Remembering the men from the Kingsdown and Creekside Cluster
who gave their lives in the First World War
On the centenary of their death, we remember
Charles Henry BACK (of Newnham)
d. 22nd March 1918. Aged 32
Prince of Wales's Volunteers (South Lancashire) Regiment
(formerly 7122, Northants Regiment)
Remembered with Honour
Stone Number 48
Killed in Action
Charles Henry Back is identified in church records for Newnham for Remembrance but while his name does not appear on the Memorial Cross, he is named on a plaque inside Newnham Church. We know his wife's death is registered at Faversham in September 1916, so there is a direct local link even if the exact sequence of events and connections is unclear. Perhaps the young married couple took up employment in Newnham or one of Ellen's wider family members lived here, and gave her a home while Charles served overseas? The latter possibility may be speculated, based on the three-way split of Charles's effects between one of his sisters, his mother-in-law and his wife's older sister. Charles remembered both families in his Will.
Charles was the eldest son of George R Back and Betsey (nee Peacock). His two younger brothers, Albert Ernest and Joseph Richard also took up arms in the army before World War 1; both served in The Buffs and survived. His two younger sisters were Annie Margaret and Florence Elizabeth.
Charles was born at Key Street, Borden in 1886. Census records for his siblings also place Charles in Bredgar and Thurnham before he appears in his own right as an "Under Carter (Agricultural/Horse)" in Dene Farm, Wingham. In 1911, Charles married Ellen Jane Sladden of West Marsh, Ash, Canterbury, and he appears in that census as a General Labourer, Out Elmsted, near Canterbury. Their marriage is registered in Dover, although probably married in Coldred, near Dover, where her father was a shepherd.
It is unusual and poignant that Charles' "Soldiers Effects" are divided between three Guardians for "Mrs Annie M Care" (Charles's married sister), Mrs Anne Sladden (his wife's mother), and "Mrs Kate M Smith" (the married older sister of his wife, Ellen). This distribution reflects the sad fact that Ellen had died by September 1916, registered at Faversham. Charles's Effects amounted to £16 11s 8d. Within this amount, £8 came as a "War Gratuity", which indicates an enlistment date for Charles of June 1916 - tragically close to the time of his wife's death.
We know that Charles first enlisted approximately in June 1916 into Northants Regiment (Number 7122). As so often happened, Charles may have received his training in this Regiment but was moved to 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment in response to the more urgent needs for fresh drafts. It may well be that he joined his comrades a year later in preparations ahead of the Battle of Messines, which opened on 7th June 1917. If so, the 2nd Battalion also served in two Battles of Ypres - The Battle of Pilckem Ridge (July 1917) and the Capture of Westhoek (August 1917).
Having survived these battles, there followed the cold immobility of Winter and a largely quiet Front until the Spring, when the much anticipated attack from German forces broke upon the Allies across a wide front that nearly carried the German attack as far as Paris.
"Operation Michael" - the German Spring Offensive - opened on 21st March 1918 - and swamped Allied Forces with strengthened and fresh Brigades released from the Eastern Front. The desperate circumstances led immediately (21st March) to the 2nd Battalion moving from the Command of the 75th Brigade to that of the 71st Brigade.
Charles and his comrades felt the full force of the onslaught that took his life on the second day of the Spring Offensive. The odds were stacked against the Allies and they lost significant ground, very quickly. The Allies had expected the attack and prepared defensive strategies that (just) absorbed the initial shock.
For Charles, the scene of his death was in the First Battle of the Somme (1918), the Battle of St. Quentin.
The circumstances Charles faced can best be understood both by reference to the 2nd Battalion War Diary and that of the 71st Brigade, under whose command the 2nd Battalion fell during the first day (from the 75th Brigade). The German Spring Offensive opened with the sound of heavy artillery at 3 a.m. in the direction of Lagnicourt, renewed at 5 a.m., and just after noon the 2nd Battalion was put under the command of 71st Brigade to form a Reserve force to call on at will. It is not possible to say whether Charles died in the Reserve through shelling or (perhaps more likely) when a Company was ordered at 4.30 pm, 21st March, to hold the high ground of VRAUCOURT as a defensive flank when the Germans broke through the line in a neighbouring formation. Although the night was calmer, it wasn't until later, on 22nd, that relief forces arrived in haphazard fashion. The relief was hamstrung by a loss of communication lines. Without more information, what is certain is that Charles died as part of the last throw of defence against the German onslaught. Two other battalions had been largely obliterated in the opening barrage, largely because their trenches had no dugouts.
To give a sense of just how fluid the situation was, we have transcribed part of a table that summarised communication to and from the 25th Division of which the 2nd Battalion was before its Command was moved. We have also reproduced a lengthy field account from the War Diary of 71st Brigade covering the first two days of fighting (see below).
The Allies had wind of the German intentions from aerial observation and accounts given by prisoners. Throughout February and March, in anticipation of a German offensive, the 2nd Battalion was in billets at AMIENS from which they received intensive training in "counter-attack" alongside several days of sports in which the 2nd Battalion fared well. They also undertook route-marches locally. The days were mostly very cold with mixture of squally showers and fine skies. On the 9th March, Summer Time came into force.
On 11th March, the 2nd Battalion provided troops to join a "special Pack Company" to help move supplies to the forward areas. The Battalion was put on short notice to move by rail from Achiet-le-Grand. The next day (12th), the battalion moved to Bihucourt to provide working parties to lay mines in No Man's Land to the East of Lagnicourt. During their return through Lagnicourt there were a few casualties from shell-fire - 2 men killed, 4 injured. They returned to Savoy Camp, 1 mile East of Achiet-le-Grand. The weather warmed. The following day (13th) the Battalion was put on short notice but, in the event, did not have to move and they returned to training and something like the 'normal' routine was resumed.
"14th March: Fine day but very cold. Disposition unchanged. Training continued. Lieut H.E. HOWSE proceeded to England for six months duty at home. Very cold night.
15th March: Fine bright day but very cold. Disposition unchanged. Training continued.
16th March: Fine day. Disposition unchanged. Training continued. Battalion bathed. Captain J.R. BEALL S. Lancs Reg reported his arrival today.
17th March: Fine day. Disposition unchanged. Battalion took part in Brigade tactical exercise. Lieut D.D. McMAHON returned from course of instruction. Captain K.M. BOURNE M.C. proceeded on leave direct from course of instruction.
18th March: Fine day. Disposition unchanged. Training continued. Battalion route march. 2nd Lieut W.O. Mesham rejoined from Transport Course and resumed duty as Battalion Transport Officer.
19th March: Wet day. Disposition unchanged. Training continued. Very wet night.
20th March: Dull day. Occasional rain. Captain T.C. ECKENSTEIN M.C. proceeded to Lewis Gun course. 2nd Lieut J. ACHESON proceeded to Divisional Rest Billet, Amiens.
Working party of 2 officers and 100 other ranks per company for special work on BEAUMETZ-MORCHIES Line, under following arrangements:
'C' and 'D' at 6.15 a.m. for work at 8 a.m.
'A' and 'B' at 12 noon for work at 2 p.m.
Lorries were provided to carry parties as far as Beugnatre. Parties returned to camp about 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. respectively. Fine night. Cold and frosty.
21st March: About 3 a.m. heavy gun fire suddenly commenced apparently in the direction of Lagnicourt. This gradually decreased until about 5 a.m. when it again broke out very heavily and it was reported the enemy had opened an attack.
About 6 a.m. the Battalion was ordered to be prepared to move forward and about 9.15 a.m. moved with other units of the Brigade, marching to Favreuil, where a halt was made from about 11 a.m. to 12 noon, and a meal served.
Battalion now came under the orders of 71st Infantry Brigade and moved forward by platoons to about I3 Central, reaching there about 2 p.m.
Orders were given about 3.30 p.m. for 'A' and 'B' Companies to reinforce the Vaulx-Morchies line from C.29.d.9.3. At 4 p.m. 'D' Company was sent to reinforce the same line from C.27.b.9.7 to C.28.c.8.3. At 5.30 p.m. 'C' Company was sent to form a defensive flank on high ground facing North at Vraucourt. Battalion Head Quarters remained at I3 Central till about 7 p.m. when orders were received to occupy the vacated Brigade Head Quarters at Vaulx, about C.26.d.3.7.
Fighting was very heavy, the enemy moving forward in continuous successive waves. At 9 p.m. orders were received for 'C' Company to withdraw from the position at Vraucourt and reinforce the Vaulx-Morchies line from C.28.d.8.3 to C.28.c.4.6. This move was completed about 3 a.m. 22nd.
["X" Inserted scrap note: "I.1." is probably a mistake for "I.11." – dated 14th August 1925!]
22nd March: By 3 a.m. the line from C.27.d.8.6 to C.29.d.4.3. was occupied by the Battalion with details of Royal Engineers, Leicesters, West Ridings, M.G. Corps and other Units and very heavy trench fighting took place. Parties of the enemy succeeded in entering the trenches several times but were driven out. In spite of hard fighting by our men the weight of the enemy attack forced them to fall back.
About 8 a.m. Battalion Head Quarters moved Cross Road, Maricourt Wood, I.4.d. – on arrival there, it was reported the enemy had broken through at Bois de Vaulx on our left, about 10 a.m. about 40 men were collected under Lieut. D.D. McMAHON and put out to form a defensive flank north of Maricourt Wood. Heavy fighting continued till about 3 p.m. when the enemy had broken through in several places and were advancing in strength.
In the meantime a fresh line had been established roughly about I.1 [note "X" above] Central to I9 central, to which Head Quarters and the remnants of the Battalion withdrew.
Transport which had moved forward to Favreuil was obliged to withdraw owing to that plain being heavily shelled by enemy, and moved to bivouac about 1,000 yards South West of Sapignes to await arrival of the Battalion, the Brigade having been relieved. All references are France, Sheet 57C. 1/40,000.
The Battalion during the day sustained many casualties including the following:-
Killed Captain J.S. Boast M.C.
2/Lieut L. Sones
Wounded Captain W.A. Wassner
Lieut D.D. McMahon
2/Lieut P.J. Adamson
2/Lieut G.M. Walton
Missing Lieuts G. Case, S. Franks, A.C. Gosden, S.A. Macreight, K.H.O'K Sadgrove.
2/Lieuts L.G. Marthews, L. Woodward.
[Note: Other Rank casualties are not mentioned at this point]
23rd March: Very fine day. Up to about 2 a.m., 5 officers and about 30 other ranks had arrived at Battalion transport and at this time they moved to Sunken Road just north-west of Sapignes where they remained until about 8 a.m. when they moved to Savoy Camp, 1 mile East of Bihoucourt to which place transport had moved some hours earlier.
In the meantime, small parties of the Battalion had arrived and by about 10 a.m. the total numbers excluding transport, had increased to 8 officers and 90 other ranks. This party now moved forward to high ground in vicinity of Behagnies facing North East and remained there throughout the day. During the evening the Battalion was reinforced by a composite company consisting of our own 'B' Team under Captain Nevill and other details. Transport moved to bivouac about G.23.d roughly one mile South West of Bihucourt. Heavy fighting was in progress along the whole front East of position occupied by the Battalion and the whole area between that and situation of transport was continuously shelled.
All kits, stores and blankets were removed during the day from Savoy Camp to new bivouac."
It wasn't until 26th March that a fuller account of their losses was taken after withdrawal from the high ground South West of Puiseux facing Miraumont to Gommecourt and later withdrawn further to Fonquevillers and Transport moved to St. Amand.
"These various withdrawals conformed to the movements of the various Divisions operating in front.
Up to this date the total casualties of the Battalion were approximately as under:–"
[Tactical withdrawal continued thereafter. The casualty figures (above) include those from the 2nd Battalion.]
A greater understanding of the circumstances in which Charles and his colleagues found themselves faced with the opening of the Spring Offensive can be found in records transcribed below of the 25th Division and 71st Brigade Report for the period - 21st/22nd March.
Charles Henry Back was posthumously awarded the British War and Victory Medals.
Click on image for larger version
- His two younger brothers, Albert Ernest and Joseph Richard also took up arms in the army before World War 1; both served in The Buffs and survived.
|No of Message||To whom sent||From whom received||Contents|
|6.20 a.m.||G.828||IV Corps||Heavy bombardment started on Corps front at 4.55 a.m.|
|4.55 a.m.||Heavy hostile shelling commenced on Corps front.|
|5.10 a.m.||Phone||3 Brigades||Ordered to rouse troops, to have breakfasts, etc-, and be prepared to move at an hours notice.|
|6.00 a.m.||Phone||G.O.C. 74th Brigade||Reported that enemy is still shelling heavily, but that he thought the fire was most intense on front of Corps on our left. Our front system and BAPAUME - CAMBRAI road still being shelled.|
|8.10 a.m.||Wire G.667||7, 74th Brigades, Machine Gun Battalion, A.D.M.S. 76 Field Artillery, 6th Division, IV Corps, C.R.A. C.R.E.Q Train||75th Infantry Brigade, 1 Company of 25th Battalion, MGC and 76th Field Artillery will move to the Favreuil Area. 75th Brigade will march via Bihucourt and Sapignies and thence across country to Favreuil. 76th Field Ambulance and one Company M.G. Battalion will march by the Achiet le Petit - Grevillers Road as far as the Cross Roads in G.22.a. and thence via Bihucourt and Sapignies. 76th F.A. and Company of M.B. Battalion will not enter Bihucourt until 9.30 a.m. and will be clear of it by 10.15 a.m.
75th Brigade will be clear of Bihucourt by 9.30 a.m.
|8.15 a.m.||G.668||C.R.A.||Divisional Artillery will move at once from its present position to H.14.a. Batteries at present with 6th and 51st Divisions will remain in present localities as mobile reserve to Divisions in the Line.|
|8.35 a.m.||G.669||74th Bde, 4th Corps, 51st Div. 6th Div. 75th Bde||Ref G.667 of today. Immediately 75th Brigade enters camp 3rd Worcesters will rejoin your Brigade in FREMICOURT Area.|
|7.46½ a.m.||Phone||From 6th Division||71st Brigade reports front line Battalion report everything O.K. 6.30 a.m.
Enemy shelling confined almost exclusively to gas shells on both Battalion sectors.
|8.55 a.m.||G.670||75th Brigade||"B" Teams will remain in present area until further orders.|
|9.5 a.m.||75th Brigade||Written order G.834 (?)G.667 received from officer of 4th Corps ordering this Brigade to move to FAVREUIL. Brigade will commence to move at 9.15 a.m. to positions ordered in your administrative instructions No.2 Supplementary to G.S.258/g dated 12/3/18.|
|9.40 a.m.||G.834||IV Corps||75th Infantry Brigade and M.G.Coy will move at once to FAVREUIL. On arrival at FAVREUIL of 75th Brigade, the Battalion 74th Brigade will join its Brigade at FREMICOURT. Divisional R.A. 25th Division will move at once to Area H.14.a. Completion of moves to be reported. Brigade at ACHIET to be ready to move by bus.|
|Pencilled annotation: "Have we not got the time this Corps Order was given to 75th Brigade. NO." - "Timed 7.45 a.m."|
|9.40 a.m.||Phone||Corps||Situation. Centre Brigade Left Division being heavily shelled quiet on Right Division front. Enemy just reported to be putting down barrage on front line trench in C.12. No sign at present of Infantry. Attack bombardment increasing at junction IV and VI Corps|
|9.50 a.m.||G.671||X List less Corps Division Observers||Repeating above.|
|10.10 a.m.||G.837||Corps||Send a representative of your G.Staff to Corps H.Q. at once with a motor and driver.|
|9.57 a.m.||Phone||7th Brigade||Instructed to be ready to move off to BIHUCOURT - BIEFVILLERS area by march route. Follow Artillery, times later. Route via BIHUCOURT to Cross Roads G.22.a. B-Teams must remain in present areas; will be moved to ACHIES LE PETIT later.|
|10 a.m.||Phone||A.D.M.S.||Notified of move of 7th Brigade to area vacated by 75th Brigade. Asked if alright if Field Ambulances remain where they are, and send up few ambulances only. A.D.M.S. concurred.|
|10.1 a.m.||Phone||C.R.E.||Informed of 7th Brigade move - 130th F.C.R.E. to remain where they are at present.|
|10.2 a.m.||Phone||R.A.||B.M. asked when Artillery Brigades will be clear of BIHUCOURT replied uncertain but probably about 11 a.m.|
|10.25 a.m.||Wire G.672||List Y less SWB, Observers and last 2, plus Corps||7th Brigade will move to BIHUCOURT - BIEFVILLERS Area into Camps vacated by 75th Brigade. Route ACHIET LE PETIT to GREVILLERS Road to Cross Roads G.22.a. thence to BIHUCOURT. Brigade to be ready to move at 11 a.m. exact time will be notified later. A Company M.G. Battalion, 130th Company Royal Engineers, 77th Field Artillery and B Teams 7th Brigade will remain in their present areas.|
|10.42 a.m.||Wire G.T.1||6 Division||Centre Brigade report S.O.S. just gone up in large numbers on their Left Battalion Front|
|10.42 a.m.||Wire B.G.10/2||39 Squadron R.F.C.||Patrol 6.25 a.m. to 8.10 a.m. very heavy hostile shelling on our front line and BEAUMETZ - MOURCHIES - VAULX. Heaviest shelling before 7.30 a.m. in D.22. and 29 after 7.30 a.m. trenches in front of BOURSIES and LAGNICOURT. Numerous guns in D.8. and D.9. active. Our wire in C.18 and D.19 badly damaged. Bombardment continuing 8 a.m. and heaviest LAGNICOURT. Practically no shelling South of BAPAUME - CAMBRAI Road.|
|10.50 a.m.||G.18||6th Division||Divisional H.Q. has opened in FAVREUIL Wood.|
|10.50 a.m.||B.G. 313||B.I. 39 S. R.F.C.||Patrol 6.25 a.m. to 9 a.m. confirms information on message B.G.312. No Infantry attack at 8.45 a.m. and no concentration behind enemy lines observed.|
|10.50 a.m.||G.836||IV Corps||Ref. G.835 no Units will move by lorry as ordered. Whole 7th Infantry Brigade and M.G. Company will now march to area BIHUCOURT - BIEFVILLERS.|
|10.42 a.m.||G.836||IV Corps||Situation. Right Division report left Brigade support line heavily shelled with H.E. and gas mixed but no organized barrage. Rear area gas shelled. BEAUMETZ heavily shelled. Left Division report situation quieter. No infantry attack materialized. Counter preparation no (sic) on slow rates.|
|10.55 a.m.||G.673||C.R.A. Brigades, M.G.Bn||Centre Brigade left Division report S.O.S. just gone up in large numbers on their left Battalion front.|
|11.10 a.m.||G.T.2||6th Division||Left Group Artillery report enemy broken through right Battalion centre. Brigade advancing on SKIPTON Reserve in large numbers. Later 71st Brigade reports enemy bringing guns and horses up valley in front of right Battalion centre Brigade and enemy have surrounded SKIPTON Reserve.|
|11.10 a.m.||GB 270||51st Division||Enemy reported to be in occupation of CRESCENT Trench and SOLE POST.|
|11.25 a.m.||G. 838||Corps||Situation. Left Division centre Brigade reports 8.50 a.m. no signs of attack. T.M. firing on EDINBURGH and EDINBURGH Support D.19. at 11.25 a.m. bulk of shelling on centre Brigade left Division front. MORCHIES - VAULX line being shelled with H.E. C.37.b.6.5. and C.21.c.5.3. as well as Brigade H.Q. in VAULX C.26.d.central. Hostile barrage reported on front line in C.12. and C.18., North of LAGNICOURT.|
|11.30 a.m.||G. 852||Corps||Right Division report front system broken by enemy about D.22. Enemy reported advancing about D.26.d.,D.27.c., D.28.c Left Division reports SKIPTON RESERVE D.19.c., D.24.d. surrounded by enemy. Horses and guns seen advancing up valley D.19. Some guns reported in action in D.15.|
|11.35 a.m.||GS 275||51st Division||Right Division report 10.55 a.m. enemy reported to be in TROUT and North of FISH AVENUE.|
|11.35 a.m.||G. 676||List Y||Left Group Left D.A. report enemy broken through right Battalion centre Brigade advancing on SKIPTON Reserve large numbers. Later 71st Brigade reports enemy bringing guns and horses up valley in front of right Battalion Centre Brigade and enemy surrounded SKIPTON RESERVE. Right Division reports enemy reported to be in occupation of CRESCENT TRENCH and SOLE POST.|
|11.25 a.m.||G. 675||C.R.A. CRE, Brigades, M.G. Battalion. Signals Train. ADMS Corps||Ref G.672 of today. 7th Brigade will move at once to BIJUCOURT - BIEFVILLERS area. "A" Company Machine Gun Battalion will also move to the same area in rear of 7th Brigade. 7th Brigade will arrange accommodation for M.G. Company. Completion of move to be reported.|
|11.45 a.m.||GB 276||51 Division||Ref G.B. 275 TROUT not reported occupied but Reserve line North of FISH AVENUE occupied.|
|11.45 a.m.||G. 849||Corps||Left Division reports right company of left Battalion centre Brigade about D.21.c. has beaten off attack. No details. Battalion on its right badly Trench Mortared from BIRDCAGE.|
|11.45 a.m.||G. 678||CRA, 6 Division, Q||110th Brigade R.F.A. is placed under orders of G.O.C. 6th Division. Brigade will be informed en route|
|11.45 a.m.||G. 677||Y List||Corps report timed 10.55 a.m. Right Division report first system broken broken by enemy about D.22. Enemy reported advancing about D.27.c., D.26.d., D.28.c. Left Division reports SKIPTON RESERVE D.19.c, D.24.d. surrounded by enemy horses and guns seen advancing up valley D.19. Some guns reported in action in D.15. Right Division report timed 10.55 a.m. enemy reported N. of FISH AVENUE.|
|12 noon||G.B. 266||51st Division||Shelling has slackened on Divisional front. BEAUMETZ-MORCHIES line North of VALLEY in J.7.b. being fairly heavily shelled. Visibility still poor. No Infantry attack on left Division but its centre Brigade is being heavily bombarded at 9.5 a.m. Observation Post SCOTCH STREET could see front line at 7.5 a.m. Support line not visible from SOLE POST at 9.5 a.m.|
|12.12 p.m.||G.B. 278||51st Division||Right Division report at 11.20 a.m. that enemy is advancing through BOURSIES on GOIGNIES.|
|12.12 p.m.||G.T.3||6th Division||Situation reported up to 10.30 a.m. Centre Brigade report front line broken through. SKIPTON RESERVE surrounded and two Companies Leicesters sent up to counter attack SKIPTON Reserve. Also right Brigade report to them enemy attacking and in places are in their support line. Left Brigade report enemy through their front line in right Battalion sector. Later left Battalion Left Brigade riposte enemy advancing in hundreds down HIRONDELLE Valley. Centre Brigade have one Company Leicesters in VAULX-MORCHIES line and one Company still in hand.|
|12.15 p.m.||G.B. 281||51st Division||Enemy reported in J.14.b. No confirmation received.|
|12.35 p.m.||G 843||Corps||On arrival at FAVREUIL 75th Brigade will get into touch with and come under orders of 6th Division. 8 guns from M.G. Company with 75th Brigade may be used by 6th Division for defence of third system. One Brigade R.F.A. 25th Division will on arrival at H.14.a. come under orders of 6th Division. Brigade Commander to report to 6th Division H.Q.. H.Q. 6th Division is in the dugouts at FAVREUIL. H.Q. 74th Brigade will move to 51st Division H.Q. Six guns from M.G. Company with 74th Brigade at FREMICOURT may be used by 51st Division for defence of Third system. Acknowledge.|
|13.40 p.m.||G. 21||6th Division||As far as can be ascertained from reports we hold whole front line of battle zone. Enemy penetrated temporarily at SKIPTON RESERVE but situation restored by counter attack of reserve Company right Battalion Centre Brigade which inflicted heavy casualties.|
|12.40 p.m.||G. 22||6th Division||Left Group D.A. report enemy have broken through LEEDS RESERVE.|
|12.50 p.m.||BJ 314||B.I. 59 Sq: R.F.C.||Left Corps Squadron report situation at 10.55 a.m. Enemy broken through on front of 2,000 yards at BULLECOURT and occupy U.27 and 28.|
|1 p.m.||B. 846||Corps||Line now runs approximately K.7.c.4.4. to J.12.b.4.4. to J.14.b. (not confirmed) - J.4.a.5.7. - D.26.c.4.9. - C.24.d.9.6. - C.18.c.7.3.|
|12.50 p.m.||G. 680||List Y plus Corps 6th & 51 Divisions.||7th Brigade and "A" Company 25th Battalion M.G. Battalion will continue its march to FREMICOURT area and take over accommodation vacated by 74th Brigade. Infantry will not march through BAPAUME. 130th Company R.E. and 77 F.A. will also move as soon as possible to FREMICOURT Area and BEUGNY respectively. G.O.C. 7th Brigade will report arrival of Brigade Group direct to 4th Corps through 51st Division repeating to this Office.|
|1.10 p.m.||GB 285||51st Division||Enemy putting down dense smoke barrage in rear of BEAUMETZ - MORCHIES line otherwise situation under on left Brigade front. No smoke at LOUVERVAL.|
|1.20 p.m.||G. 847||Corps||7th Infantry Brigade and M.G. Company to move to FREMICOURT at once to be in Corps Reserve to report to Corps H.Q. through G.O.C. 51st Division Area and one Battery now in 6th Division Area are to come under orders of G.O.C. 51st Division. 112th Brigade R.F.A. (less two Batteries) now in position of assembly at H.14.a: is also placed under orders of 51st Division at once and will move his whole Brigade to FREMICOURT Area. Acknowledge.|
|1.10 p.m.||G. 682||List Y||Repeating IV Corps G.834 timed 12.35 p.m.|
|1.35 p.m.||G.845||Corps||Situation report. Right Division report enemy have advanced to J.14.b. Two Battalions 74th Brigade and M.G. Company ordered at noon to take up positions in rear of BEAUMETZ. Left Division report SKIPTON RESERVE lost. Two Companies being sent up to counter attack. Enemy advancing up HIRONDELLE Valley LL call from V.26.|
|1.35 p.m.||Wireless. G.20||DERVISH||Right Division reports at 10.52 a.m. enemy reached SOLE POST in front of LOVERVAL WOOD. Holding BEAUMETZ MORCHIES line with Reserve Battalion. No moving anybody forward of this line.|
|1.40 p.m.||G.22||6th Division||Our troops reporting withdrawing from LAGNICOURT Trench to MORCHIES-VAULX line. Enemy reported in force in NOREUIL. Enemy reported in front line in U.29.a. Time 11.55 a.m. One Battalion 75th Brigade from 25th Division Placed at disposal of left Brigade 6th Division for purpose of counter attack if required.|
|1.15 p.m.||Phone from Colonel LEE||105th Field Company Royal Engineers to move to BIHUCOURT. C.R.E. informed.|
|1.55 p.m.||G.B. 288||Intercepted Wireless Message from 51st Division||Enemy believed to be on the line J.16.a.b. and d., J.2.c. and d. BEETROOT FACTORY in J.9.central. Situation in intermediate line N.E. of DOIGNIES obscure but right Battalion centre Brigade still believed to be holding out in intermediate line.|
|Intercepted Wireless messages addressed to Red Brigade)||Tanks men crossing our front line near BULLECOURT. R.F.C. informed attack extends from BULLECOURT to I.K.R.T. East of LAGNICOURT. No information of attack further East. Bombardment extends to RHEIMS. Tank is reported moving down PELICAN AVENUE. Have you any corroborative information.|
|2.5 p.m.||(Intercepted Wireless Message)||Enemy still reported advancing in D.24.c. Limbers have been seen moving into BOURSIES from the North. Enemy also reported at SCOTTS FARM (from Normal 1.40 p.m.)|
|2.10 p.m.||G.I. 369||Corps||Following from VI Corps. Counter Batteries. Germans have got BULLECOURT.|
|2.00 p.m.||G. 685||List Y||10.45 a.m. Centre Brigade 6th Division reports SKIPTON RESERVE surrounded and two Companies Leicesters sent up to counter-attack. 12.40 p.m. Situation restored and SKPTON RESERVE retaken 10.45 a.m. Right Brigade enemy in support line in places. Left Brigade report enemy advancing in large numbers down HIRONDELLE VALLEY 11.20 a.m. enemy advancing through BOURSIES on DOIGNIES. Later enemy reported in J.14.b. 12.40 p.m. Left Group D.A. report enemy broken line LEEDS RESERVE. 1055 a.m. R.F.C. report enemy broken through on 2,000 yards front at BULLECOURT. Occupy U.27 and 28. Line now approximately K.7.c.4.4. - J.12.b.4.4. - J.14.b. (not confirmed) - J.14.a.5.7. - D.26.c.4.9. - C.24.d.9.6. - C.18.c.7.3.|
|2.20 p.m.||GB 290||(Intercepted Wireless message) 51st Division||Centre Brigade are holding intermediate line as far from POST 19 inclusive to STURGEON Avenue thence to strong defensive flank along STURGEON AVENUE to support line thence along STURGEON Support South of STURGEON Avenue North of STURGEON AVENUE enemy hold STUGEON SUPPORT. Nail has formed a defensive flank facing North of Northern outskirts of DOIGNIES.|
|2.30 p.m.||G.I. 368||Corps I||Body of soldiers of 8th Assault Battalion identified North West of FONTAINE LES CCROISELLES. This is Assault Battalion of 8th German Army and was stated a prisoner captured North of BULLECOURT on 28/2/18 to be in that area.|
This diary contained a lengthy Report which we transcribe below to give a wider view of what Charles Henry Back and his colleagues faced in the opening of the Spring Offensive.
71st Infantry Brigade
NARRATIVE OF OPERATIONS ON 21ST & 22ND MARCH 1918
By 5.30 a.m. all troops in the Brigade Sector were in their battle positions, dispositions being as follows:-
|9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment||Right Battalion in the line|
|2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters||Left Battalion in the line|
|1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment||Reserve Battalion,
Head Quarters & 3 Companies in I.3.c.
1 Company (less 1 Platoon) in VAULX – MORCHIES Line between C.29.d.0.5. and I.5.b.7.6.
1 Platoon C.29.a. central.
|459th Field Company R.E. (2 Sections & attached infantry)||V.M. Line – C.29.d.0.5 to C.28.d.8.2.|
|“C” Company 11th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment||V.M. Line – C.28.d.8.2 to C.28a.0.5.|
Over 200 men of 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, who had been conveyed in a train to dig near LAGNICOURT had to march back to FAVREUIL owing to their train disappearing and then re-join the Head Quarters of the Battalion in its assembly area in I.3.c.; they were therefore somewhat weary when the battle commenced.
2. Enemy’s bombardment. 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
This consisted of gas mainly during the first 2 hours and then changed to H.E. and extended over our front line system, reserve and Corps lines and positions in rear – there seemed to be such a large concentration of guns against us that there was no necessity for the enemy to lift his barrage from one line to another – all received attention throughout the 5 hours the bombardment lasted.
A very heavy trench mortar bombardment was also directed against our front line system, resulting in the trenches being almost obliterated, the wire so damaged that it presented little obstacle and the garrison so reduced in numbers by casualties that when the enemy’s infantry attack was launched there were few survivors left to offer any resistance. Very heavy casualties were also caused to the garrison of the reserve line by guns and howitzers and the trenches were in places completely destroyed.
At 8.45 a.m. a N.C.O. from the left post of the 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters on the left of CORNHILL patrolled along the front line to the left and found that it had been evacuated by the battalion on their left, thereby exposing their left flank – the trench was badly damaged and there were many dead in it.
3. Enemy’s attack. Period 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
At 9.25 a.m. it was reported by the 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters that the enemy’s infantry had attacked their front line at 9.12 a.m. and had been driven back.
At 9.50 a.m. the enemy’s infantry attacked along the whole front and the S.O.S. signal was sent up.
The few survivors of the front line companies offered a stout resistance until finding themselves being surrounded by masses of the enemy they fell back to the reserve line – here a very gallant fight was put up against overwhelming odds and in spite of repeated assaults by the enemy the right half of the reserve line was held until 7 p.m., when the garrison was ordered to withdraw to the V.M. line.
In BRADFORD RESERVE the garrison had suffered very heavy casualties from the bombardment, about half having been either killed or wounded – these were joined between 10.00 a.m. and 10.15 a.m. by the survivors from the front line held by the Left Battalion, 1 Officer and 6 Other Ranks, and also by a Corporal and 12 men from the Battalion on their left, who reported that they had been cut off by the enemy from the remainder of their Battalion.
Between 10.15 and 11.15 a.m. heavy fighting took place in BRADFORD RESERVE and SKIPTON RESERVE. The SKIPTON strong point was penetrated on two occasions but counter-attacks were launched at once with success and the situation restored – at 10.30 a.m. it was reported that the enemy had captured the N.W. flank of SKIPTON RESERVE: orders were accordingly sent to O.C. 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment to send forward his Reserve Company from C.30.a to counter-attack: this was carried out quickly and most successfully. On the left in BRADFORD RESERVE the enemy succeeded in forcing a gap between our left and the right of the 16th Infantry Brigade and attacked in great force on the left of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, at the same time dribbling through troops into LAGNICOURT: attacked in front, from the left and left rear the survivors of the garrison gradually had to give ground towards BRADFORD SWITCH and the SKIPTON Strong point.
At 10.58 a.m. instructions were given to O.C. 1st Leicestershire Regiment to send 2 Companies forward to report to O.C. 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, who was instructed to employ one company as his reserve in C.30.a. (to take the place of his reserve company) and the other to take up positions in the trenches dug the previous evening astride the roads leading from LAGNICOURT in C.29.b. & C.30.a. and in the posts between the latter road and the Southern end of LAGNICOURT trench in C.24.c. in order to prevent the enemy issuing from the South of LAGNICOURT and attacking the reserve line from the rear: this move was well carried out. On arrival the companies were skilfully disposed by O.C. 9th Norfolk Regiment and with the assistance of the battery of 4 machine guns in C.30.a. proved of the greatest value throughout the day, stopping every attempt of the enemy to push South from LAGNICOURT.
By 11.15 a.m. the enemy had gained possession of the whole of BRADFORD RESERVE North of SKIPTON Strong point.
Between 11.15 a.m. & 1 p.m. the enemy made repeated efforts to capture SKIPTON Strong point and SKIPTON RESERVE but each time he gained a footing he was driven back with heavy loss by bombing parties. On two occasions he attacked from the front across the open and each time was repulsed by rifle and Lewis Gun fire suffering heavy casualties.
At 1 p.m., as there seemed a danger of the enemy breaking through from the South of LAGNICOURT and surrounding SKIPTON Strong point, instructions were given to O.C. 2nd Sherwood Foresters to evacuate the northern half of SKIPTON Strong point if he was being surrounded and to form a defensive flank facing LAGNICOURT joining up with the strong point at the Head Quarters of 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment in C.30.a. thence along ridge to V.M. line at C.29.d.0.5.
At 12.10 p.m. information was received from 18th Infantry Brigade that they were holding the reserve line but that the enemy had got through on their right and was advancing in large numbers through LOUVERVAL towards the CAMBRAI Road.
At 12.16 p.m. information received from 6th Division that a Battalion (2nd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment) of the 75th Infantry Brigade was being sent to I.3.c as a Brigade Reserve.
4. Enemy’s attack. Period 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Between 1.45 and 2 p.m. the enemy advanced through LAGNICOURT and captured strong points at C.28.b.9.9 and C.29.a.: the garrisons of both of these posts offered a splendid resistance, extremely heavy casualties being inflicted on the enemy by the 2 Vickers Guns posted at each point.
Between 1.30 and 2 p.m. enemy made determined efforts to advance South from LAGNICOURT but was held up on every occasion – by 3 p.m. however he appeared to be gaining ground in rear of SKIPTON Strong point in spite of small local counter-attacks so the defensive flank ordered at 1 p.m. to be taken up, in the event of this situation arising was formed, a small garrison reinforced by a party of the 9th Norfolk Regiment remaining in SKIPTON ALLEY and the sunken road in touch with 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment in SKIPTON RESERVE: by 4.30 p.m. the defensive flank was complete from SKIPTON ALLEY to the V.M. Line in C.29.d. and remained intact until 7 p.m.
At 2.10 p.m. in view of the enemy’s advance through LAGNICOURT and his probable assault of the V.M. line in the evening, Head Quarters and the remaining Company of 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment were sent from I.3.c. to reinforce that line between C.28.c.8.2 and C.28.a.0.5.
At 2.20 p.m. instructions received from 6th Division to hold on to Reserve Line till dark as Division on our right intended to counter-attack to re-take their portion which they had lost.
At 3 p.m. 16th Infantry Brigade reported that enemy was heavily attacking V.M. line in C.21.c. also that enemy had broken through their Reserve line at about 12.30 p.m. capturing the sunken road C.17.d.8.2. and pouring into LAGNICOURT and thence up valleys in C.23.d., C.28.b., C.17.c., C.22.b., and C.22.a. towards V.M. line.
At 3.45 p.m. Second in Command of 2nd South Lancashire Regiment reported at Brigade Head Quarters and was instructed to request the O.C. that Battalion to dispose his battalion as follows on arrival –
1 Company to V.M. line in C.s9.c. & d. to reinforce that portion of the line and to retake the strong point at C.29.a.6.0.
1 Company to I.5.a. as a reserve to garrison of V.M. line in C.29.d. and c. and C.28.d. and for purposes of counter-attack should enemy penetrate that portion – counter-attack should enemy penetrate that portion – counter-attack to be delivered without awaiting orders.
1 Company to I.3.a. as reserve to garrison of V.M. line in C.28.c. and a: to counter-attack without awaiting orders should enemy penetrate that line.
Head Quarters and 1 company to remain in I.3.c.
At 4 p.m. an artillery Officer reported that a few of the enemy had gained a footing in the V.M. line immediately North of VAULX WOOD and this was confirmed at 4.2 p.m. by 1st Leicestershire Regiment – instructions were at once sent for the company of the 2nd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment ordered to proceed to I.3.a. to move forward at once to eject enemy from V.M. line and reinforce that portion in C.27.b., reporting arrival to O.C. 1st Leicestershire Regiment, 16th Infantry Brigade also report that reinforcements are being sent to that locality – situation there was quickly restored and although the enemy made several further attempts to penetrate the V.M. line up to dusk he was driven back each time by rifle and Lewis Gun fire.
At 4.30 p.m. the enemy was reported to be advancing in large numbers through C.14.b. and c. against the V.M. line having broken through front of 59th Division on left and instructions were received from 6th Division to send a company of Reserve Battalion (2nd South Lancashires) to hold the high ground from C.20.central through VRAUCOURT facing N.W. to form a defensive flank – O.C. 2nd S.L. was directed to send his company from I.3.c. to form this defensive flank pending arrival of another battalion of 75th Infantry Brigade – on arrival of this other battalion company to return to I.3.c.
At 5.55 p.m. O.C. 1st Leicestershire Regiment reported large concentration of enemy in C.29.a. and probably C.29.d.: also that some prisoners of 75th and 195 Regiments had been capture.
O.C. 2nd S.L. Regiment was accordingly instructed to send his company from I.5.a. to reinforce V.M. line in C.29.c. and C.28.d. at once.
At 6.5 p.m. map showing dispositions on right was received from O.C. 9th Norfolk Regiment – these were as follows:-
- SKIPTON RESERVE – Parties of 9th Norfolk Regiment & 2nd Sherwood Foresters.
- Defensive flank from SKIPTON.
- Reserve through C.30.a. to V.M. line at C.29.d.8.8. – 9th Norfolk Regiment and 2nd Sherwood Foresters and 1 Company 1st Leicestershire Regiment.
- V.M. line from right boundary of Brigade at I.5.b.7.6. to C.29.c.6.5. – Head Quarters 9th Norfolk Regiment and some details, 2 Companies 1st Leicestershire Regiment 1 Company 9th Norfolk Regiment.
From C.29.c.6.5. to Western boundary of Brigade in V.M. line dispositions at this time were as follows:
459th Field Company Royal Engineers and attached infantry – 2 Companies 2nd South Lancashire Regiment – “C” Company 11th Leicestershire Regiment – 1 Company 1st Leicestershire Regiment – 1 Company 2nd South Lancashire Regiment.
At 6.10 p.m. dispositions of 18th Infantry Brigade were received also copy of instructions to their troops in the Reserve line to withdraw to the V.M. line at dusk if counter-attack by 51st Division on right had proved unsuccessful.
At 6.45 p.m. instructions were sent to 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment and 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters to conform to movements of 18th Infantry Brigade on right and with draw to V.M. line at dusk. This was completed by 9 p.m., all wounded being brought in first.
5. Period 7 p.m. 21.3.18 to 7 a.m. 22.3.18.
At 7.45 p.m. orders were issued regarding readjustment of troops in V.M. line to be carried out during the night and verbal instructions were also given to O.C. 1st Leicestershire Regiment and O.C. 2nd South Lancashire Regiment.
V.M. line to be held as under:-
From I.5.b.7.6. – C.28.d.8.2. by 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, 459th Field Company Royal Engineers & attached infantry.
From C.28.d.8.2. – C.28.a.0.5. by 2nd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment and “C” Company 11th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment.
On readjustment 9th Norfolk Regiment and 2nd Sherwood Foresters to withdraw to I.10.central and form the Brigade reserve.
This move was completed by 4 a.m. 23rd March.
The strength of the Battalions of 71st Infantry Brigade at nightfall on 22nd were roughly as follows:
9th Norfolk Regiment 120 all ranks
2nd Sherwood Forester 12 all ranks
1st Leicestershire Regiment 9 Officers & 329 O.R.
At 8 p.m. Brigade Headquarters moved back to H.12.central.
During the night S.A.A. and bombs were brought up from FAVREUIL and dumps were formed in sunken road in C.26.d. and at cross-roads in I.4.d.: rations and water were also sent to the same places and issued to units.
To avoid casualties in the V.M. line from the enemy’s bombardment instructions were sent to 1st Leicestershire Regiment and 2nd Sherwood Foresters at 10.30 p.m. to dig rifle pits about 100 yards in rear of line – these were found most useful the following day.
The night passed fairly quietly and the morning of the 22nd dawned with a thick mist: as soon as it was light the enemy put down a very heavy barrage on the V.M. line and on the village of VAULX but no infantry attack developed until later.
Communications by wire to battalions were cut very frequently throughout the night.
6. 22nd March – Period 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
At 8.30 a.m. 16th Infantry Brigade reported that enemy was attacking V.M. line between VAULX WOOD and LAGNICOURT ROAD.
Shortly after 9 a.m. enemy attacked our line in C.28. & C.29 and was repulsed.
At 9.25. a.m. 16th Infantry Brigade reported that enemy had broken through BOIS DE VAULX – order were sent to the company of Corps Reinforcement Battalion at H.12.central to move forward at once to reinforce our line where broken and counter-attack – also to 9th Norfolk Regiment and 2nd Sherwood Foresters to move to that flank to assist in restoring the situation: these latter instructions were sent by runners as all wires were broken and were not received by these battalions until 2.15 p.m. by which time the situation had materially changed.
Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. enemy attacked V.M. line in many places but only succeeded in breaking the line at VAULX WOOD & S.E. of it where 2nd South Lancashire Regiment was forced back and had to form a defensive flank from about road junction in I.3.a. to V.M. line in C.28.a: from this point to right of Brigade V.M. line was intact although at times hard pressed.
7. 22nd March – Period 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Bombing counter-attacks were made along V.M. line Westwards by 1st Leicestershire Regiment and 2nd South Lancashire Regiment and some of the trench was regained but the enemy’s numbers were too great and eventually the defensive flank had to be still further drawn back eastwards.
By 3.45 p.m. the enemy had occupied most of the V.M. line from VAULX WOOD to C.28.d. and the line which had been occupied by the 9th Norfolk Regiment and 2nd Sherwood Foresters along the VAULX-MORCHIES road in I.3.a & c. and I.4.c. had to give ground, swinging its left back through I.9.a.
The 3 Companies of the Corps Reinforcement Battalion, two of which had been digging trenches in I.2 and I.3 rendered valuable assistance at this period in preventing the enemy breaking through.
Patrols sent out by Corps Reinforcement Battalion in accordance with instructions from 6th Division reported at 3.55 p.m. that village of VAULX and the VAULX-MORCHIES Road were not held by the enemy and that touch had been gained with 74th Infantry Brigade in I.10.central. Until 4.15 p.m. the remnants of 3 Companies of 1st Leicestershire Regiment had most gallantly repulsed all attacks on the salient in the V.M. line in C.29.c and d. and I.5.b. but at that hour they were forced to retire as they were being surrounded: the retirement was carried out through MORCHIES village towards BEUGNY, where later on they gained touch with the headquarters of their battalion.
By 4.30 p.m. the remnants of the Brigade were forced back to the line occupied by 74th Infantry Brigade in I.10.central and the ridges East and West of it, running through I.11.c., I.10.d., I.10.c. and I.9.d. – this line was held until relief by the 123rd Brigade 41st Division.
About 6.30 p.m. a counter-account was made by tanks from the direction of BEUGNY – they broke up a large concentration of the enemy and caused many casualties, advancing under very heavy shall and Machine-gun fire as far as the V.M. line, with large numbers of the enemy retiring before them; this attack was not supported by infantry and gradually died out as the tanks became casualties or expended all their ammunition.
About 7 p.m. O.C. 2nd South Lancashire Regiment reported that he had his Head Quarters and 60 O.R.s in trenches about I.10.central – he had heard nothing from his two right companies for some hours.
8. Period – 7 p.m. 22nd March to 7 a.m. 23rd March
At 8.30 p.m. Brigade orders were issued regarding relief of Brigade by 123rd Brigade orders were issued regarding relief of Brigade by 123rd Infantry Brigade of 41st Division – owing to the changes of Battalion Head Quarters during the day, orderlies had great difficulty in finding units and in some cases the relief orders were not received – 123rd Infantry Brigade had however issued instructions to their units to relieve all troops in front of the Army Line and to send back all troops of 6th Division.
In spite of these difficulties the relief was carried out of the units of Brigade, 2nd South Lancashire Regiment, 459th Field Company R.E. and “C” Company 11th Leicestershire Regiment.
On arrival at BERKELEY CAMP near BIHUCOURT on the morning of 23rd March the strength of units was as follows:-
9th Norfolk Regiment: 5 Officers - 129 O.R.
1st Leicestershire Regiment: 3 Officers - 75 O.R.
2nd Sherwood Foresters: 3 Officers - 48 O.R.
71st T.M. Battery: 3 Officers - 27 O.R.
9. It is impossible to speak too highly of the splendid courage and tenacity of the troops during these two days: every Company of every Battalion behaved throughout with the greatest gallantry, so, where all did so well, it is difficult to select any for special praise, but perhaps the wonderful resistance and stoutness of heart shown by the party of Norfolks and Sherwood Foresters under Captain Failes of the 9th Norfolk Regiment in SKIPTON Reserve during the 21st and by the remnants of 2 Companies of Leicestershire Regiment under Captain Hartshorne of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment in the salient in the V.M. Line in C.29.d. on the 22nd are especially outstanding: I also consider the fine defence of the whole of the V.M. Line on the 22nd by troops who had suffered so heavily on the 21st as a very fine performance.
In spite of the overwhelming odds against which they were fighting everyone behaved with the utmost coolness and at no time was there the least sign of a panic setting in. Throughout the 2 days the usual optimism and sangfroid of the British Soldier was very apparent; as an instance of this, during the heavy fighting round SKIPTON RESERVE, two hares ran across in front of our line: this proved too great a temptation to the Norfolks and they promptly switched their fire from the Germans on to the hares, killing both: it was with difficulty they were dissuaded from going to collect them.
Of the Companies in the front line system very few survivors came back; they were practically wiped out by the heavy 5 hours bombardment, having no dug-out accommodation in which to shelter pending the infantry attack and I have no doubt that the ease with which the enemy gained our front line system was simply due to the fact that there was practically no one left there to resist him, the remains of our thick wire proving no obstacle as it was not under fire.
10. Throughout the two days battalions were handled with much skill by their Commanding Officers in spite of the great difficulties in communication, especially on the 22nd: they showed a thorough grasp of each situation and set a fine example of coolness and fearlessness to those under them. I also desire to place on record my appreciation of the untiring energy and devotion to duty of the members of my Brigade Staff.
11. The 459th Field Company R.E. (2 Sections) with attached infantry and the Company (“C”) of the 11th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment in the V.M. Line behaved with great gallantry throughout both days.
The assistance rendered by our artillery cannot be overestimated, on many occasions enemy concentrations being broken up.
So many excellent targets were reported almost hourly throughout the 2 days fighting that it was impossible for the artillery at our disposal to deal with them all but there is no doubt that very heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy by our shell fire.
13. 6” Newtons.
Those which were not destroyed by the enemy’s bombardment rendered excellent service, especially the two in the Sunken Road in rear of the SKIPTON Strong Point.
14. Machine Guns.
Many of the machine guns in the forward area were put out of action by the heavy barrage before the infantry attack developed, but one or two which survived performed excellent service.
Those in rear of the Reserve Line proved of the greatest value and took full advantage of the splendid targets offered: this was especially so as regards the guns in C.29.a. and C.29.d. which had been sited for direct fire and had range cards – the battery guns were at rather a disadvantage in this respect as in some cases positions for direct fire had not been chosen or range cards prepared.
There seemed to be rather an inclination to fire too readily at extreme ranges instead of holding their fire and preserving their belts for more favourable targets.
15. Lewis guns.
Proved invaluable – many however were knocked out of action early owing to want of dug-out accommodation.
16. Stokes Mortars.
Did excellent service: one successful counter-attack on BRADFORD RESERVE was made under a barrage from two Stokes Mortars: the barrage proved very effective. Of the 8 guns of the 71st T.M. Battery, 6 were knocked out by the enemy’s artillery fire: the remaining two from the SKIPTON Strong Point were brought back by the remnants of their teams, who deserve all credit.
In many cases the plate of the mortar was not used, the gun being fired from between the knees.
In all some 1,300 rounds were fired.
17. Rifle Grenades.
These were used with good results during the defence of SKIPTON Strong Point and were found to be a most effective means of dealing with advanced enemy machine guns.
On the 21st March the buried cable was invaluable and communication t the two front battalions held throughout the day – even after the enemy had captured the forward report centre at C.29.a.6.0 it was possible to speak to the SKIPTON Strong Point but care had to be exercised. On the 22nd March the overland wires were being continually cut and it was found impossible to keep them through: this necessitated runners being employed and owing to the enemy’s heavy shelling and the change in the positions of Battalion Head Quarters great delay resulted: visual was found of very little use owing to the heavy machine gun fire.
No use was made of contact aeroplanes although the front line troops had been issued with ground flares: this means of determining the front line would have proved of great value at times.
The provision of some means of communication direct between our infantry and artillery would seem to be worth consideration: it is suggested that coloured Very lights to show the infantry positions and as a signal to lengthen range might be employed: when all wires are down, this would seem to be the only method.
19. Anti-gas measures.
These proved efficient and no cases of gassing have been reported.
In some cases, especially in front of the VAULX-MORCHIES Line, our wire proved to be too thick and it was found difficult to fire through it.
21. Noticeable points in enemy’s attack.
(a) His use of machine guns was an outstanding feature of the operations: both heavy and light machine guns were employed in great numbers pushed well ahead of the infantry to give covering fire – sky lines seemed to be their chief target and these were fired on with great accuracy – belt boxes were carried up from the rear and as soon as a belt was finished it was taken back: rarely were there more than 2 men with a gun.
(b) The enemy’s advance was well carried out – sometimes in waves, sometimes in worms. In his attempts to push south out of LAGNICOURT worms of about 8 men were used – 2 carried a light machine gun each – 2 carried M.G. ammunition and the remaining 4 carried bombs. Shell holes were used very considerably by him during his advance, especially when he came under shell fire.
(c) The rapidity with which light trench mortars with their ammunition were brought forward was noticeable: these were used on the 22nd against the V.M. Line with good effect against our wire and trenches.
The casualties, I regret to say, in this Brigade were extremely heavy, but this was only to be expected considering the overwhelming odds against which they were fighting and the stubborn defence they showed.
Of those reported as missing, practically all are considered to have been either killed or wounded or cut off in small parties and surrounded - Details are as follows:-
|9th Norfolk Regiment||4||7||8||31||158||173||35||165||181|
|1st Leicestershire Regiment||6||2||10||32||84||335||38||86||345|
|2nd Sherwood Foresters||3||6||10||5||9||476||8||15||486|
|71st T.M. Battery||-||-||1||5||7||16||5||7||17|
The trench strength of the Brigade on the 20th March was roughly 75 Officers and 1730 Other Ranks.
[Note: No mention of 2nd Division as they were not formally part of this fighting unit]
(Sgd P.W. Brown, Brig.-General, Commanding 71st Infantry Brigade.)
9th April 1918.