Division was heavily attacked on its whole front, and by 10.30 a.m., its left brigade had been forced back from its outpost line. The main line of resistance was intact and a defensive flank was formed facing north between Festubert and a strong point just south of Le Touret, where touch was established later with troops of the 51st Division. Throughout the remainder of the day, the 55th Division maintained its positions against all assaults and by successful counter-attacks captured over 750 prisoners. The success of this most gallant defence, the importance of which it would be hard to over-estimate, was due in great measure to the courage and determination displayed by our advanced posts. These held out with the utmost resolution though surrounded, pinning to the ground those parties of the enemy who had penetrated our defences, and preventing them from developing their attack. Among the many gallant deeds recorded of them, one instance is known of a machine gun which was kept in action although the German infantry had entered the rear compartment of the ” pill-box ” from which it was firing, the gun team holding up the enemy by revolver fire from the inner compartment. To the north the positions held by the 55th Division, the weight and impetus of the German attack overwhelmed the Portuguese troops, and the enemy’s progress was so rapid that the arrangements for manning the rear defences of this sector with British troops could scarcely be completed in time. The 1st King Edward’s Horse and the 11th Cyclist Battalion, indeed, occupied Lacouture, Vieille Chapelle and Huit Maisons, and by their splendid defence of those places enabled troops of the 51st and 50th Divisions to come into action east of the Lawe River between Le Touret and Estaires. East of Estaires our troops found the enemy already in possession of the right bank of the river, and touch between the 50th and 40th Divisions could not be established. After heavy fighting the right of the 40th Division was forced back upon the Lys, and early in the afternoon withdrew across the river at Bac St. Maur. The remainder of the 40th Division, reinforced by troops of the 34th Division, established themselves in a position covering the approaches to Erquinghem and Armentieres, between Fort Rompu on the Lys and our old front line north-east of Bois Grenier. Here they successfully maintained themselves, although the line was not readily defensible and was constantly attacked. In this fighting very gallant service was rendered by the 12th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, 40th Division, who held out in Fleurbaix until the evening, though heavily attacked on three sides. During the afternoon troops of the 51st and 50th Divisions (chiefly composed of drafts hurriedly sent up to join their regiments) were heavily engaged east of the Lawe River and were gradually pressed back upon the river crossings. The enemy brought up guns to close range and in the evening crossed at Estaires and Pont Riqueul, but in both cases was driven back by counter-attacks. At the end of the day the bridgeheads were still held by us as far east as Sailly-sur-la-Lys. In the course of the night our troops at Estaires and in the sector to the south were withdrawn to the left bank of the Lawe and Lys Rivers, after sharp fighting about Pont The bridges across both rivers were blown up, though, as had been the case in the Somme battle, in some instances their destruction was incomplete.
The Crossing at Bac St. Maur. (52) East of Sailly-sur-la-Lys the enemy had followed closely the troops of the 40th Division who had crossed at Bac St. Maur and, though here also the bridge had been blown up, at about 3 p.m., succeeded in passing small parties across .the river by an emergency bridge under cover of machine-gun fire. During the remainder of the afternoon and evening the strength of his forces north of tthe river steadily increased, and pushing northwards they reached Croix du Bac. At this point they were counter-attacked early in the night by a brigade of the 25tfh Division, and pressed back. Our troops were unable, Jiowever, to clear the German infantry completely from the village, and during the night the enemy established himself firmly on the north bank of the river.
The Struggle for Estaires.
(53) Early in the morning of the 10th April, the enemy launched heavy attacks covered by artillery fire about the river crossings at Lestrem and Estaires, and succeeded in reaching the left bank at both places; but in each case he was driven back again by determined counter-attacks by the 50th Division. The enemy continued to exercise great pressure at Estaires, and fierce street fighting took place, in which both sides lost heavily. Machine guns, mounted by our troops in the upper rooms of houses, did great execution on has troops as they moved up to the attack, until the machine guns were knocked out by artillery fire. In the evening the German infantry once more forced their way into Estaires, and after a most gallant resistance the 50th Division withdrew at nighitfall to a prepared position to the north and west of the town. East of Estaires the enemy had already crossed the Lys in strength, with artillery in close support of his infantry, and by the evening had pressed back our troops to a position north of Steenwerck. Thereafter, the arrival of British reinforcements for the time being held up his advance.
The Attack at Messines.
(54) Meanwhile, after an intense bombardment of ouir front and support lines and battery areas between Frelinghien and Hill 60, strong hostile attacks had developed at about 5.30 a.m. in this sector also. The outpost positions of the 25th and 19th Divisions in line north of Armentieres and east of Messines were driven in, and during the morning the enemy worked his way forward under cover of mist along the valleys of the Warnave and Douve Rivers, on the flanks of our .positions in Ploegsteert Wood and Messines. By midday he had gained Ploegsteert Village, together with the south-eastern portions of Ploegsteert Wood, and had captured Messines. North of that village the area of attack extended during the afternoon as far as the north bank of the Ypres – Comines Canal. In tihis new sector the enemy carried our forward positions as far as Hollefoeke, pushing back our line to the crest of the Wytschaete Ridge. Messines was retaken early in the afternoon by the South African Brigade, 9th Division. During the night this division cleared Wytschaete of parties of German troops. North of Hollebeke our positions astride the Ypres – Comines Canal were substantially unchanged, and on this front the 9th Division killed great numbers of the enemy.
The Withdrawal from Armentieres.
(55) The enemy’s advance north of Armentieres made the position of the 34th Division in that town very dangerous. Though it had not yet been attacked on its own front, its available reserves had already been heavily engaged in protecting its southern flank. As the northern flank also had now become exposed, it was decided to withdraw the division to the left bank of the Lys. The early stages of tlhe movement were commenced shortly after midday. Though the operation was closely followed up by tihe enemy and pressed by him on all sides, it was carried out with great steadiness and in good order, and by 9.30 p.m. had been completed successfully. All the bridges across the river were destroyed.
The Fall of Merville.
(56) On the morning of the 11th April the enemy recommenced his attacks on the whole front, and again made progress. Between Givenchy and the Lawe River the successful resistance of the past two days was maintained against repeated assaults. Between Locon and Estaires the enemy, on the previous evening, had established a footing on the west bank of the river in the neighbourhood of Fosse. In this area and northwards to Lestrem he continued to push westwards, despite the vigorous resistance of our troops. At Estaires, the troops of the 5th Division, tired and reduced in numbers by (the exceptionally heavy fighting of the previous three weeks and threatened on their right flank by the enemy’s advance south of the Lys, were heavily engaged. After holding their positions with great gallantry during the morning, they were slowly pressed back in the direction of Merville. The enemy employed large forces on this front in close formation, and the losses inflicted by our rifle and machine-gun fire were unusually heavy. Our own troops, however, were not in sufficient numbers to hold up his advance, and as they fell back and their front gradually extended, gaps formed in the line. Through these gaps bodies of German infantry worked their way forward, and at 6 p.m. had reached Neuf Berquin. Other parties of the enemy pushed on along the north bank of the Lys Canal and entered Merville. As it did not appear possible to clear the town without fresh forces, which were not yet available, it was decided to withdraw behind the small stream which runs just west of the town. This withdrawal was successfully carried out during the evening.The Withdrawal from Nieppe and Hill 63.
(57) Heavy fighting took place on the remainder of the front south of Armentieres, and the enemy made some progress. In this sector, however, certain reinforcements had come into action, and in the evening a counter-attack carried out by troops of the 31st Division, recently arrived from the southern battle-field, regained the hamlets of Le Verrier and La Becque. Meanwhile, north of Armentieres strong hostile attacks had developed towards midday and were pressed vigorously in the direction of Nieppe and Neuve Eglise. In the afternoon, fierce fighting itook place about Messines, which the enemy had regained. Beyond this, his troops were not able to push .their advance, being checked and driven back by a counterattack by the South African Brigade. South of Hollebeke the 9th Division had again been heavily attacked during the morning, but had held their positions. Owing to the progress made by the enemy in the Ploegsteert sector, the position of the 34th Division at Nieppe, where .they had beaten off a determined attack during the morning, became untenable. Accordingly, in the early part of the nigiht our troops at Nieppe fell back under orders to the neighbourhood of Pont d’Achelles. Still further ,to shorten our line and economise men, our troops between Pont d’Achelles and Wytschaete were withdrawn to positions about 1,000 yards east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem. This withdrawal involved the abandonment of Hill 63 and of the positions still iheld by us about Messines.
The Southern Flank steady.
(58) Though our troops had not been able to prevent the enemy’s entry imto Merville, their vigorous resistance, combined with the maintenance of our positions at Givenchy and Festubert, had given an opportunity for reinforcements to build up our line in this sector. As troops of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 31st, 61st and 1st Australian Divisions began to arrive, the southern portion of ithe battle front gradually became steady. Time was still required, however, to complete our dispositions, and for the next two days tihe situation in this area remained critical. A sudden attack just before dawn on the 12th April broke through the left centre of the 51st Division about Paoaut and Riez du Vinage, and but for the gallantry and resource of two batteries of the 255th Brigade, R.F.A., commanded respectively by Major L. N. Davidson, D.S.O., and Major F. C. Jack, M.C., might have enabled the enemy to cross the La Bassee Canal. Each of these batteries as it retired left a gun within 500 yards of the canal and, assisted by a party of gunners who held the drawbridge with rifles, worked with them to such good purpose .that the en-emy’s advance was stopped. The 3rd Division was already in action on the right of the 51st Division about Locon where, though forced it to fall back a short distance, our troops inflicted very heavy casualties upon an enemy greatly superior in numbers. On the left of the 51st Division, the 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence River. Both ithe 3rd and the 61st Divisions had been engaged in many days of continuous fighting south of Arras; but with the arrival of these troops, battle-weary though they were, the enemy’s progress in this sector of the front was definitely checked. At Merville also, our troops, though compelled to give ground somewhat during the morning, thereafter maintained themselves successfully.”
“We marched, however, from Avesne on April 11th happy ignorance of this new battle. Not till Hangest, and there by means of a Continental Daily Mail, was the changed prospect of our destination revealed. The Hangest R.T.O. was half beside himself with excitement and delay. There were several hours to spend in waiting, and during this time the kits were retrieved from the station yard and a prudent change was made from soft hats into shrapnel helmets and fighting equipment. After a rapid entrainment we at last pulled out at about 2 p.m. So strong was the Battalion that D Company, which itself numbered over 200, was unable to travel with us and had to follow by a later train. In its early stages the journey, though similar to most of the kind, produced one formidable incident, for at the top of the steep gradient between Candas and Doullens the train snapped in half ; its hind portion was left poised in a cutting for an hour, until two locomotives arrived to push it on to Doullens, whither the forward half, in gay ignorance, had run. The night was overcast, a fact which doubtless saved us from the attention of enemy aeroplanes. The journey from St. Pol through Chocques and Lillers to Steenbecque is stamped on the memory by its more than many halts, the occasional glare of mines and munition factories which, in anticipation of another break-through, seemed to be working at tensest pressure to evacuate coal and manufactured stores from capture by the enemy; by the loud booming of artillery, to which the train seemed
to draw specially near at Chocques and Isbergues; and the final sudden grinding of the brakes at Steenbecque, distracted railwaymen, and the small hut in which Bennett and the Brigade Staff were exhibiting a mixture of excitement, impatience and a sort of reckless familiarity with this apparent repetition of the Somme retreat. At Steenbecque station, which is three miles short of Hazebrouck and hidden behind the Nieppe Forest, we received the latest news of the battle into which we were being so dramatically plunged.”