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

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61ST (SOUTH MIDLAND) DIVISION Second Line, From the Territorial Divisions, 1914-1918 by John Stirling

The Territorial Divisions, 1914-1918 (1922), John Stirling, J. M. Dent

61ST (SOUTH MIDLAND) DIVISION Second Line

The Division went to France in May 1916. On 19th-20th July they and an Australian division made an attack in the Neuve Chapelle district. Ground was gained but could not be held as the guns on the Aubers Ridge had command of it.

The despatch from Sir Douglas Haig, dated 31st May, 1917, paragraph 13, Messrs. Dent’s edition, shows that the 61st was one of the divisions employed in pursuing and pressing the enemy when he retreated from the neighbourhood of the Somme battlefield in March 1917. On 17th March the 61st and 2nd Australian Divisions captured Chaulnes and Bapaume.

The Division was for a time in the Third Battle of Ypres and, as part of the XIX. Corps, attacked on 22nd and 27th August and 5th September, 1917.

The Cambrai despatch of 20th February, 1918, paragraph 9 (Dent’s edition) and map opposite p. 163, shows that the 61st was in reserve on 30th November, 1917, when the enemy made his great counter-attack. On the night of the 1st December they took over from the 12th in the neighbourhood of La Vacquerie and for some days thereafter had to fight hard to stem the German flood; in this they were successful.

The Division saw a great deal of heavy fighting in 1918 and was frequently mentioned in despatches. It formed part of the XVIII. Corps, Fifth Army, in March of that year and was engaged throughout the whole of the British retreat. At the end of ten days’ continuous fighting the strength of the Division was down to about 2000. They came out of the battle with a splendid reputation, which was to be enhanced later, on the Lys.

In the telegraphic despatch of 26th March, 1918, Sir Douglas Haig said: “In the past six days of constant fighting our troops on all parts of the battle-front have shown the utmost courage,” and among divisions which had exhibited “exceptional gallantry ” he mentioned the 61st.

In the written despatch of 20th July, 1918, paragraph 15, which deals with the 21st March, it is stated: “Assisted by the long spell of dry weather hostile infantry had crossed the river and canal north of La Fere, and, south of St. Quentin, had penetrated into the battle-zone between Essigny and Benay. At Maissemy, also, our battle positions were entered at about noon, but the vigorous resistance of the 61st and 24th Divisions, assisted by troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, prevented the enemy from developing his success.”

The Division held its battle position intact against the assaults of three German divisions, and only retired in the afternoon of the 22nd when ordered to do so in consequence of the enemy’s progress at other parts of the line.

In his History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders, vol. v.. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives a full account of the very arduous work of the XVIII. Corps in the March retreat, and frequently refers to the conduct of the 61st Division in terms of very high praise. He gives a detailed description of the most heroic resistance of the battalions in the front line on the morning of 21st March and, as an example of what was done, he tells the story of the 2 /4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry which, under Colonel Wetherall, held out in the Enghien Redoubt until it was finally submerged by the ever increasing waves from the three German divisions which attacked the front of the 61st. This took place about 4.30 p.m.

Mr. Sparrow in his The Fifth Army in March 1918, also gives many particulars of the splendid defence put up by the forward battalions of the 61st, on the 21st, as well as of the endless encounters they had during the retreat. On p. 239 he mentions that parts of the Division were first attacked at 5 a.m. on the 21st, and were only two miles back at 3 a.m. on the 23rd, although for 48 hours the 61st was attacked by three German divisions. On p. 102 he refers to it as ” this brave Division ” and says that a Special Order of the day, dated 18th April, stated that between 21st March and that date the 61st had been opposed by 14 German divisions.

At p. 287 Mr. Sparrow remarks that the 61st had been continuously in the line since 27th August, 1917, except when moving from one part to another, and “then fought for twelve continuous days.” Paragraph 24 of the despatch states that on the morning of the 23rd the Commander of the Fifth Army ordered ” a gradual withdrawal to the line of the Somme.”

Paragraph 26: A gap occurred in our line near Ham and bodies of Germans succeeded in crossing the river. ” In the afternoon these forces increased in strength, gradually pressing back our troops, until a spirited counter-attack by troops of the 20th and 61st Divisions about Verlaines restored the situation in this locality.”

The fighting between 21st-23rd March is now designated the ” Battle of St. Quentin.”

Paragraph 31, ” The Fight for the Somme Crossings”: On the 24th various bodies of the enemy had been able to effect crossings at different points. ” During the remainder of the day the enemy repeated his attacks at these and other points, and also exercised strong pressure in a westerly and south- westerly direction from Ham. Our troops offered a vigorous resistance and opposite Ham a successful counter-attack by the 1/5th (Pioneer) Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, 61st Division, materially delayed his advance.”

Paragraph 44: On 28th March the British were almost back to the Amiens defences and the enemy were seriously pressing the French on our right. “A gallant attempt by troops of the 61st Division to regain Warfusee-Abancourt and lighten the pressure from the north proved unsuccessful. … At night- fall we held approximately the Amiens defence line on the whole front south of the Somme.” Fortunately that same day the enemy had been defeated north of the Somme (see 56th, 42nd and 62nd Divisions), and in a few days his offensive on the front south of Arras ceased.

In his account of the 28th, Mr. Sparrow deals with the work of ” the intrepid 61st,” and remarks ‘ one and all behaved with the greatest gallantry.”

In Colonel a Court Repington’s Memoirs, The First World War, Constable, vol. ii., p. 269, there is detailed a conversation, on 7th April, 1918, with General Gough, the Commander of the Fifth Army. After some particulars of the great struggle there occurs the sentence, ” He brought with him some of Maxse’s notes, which mentioned particularly the fine conduct of the 61st Division, under Colin Mackenzie.” Lieut. -General Maxse commanded the XVIII. Corps.

The despatch of 20th July, 1918, deals also with the Lys battle which began on 9th April, 1918 (see 55th, 49th, 50th and 51st Divisions). Paragraph 58 shows that several divisions were brought straight from the Somme fighting to the Lys area. Among these was the 61st. Dealing with the 12th April, the despatch states: ” On the left of the 51st the 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence river. Both the 3rd and 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 was definitely checked.”

The fighting 12th-15th April is now the ” Battle of Hazebrouck.”

Paragraph 65 deals with the great effort made by the enemy on 18th April on the southern front of his salient. ” At certain points there was severe and continuous fighting. . . . Elsewhere the enemy failed to obtain even an initial success, being repulsed, with exceedingly heavy loss, at all points, by the 4th and 61st Divisions.” And, referring to a few days later: “Further west the 4th Division, in co-operation with the 61st Division, carried out a series of successful local operations, north of the La Bassee canal, resulting in the capture of some hundreds of prisoners, and a considerable improvement of our positions between the Lawe and Clarence rivers.”

The action on 18th April is now the ” Battle of Bethune.”

The Division joined the XVII. Corps early in October 1918, and with it took part in the ” Advance to Victory.”

The despatch of 21st December, 1918, as to the final British offensive, paragraph 47, Battle of the Selle River, 17th-25th October, shows that the 61st Division, as part of the XVII. Corps of the Third Army, attacked on 24th October. ” About many of the woods and villages which lay in the way of our attack there was severe fighting, particularly in the large wood known as the Bois L’fiveque, and at Pom.rnereuil, Bousies Forest and Vendegies-surficaillon. This latter village held out till the after- noon of the 24th October when it was taken by an enveloping attack by troops of the 19th Division and 61st Division.”

Paragraph 49, ” The Battle of the Sambre,” 1st-2th November: As a preliminary to the main attack it is stated that on 1st November ” the XVII. Corps of the Third Army and the XXII. and Canadian Corps of the First Army attacked on a front of about six miles south of Valenciennes and in the course of two days of heavy fighting inflicted a severe defeat on the enemy. During these two days the 61st, Major-General F. J. Duncan, 49th and 4th Divisions crossed the Rhonelle river, capturing Maresches and Preseau after a stubborn struggle, and established themselves on the high ground two miles to the east of it. On their left the 4th Canadian Division captured Valenciennes and made progress beyond the town.”

The fighting on 1st-2nd November is now designated the ” Battle of Valenciennes.” On the 3rd November the enemy withdrew, and the British line was advanced. The XVII. Corps was again employed on the left of the Third Army in the Battle of the Sambre on the 4th November when ” the enemy’s resistance was definitely broken.”

Battalions from the Division were selected for the Armies of Occupation, as follows: Western Front, 2/6th and 2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment and 1/5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (Pioneers). For Egypt, 2/8th Worcestershire Regiment, 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment.

2/4th Oxfords, Laventie, May – October 1916

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

CHAPTER I.
LAVENTIE.
MAY TO OCTOBER, 1916.

On May 24, 1916, the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed in France. Members of the Battalion within a day or two were addressing their first field postcards to England. Active service, of Which the prospect had swung, now close, now far, for 18 months, had begun.

The 61st Division, to which the Battalion be- longed, concentrated in the Merville area. The usual period of ‘instruction’ followed. The 2/4th Oxfords went to the Fauquissart sector, east of Laventie. Soon the 61st relieved the Welsh Division, to which it had been temporarily apprenticed, and settled down to hold the line.

It was not long before the Battalion received what is usually termed its ‘ baptism of fire.’ Things were waking up along the front in anticipation of the Franco-British attack on the Somme. Raids took place frequently. Fighting patrols scoured No- Man’s-Land each night. In many places at once the enemy’s wire was bombarded to shreds.

By the end of June an intense feeling of expectancy had developed; activity on both sides reached the highest pitch. The Battalion was not slow in playing its part. One of the early casualties was Lieutenant Moberly, who performed a daring day-
light reconnaissance up to the German wire. He was wounded and with great difficulty and only through remarkable pluck regained our lines.

That same night the Battalion did its first raid, by B Company under Hugh Davenport. The raid was ordered at short notice and was a partial success. If the tangible results were few, B Company
was very properly thanked for its bravery on this enterprise, which had to be carried out against uncut wire and unsubdued machine-guns. Zeder, a lieutenant with a South African D.C.M., was mortally wounded on the German wire and taken prisoner. The casualties were numerous. Davenport himself was wounded, but unselfishly refused treatment until his men had been fetched in. It was a night of battle and excitement. To the most hardened troops a barrage directed against crowded breastworks was never pleasant. The Battalion bore itself well and earned recital, albeit with some misdescription, in the English press a few days later.

During July 1916 the Battalion was in and out of the breastworks between Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle. When the 184th Infantry Brigade went back to rest the Battalion had billets on the outskirts of Merville, a friendly little town, since levelled in ruins ; and, when reserve to the Brigade, in Laventie. Brigade Headquarters were at the latter and also the quartermasters’ stores and transport of battalions in the line.

Some favourite spots were the defensive ‘ posts,’ placed a mile behind the front line and known as Tilleloy, Winchester, Dead End, Picantin. Reserve companies garrisoned these posts. No arduous duties spoilt the days; night work consisted chiefly in pushing trolley-loads of rations to the front line. Of these posts the best remembered would be Winchester, where existed a board bearing
the names of Wykhamists, whom chance had led that way. Battalion Headquarters were there for a long time and were comfortable enough with many ‘elephant’ dug-outs and half a farm-house for a mess the latter ludicrously decorated by some
predecessors with cuttings from La Vie Parisienne and other picture papers.

Though conditions were never quiet in the front line, during the summer of 1916 back area shelling was infrequent. Shells fell near Laventie cross- roads on most days and, when a 12 inch howitzer established itself behind the village, the Germans
retaliated upon it with 5.95, but otherwise shops and estaminets flourished with national nonchalance. The railway, which ran from La Gorgue to Armentieres, was used by night as far as Bac St. Maur

an instance of unenterprise on the part of German gunners. Despite official repudiation, on our side the principle of ‘ live and let live ‘ was still applied to back areas. Trench warfare, which in the words of a 1915 pamphlet ‘could and must cease’ had managed to survive that pamphlet and the abortive strategy of the battle of Loos. Until trench warfare ended divisional headquarters were not shelled.

Meanwhile the comparative deadlock in the Somme fighting rendered necessary vigorous measures against the enemy elsewhere on the front. A gas attack from the Fauquissart sector was planned but never carried out. Trench mortars and rifle grenades were continuously employed to make life as unpleasant as possible for the enemy, whose trenches soon became, to all appearances, a rubbish heap. All day and much of the night the
‘mediums’ fell in and about the German trenches and, it must be confessed, occasionally in our own as well. Whilst endeavouring to annihilate the Wick salient or some such target, one of our heaviest of heavy trench mortars dropped short (perhaps that is too much of a compliment to the particular shot) in our trenches near a company headquarters and almost upon a new concrete refuge, which the R.E. had just completed and not yet shown to the Brigadier. Though sometimes supplied, the cooperation of this arm was never asked for.

This harassing warfare had a crisis in July. The operations of July 19, which were shared with the 61st Division by the 5th Australian holding trenches further north, were designed as a demonstration to assist our attack upon the Somme and to hold opposite to the XI Corps certain German reserves, which, it was feared, would entrain at Lille and be sent south. That object was achieved, but at the cost of severe casualties to the divisions engaged, which were launched in daylight after artillery preparation, which results proved to have been inadequate, against a trench-system strongly manned and garrisoned by very numerous machine- guns. The objectives assigned to the 61st Division were not captured, while the Australians further north, after entering the German trenches and taking prisoners, though they held on tenaciously under heavy counter-attacks, were eventually forced to withdraw. ‘ The staff work,’ said the farewell
message from the XI Corps to the 61st Division three months later, ‘ for these operations was excellent.’ Men and officers alike did their utmost to make the attack of July 19 a success, and it
behoves all to remember the sacrifice of those who fell with appropriate gratitude. It was probably the last occasion on which large parties of storming infantry were sent forward through ‘sally ports’.

The Battalion was in reserve for the attack. C Company, which formed a carrying party during the fighting, lost rather heavily, but the rest of the Battalion, though moved hither and thither under heavy shelling, suffered few casualties. When the battle was over, companies relieved part of the line and held the trenches until normal conditions returned.

Soon after these events the Battalion was unlucky to be deprived of Colonel Ames, a leader whose energy and common sense could ill be spared. This was the first change which the Battalion had in its Commanding Officer, and it was much regretted. A change in Adjutant had occurred likewise, Major D. M. Rose having been
invalided to England early in July and his place taken by R. F. Cuthbert, formerly commander of D Company. Orderly Room work passed from safe hands into hands equally safe. Soon after-
wards I joined the Battalion, having been transferred from the 1/4th, and received command of D Company. The new Commanding Officer, Major R. Bellamy, D.S.O., came from the Royal Sussex Regiment and assumed command early in August. Robinson, an officer from the Middlesex and one of the best the Battalion ever had, Callender and Barton also joined about this time. Brucker, of C Company, became Adjutant of the 61st Divisional School, and command of his company passed to Kenneth Brown, a great fighter and best of comrades, the first member of this Battalion to win the Military Cross. Major Beaman was still Second in Command. Two original officers of the 2/4th, Jack Bennett and Hugh Davenport, commanded A and B Companies respectively. W. A. Hobbs, well known as Mayor of Henley, was Quartermaster, and ‘Bob’ Abraham the Transport
Officer. Regimental Sergeant-Major Douglas and Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Hedges were the senior warrant officers.

Higher up a new Brigadier in the person of General Dugan arrived and held command for a short while. The General, I regret to say, did not stay long enough for the full benefit of his experience and geniality to accrue, a fragment of a Stokes’ mortar shell wounding him at a demonstration near Merville and causing his retirement to hospital. The new Brigadier, the Hon. R. White, C.M.G., joined us at the beginning of September, 1916, from action on the Somme, and soon made his cheery criticisms felt.

After the operations of July 19 the former methods of trench warfare were resumed. The Division’s casualties in the attack had been over 2,000, and time was required to reorganise and make up these losses.

Early in August an unlucky shell deprived the Battalion of one of its best officers. Lieutenant Tiddy had joined the Infantry in a spirit of duty and self-sacrifice, which his service as an officer had proved but to which his death more amply testified. The regrets of friends and comrades measured the Battalion’s loss.

At 10 p.m. on August 19 a raid upon the German trenches near the ‘Sugar Loaf’ was carried out by A Company. The raid was part of an elaborate scheme in which the Australians upon the left and
the 2 /5th Gloucesters on our own front co-operated. The leading bombing party, which Bennett sent forward under Sergeant Hinton, quickly succeeded in reaching the German parapet and was doing well, when a Mills bomb, dropped or inaccurately thrown, fell amongst the men. The plan was spoilt.
A miniature panic ensued, which Bennett and his Sergeant-Major found it difficult to check. As in many raids, a message to retire was passed. The wounded were safely brought in by Bennett, whose control and leadership were worthy of a luckier
enterprise.

The Battalion was not called upon for much fighting activity in September, 1916. Raids and rumours of raids kept many of us busy. An attack by the 184th Brigade upon the Wick salient was
planned, but somewhat too openly discussed and practised to deceive, I fancy, even the participating infantry into the belief that it was really to take place. Upon the demolished German trenches
many raids were made. In the course of these raids, the honour of which was generously shared between all battalions in the Brigade, sometimes by means of the Bangalore Torpedo, sometimes by the easier and more subtle method of just walking into them, the enemy’s front line was usually entered; and rarely did a raiding party return without the capture of at least an old bomb, an entrenching tool or even a live German. These ‘ identification ‘ raids possibly did as much to identify ourselves to the enemy as to identify him to us, but they proved useful occasions on which to send parties ‘ over the top’ (always an enjoyable treat!) and gave practice to our trench mortars, which fired remarkably well and drew down little retaliation always the bugbear of the trench mortar.

1 A failure of this kind, was far less due to any indetermination of the men than to the complex nature of the scheme, which any misadventure was capable of upsetting-. On this occasion the ‘ order to retire ‘ was said to have been of German manufacture, but such explanation deserved a grain of salt. Owing to the danger of its unauthorised use, the word ‘ retire ‘ was prohibited by Army orders.

The mention of these things may make dull reading to the blase warrior of later battlefields, but, as there are some whose last experience abroad was during Laventie days and who may read these lines, I feel bound to recall our old friend (or enemy) the
trench mortar, the rent-free (but not rat-free) dug- out among the sandbags, the smelly cookhouses, whose improvident fires were the scandal of many a red-hatted visitor to the trenches, the mines, with their population of Colonial miners doing mysterious work in their basements of clay and flinging up a welter of slimy blue sandbags all these deserve mention, if no more, lest they be too soon forgotten.

Days, too, in Riez Bailleul, Estaires and Merville will be remembered, days rendered vaguely precious by the subsequent destruction of those villages and by lost comrades. Those of the
Battalion who fell in 1916 were mostly buried in Laventie and outside Merville. Though both were being fought over in 1918 and many shells fell among the graves, the crosses were not much damaged ; inscriptions, if nearly obliterated, were then
renewed when, by the opportunity of chance, the Battalion found itself once more crossing the familiar area, before it helped to establish a line upon the redoubtable Aubers ridge, to gain which so many lives at the old 1915 battles of Neuve Chapelle and
Festubert had been expended.

It was a fine autumn. The French civilians were getting in their crops within a mile or two of the trenches, while we did a series of tours in the Moated Grange sector, with rest billets at the little
village of Riez Bailleul.

And then box respirators were issued.

Laventie days are remembered with affection by old members of the Battalion. In October, 1916, however, there were some not sorry to quit an area, which in winter became one of the wettest and most dismal in France. The Somme battle, which for three months had rumbled in the distance like a huge thunderstorm, was a magnet to attract all divisions in turn. The predictions of the French billet keepers were realised at the end of October, when the 2/4th Oxfords were relieved in the trenches by a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and prepared to march southwards to the Somme.”

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