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

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1917, MAY 26th – AT DUISANS TRAINING AND JOINED BY ITS NEW COMMANDER, LIEUTENANT-COLONEL H. E. DE R. WETHERALL, D.S.O., MC

WetherallOn the 26th Lieut.-Colonel H. E. de R. Wetherall, M.C. (Gloucestershire Regiment), joined the Battalion on appointment to command.

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

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.

1918, MARCH 18th – MOVING FROM THE ATTILLY HUTS IN THE BATTLE ZONE TO THE FORWARD ZONE NEAR FAYET

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 following narrative of events from March 18th to 25th, 1918, was written shortly afterwards by Lieut.-Colonel H. E. de R. Wetherall, D.S.O., M.C., Commanding the 2/4th Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry:

My Battalion, in the natural course of reliefs, went up on the 18th March to hold the Forward Zone for 8 days.

War Diary of the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

1918-03-18
Regiment. 2/4th Royal Berkshire
Location France, Gricourt-Fayet St Quentin Wood
Entry The Raid carried out last night was repeated in the hope of obtaining identifications. As soon as our Barrage commenced, however, the enemy replied intensely and the flanks of the point of entry were strongly manned with rifles and machine guns resulting in our raiding party being beaten off without effecting an entry.

From The Story of the 2/5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, 1914 – 1918, by A. F. Barnes, M. C., (Gloucester, The Crypt House Press, Limited, 1930)

On March 18th the Battalion relieved the 2/4th Oxfords and took over the defences of Holnon Wood, one of the strong points in the Battle Zone.

Brigadier-General A. W. Pagan, D.S.O.

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

April 1918
” I felt quite confident in the command of this force of men, and General Pagan, the new Brigadier, was kind enough to express his confidence in my ability.”

April 12th 1918
“At nightfall, when the companies D Company had rejoined during the afternoon were settled into a secure outpost position and the Brigadier (General Pagan) had visited and approved the dispositions, an order from Corps was received to retreat a mile
and to dig trenches across the open, hedgeless fields which stretched between Robecq and St. Venant.”

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 July 1918
“At the Brigade sports, held at Linghem on July 7, the Battalion easily carried off the cup offered for competition by General Pagan. In the relay race Sergeant Brazier accomplished a fine performance, while in the boxing we showed such superiority that no future Brigade competition ever took place.”

A picture of Brigadier-General A.W. Pagan in full dress. c.1930 can be purchased from The Soldiers of Gloucestershire.

Story of the 2/5th Battalion the Gloucester Regiment 1914-1918
ed by A.F.Barnes
ISBN: 9781843427582
Format: 2003 N&M Press reprint (original pub 1930) 192pp with 39 b/w photos and 12 maps.

April 1918
“Brig.-Gen. the Hon. R. White, C.B., had been wounded at Beauvois and his place had now been taken by Brig.-Gen. A. W. Pagan, D.S.O., of the Gloucestershire Regiment. The latter was a born fighter with the heart of a lion. He seemed to have two absorbing interests in life – the Gloucester Regiment and Rugby Football, so it is not to be wondered at that he won the approval of all ranks of the Battalion at once.”

61st (South Midland) Division

From The territorial divisions, 1914-1918 (1922) by John Sterling

61ST (SOUTH MIDLAND) DIVISION
Second Line

The Division went to France in May 1916. On I9th-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 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 en-
counters 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 6ist 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 nightfall 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 Charles 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 6ist 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. Deahng 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 6ist 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 i8th 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, I7th-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 afternoon 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-11th 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 6ist, 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 ist-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 Infantiy (Pioneers). For Egypt,
2/8th Worcestershire Regiment, 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment.

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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