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

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Interview with Sir Hubert Gough, The First World War 1914-1918, Personal Experences of Lieutenant-Colonel C. a Court Repington

From The First World War 1914-1918, Personal Experiences of Lieutenant Colonel C. a Court Repington, C.M.G, Commander of the Order of Leopold, Officer of the Legion of Honor, Volume II, London, Constable and Company Ltd., 1920

“Sunday, April 7. Sir Hubert Gough telephoned in the morning and came up to dinner at Maryon. He had been sent home by order of the War Cabinet, who are searching for military scapegoats in order to deflect criticism from themselves. It would have been more just if they had sent themselves home. He was looking uncommonly fit and well, and told me all the story of the 5th Army during the days of March 21-28. His forces were :

8th Army Corps, Butler: 58th, 18th, and 12th Divisions; 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions.

18th Army Corps, Ivor Maxse: 36th, 30th, and 61st Divisions; 20th Division in reserve.

19th Army Corps, Watt: 24th and 66th Divisions, 50th Div. and 1st Cav. Div. in reserve.

7th Army Corps, Congreve; 16th, 21st, and 7th Divisions; 39th Division in reserve.

Total : 14 divisions, about 100,000 rifles, and 1500 guns.

He was reinforced by one more division, the 8th I think, in the evening of the 23rd. He had against him Von Hutier’s 18th Army, with four Army Corps of 40 divisions, of which 23 in first line and 17 in close support, with 3500 guns. These figures are confirmed by our printed G.H.Q. Intelligence Report which he showed to me. Gough’s front extended for 40 miles, and was too thinly held. No more reserves were available for him. His troops were insufficiently trained and rested, and, on an average, only one week’s training had been given to them since Jan. 20, when they took over the line. He had instructions that it would be better to lose ground than men. Also, the reorganisation had only just been completed, and the change from 12 battalions to 9 in all divisions had greatly disturbed people, besides reducing the infantry by 25 per cent, of its strength. He had also reported that the Press attacks on generals were liable to undermine the confidence of the men.

Gough had known for a month that he would probably be attacked, and Petain had been sure he would be ever since Von Hutier’s Army appeared in Gough’s front. Gough had a well- placed outpost line, or forward zone, running from Amigny along the river Oise to Moy, thence west of St. Quentin, and so along the road to Le Catelet. It had strong posts which mutually flanked each other. His battle zone was behind this, running past Tergnier, Essignol, Roupy, Massemy, Hargicourt, Lempire, past Epehy, to the north of Gouzeaucourt, and thence to Metz-en-Couture. He had 11 divisions in front line and 3 in reserve, plus his cavalry. He had never heard such a bombardment as that which opened on him on March 21. There was a dense mist, and
the Boche masses flowed in between his outpost positions, cutting the wire and isolating the posts which were turned and captured, though many held out for long after being surrounded. The firing was all done at 50 yards, and no mutual support was possible. On the Oise front the enemy prepared bridges and rafts overnight. The two months of dry weather had made all the marshes by the river dry. His men had fought well, but by the end of the second day the enemy had broken four gaps in his battle line by taking the fortified points of Tergnier, Essignol-le-Grand, Massemy, and Hargicourt, and he had to decide whether to fight on where he stood and be broken, or to go back fighting. He
chose the latter course, which was in consonance with his instructions and really the only course practicable, as he was overwhelmed by numbers.

After the 8th Division, his first reinforcement was a division sent by Franchet d’Esperey. Then Pelle came up with his Corps, but the French would not place them- selves under his command. Gough claims that his Army, as a whole, was never broken, and that it retained its alignment during the eight days, March 21 to 29. He
lost about 60 per cent, of his strength in killed, wounded, and missing, and some 600 guns. He brought with him some of Maxse’s notes, which mentioned particularly the fine conduct of the 61st Division, under Colin Mackenzie. Maxse mentions the 2nd Wilts and 16th Manchesters of the 30th Division as having heroically resisted five hours of furious bombardment and then the attack of two German divisions. Their H.Q. in the redoubt line were holding out and fighting hard several hours after they were surrounded by masses of the enemy. Several others held their redoubt line till late in the evening, and the division fought steadily back to Moreuil, which it reached on the 29th. The 36th Ulster Division had had three battalions overwhelmed in the forward zone similarly, and men of the 12th Royal Irish were still holding out in the racecourse redoubt after 24 hours of incessant fighting. The 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Fontaine-les-Clercs repulsed 12 desperate attacks. The retreat was effected in good order, and there were daily rearguard actions. Maxse notes that
some of his artillery served under French generals in the ‘last critical days ‘ of these operations.

One of Gough’s papers gives a German order on Field Strengths, dated Jan. 26 last. This shows infantry battalions to be 870 all ranks, or 1004 with their M.G. com- panies. This is called the Feldstdrke, and the term * fighting strength ‘ is no longer to be employed. Evidence shows that in the northern portion of the battle front from the river Sensee to the Cambrai-Bapaume road, 9 miles, there were 9 Boche divisions in line and 8 in reserve. On the front from the Cambrai-Bapaume road to La Vacquerie and La
Fere there were 23 divisions in line and 17 in close reserve. Therefore we were opposed by 61 divisions on the battle front on March 21. A further 22 divisions came up later. It is reported that the Crown Prince’s Group of Armies comprises the Argonne group under the orders of the 16th Corps Staff. This group extends as far east as Varennes.

So far as I can make out from Gough’s account, the retreat of the 5th Army before overwhelming numbers was the only course open after the four holes had been punched in his battle line. He is rather sore at being sent no reserves except the one division. He told me that Haig had told him that he expects to be sent home in a week’s time. Drove Gough down to London. Gough had taken over two Corps from Byng, Dec. 18 ; one Corps front, 18,000 yards, from the French on Jan. 20 ; and the remaining Corps front, 30,000 yards, about Feb. 15.”

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