April 1917

Chapter 9 – Ypres: The Raid.


Training and Preparation for the Raid.

From 1st April to 6th April, the Battalion remained at Halifax Camp, carrying out special training for the forthcoming raid. During the first few days of the month, the weather was very cold with the wind from the north east. A very heavy blizzard raged throughout the night of 2nd/3rd April, covering the ground with deep snow, but a change of wind on 4th April was followed by heavy rain in the morning. By 6th April, with rain continuing at intervals, the ground was free of snow, but conditions were extremely wet and windy.

In the trenches, active preparations for the raid continued and artillery was employed in destroying enemy wire and strong points. The Germans were no less active and presumably with fore-knowledge of the raid, on 4th April, enemy officers were seen to be closely examining our lines from several points. Operational orders for the raid were issued by 141st Brigade on 5th April and details were circulated to all concerned.


The Objectives of the Raid.

The London Irish Rifles were ordered to carry out a raid on the German salient at L35b and L35d on 7th April, the task being officially described as “a minor operation”, the object of the raid was threefold:

  1. To kill or capture as many Germans as possible.
  2. To capture or destroy war material.
  3. To destroy machine guns, trench mortar emplacements and dug outs.

The raid comprised the German front line and intermediate line and a strong support line.


The Terrain.

According to information obtained, the enemy front line was reputed to be a breastwork, with frequent traverses, but with a weak and broken parados. The intermediate line, which at one time was considered to be in ruinous condition, had been the subject of extensive repair work. The support line was strong and in thoroughly good condition.

No-man’s land on the front was irregular in width, varying from a maximum of 100 yards to a minimum of 35 yards (on the right flank). Opposite Lover’s Lane was a double crater, which touched both the British and German from lines.

The enemy barbed wire, which was very close to the front line, was fairly thick but was weak on the intermediate and strong on the support line. The entire area of the operation was known to be under observation from Hill 60, the Caterpillar and the Canal Bank – and various enemy machine guns and dug outs had been located.


The Plan.

To mask the actual position of the raid, arrangements were made for dummy raids at St Eloi Craters, Hill 60 and The Snout: comprising bombardment and smoke discharge and for the cooperation by No 6 Squadron RFB by low flying and the dropping of coloured lights.

The whole Battalion, under Lt-Col DB Parry and Lt WR Strachan, Adjutant (Headquarters bottom of Petticoat Lane) were to participate in the raid, with Capt CP Watson, in general charge of the attack, assisted by 2nd Lt TI Jones.


The Assaulting Troops.

The assaulting troops were to comprise the four London Irish companies with six Lewis guns and one officer and ten other ranks of the 517th Coy RE. Supervision of communication was allotted to 2nd Lt REA Mallett and to 2nd Lt PF Keane, in charge of the prisoners’ collecting post.

To 2nd Lt TI Jones was assigned the duty of cutting gaps, screened from enemy observation, in the British wire and of marking and preparing sortie points in the front line. Capt A Totton was in general charge of the front line garrison, with 2nd Lt JF Burke in command from Hedgerow to the Ravine.

Capt AS Hebblewhite RAMC was responsible for the establishment of an Advanced Dressing Station in the existing Regimental Aid Post in Sunken Road; the 4th London Field Ambulance was responsible, behind the front line, for dealing with casualties. Thirty two stretcher bearers were to be used to collect wounded men from the German trenches and no-man’s land and thirty two bearers, from other units, were to be employed in clearing wounded from the front line system.

Prior to the raid, assaulting troops were to divest themselves of letters, identity discs, regimental badges and button, but every man was to carry a slip of paper bearing his mane and regimental number in the right breast pocket.

Distinguishing marks, to be worn on the back and chest were assigned to the four waves comprising the assault; a white circle for the first wave; a white triangle for the second wave; a white cross for the third wave and white square for the fourth wave.


Movements Prior to the Assault.

Prior to the assault, the companies were to move to the front line in small parties, completing the dispositions by thirty minutes before zero as follows:

“C” Company: Hedgerow to Ravine.

Officers – Lt GP Fletcher i/c, 2nd Lts HB Wilson, CF Burnay WDJ Lysaght, PO Knowles.

“D” Company: Rat Alley to 30 yards north of Thorne Street.

Officers – Capt J Tierney i/c, 2nd Lts FS Mackenzie, H Stubbing, HC Tyson.

“A” Company: 30 yards north of Thorne Street to 60 yards of point of salient.

Officers – LT CE Ashby i/c, 2nd Lts DS Whyte, CHI Stewart, LG Dominy.

“B” Company: Behind the centre of “D” and “A” Companies.

Officers – Lt SW Haylock i/c, 2nd Lts R Sheridan, LR Dubois, HS Tugham.


Support Teams.

Six Lewis gun teams were to accompany the raider:-

Nos 9 and 11 Lewis guns with “C” Company.

Nos 5 and 8 Lewis guns with “B” Company.

Nos 2 and 3 Lewis Guns with “A” Company.

One Lewis Gunner detailed from the front line teams, to carry extra magazines for the gun teams engaged in the assault.


A Four Wave Assault.

The scheme of attack provided for an assault in four waves made up as follows:

First Wave – Nos 11,12,13,15, 1 and 2 platoons.

Second Wave – Nos 15 and 16 platoons.

Third Wave – Nos 9, 10, 5, 6, 4 and 3 platoons.

Fourth Wave – Nos 7 and 8 platoons.

At zero plus two minutes twenty seconds, the first wave troops, occupying the re-entrants of the front line, were to leave the parapet and get into line. At zero plus three minutes, the first wave were to advance, followed as closely as possible by the second wave. The remaining waves to conform and follow at distances of seventy five yards.

Lewis Guns were to take up positions on the flanks and forward to cover the ground in front of the area of operations. Bombers, in groups of eight, were instructed to advance and to block trenches on the flanks and the front of the raid and to establish dumps in the German front line with supplies carried over by the assaulting troops.

On arrival at the German front lines, one NCO and ten men of each platoon were to act as “moppers up” with the duty of clearing dug outs, the collection and/or destruction of enemy war material and with special injunction that the enemy were to be allowed to surrender as the success of the operations would be judged by the number of prisoners taken.

Advanced troops were ordered to commence withdrawal on sighting red rockets fired from Strongpoint 8 at zero plus forty minutes. The intermediate line was to be evacuated and complete withdrawal effected by zero plus sixty minutes.


Barrages.

Brigade fixed zero at 8pm when the three minutes artillery and trench mortar barrage on the raid front was timed to open but, at 750pm, an artillery bombardment of 20 minutes duration was ordered to open on St Eloi Craters, while, at 755pm, a small mine was to be sprung at Hill 60, accompanied by a bombardment of 15 minutes duration.

Three smoke barrages were to be put down.

  1. Between Mount Sorrel and The Snout, to commence at 755pm and to continue until 810pm.
  2. In the Caterpillar, to commence at 755pm and to continue throughout the raid.
  3. South of the raid area, to commence at 8pm and to continue until conclusion of operations.

Lt Carter of 17th Battalion, London Regiment, with a special party, was detailed to cooperate by firing “P” bombs and Newton Pippins on the flanks of the objective.

The Stokes mortars of 141st Brigade, reinforced by Stokes mortars of 140th Brigade and four guns of 142nd Brigade and two guns from the Divisional School, the whole under the command of Capt SHW Eames, 141 TMB, were detailed to cooperate with the artillery by placing a barrage on the enemy front line, from 8pm to 8 hours two minutes and 49 seconds, with one gun on each flank at the rate of two rounds per minute until 9pm.


Signals.

Signallers, equipped with telephones, were to accompany the raiders and were expected to communicate with Battalion Headquarters in accordance with the code below.

First wave gained Objective – Arthur.

Second wave gained objective – Bertram.

Third wave gained objective – Charles.

Fourth wave gained objective – Douglas.

Few casualties – Small Ernest.

Heavy casualties – Big Ernest.

No resistance – Frank.

Slight resistance – George.

Stubborn resistance – Henry.

Prisoners – Isaac (with numbers).

Machine Guns taken – James.

Minenwerfers taken – Kenneth.

Emplacements destroyed – Leonard.

Dug outs destroyed – Matthew.

Enemy surprised – Oscar.

Withdrawal commenced – Patrick.

Withdrawal going well – Quentin.

Withdrawal complete – Robert.

Killed – Samuel.

Wounded (severely) – Thomas.

Wounded (slightly) – Ulick.

Missing – Vincent.

Enemy machine guns active – William.


Moving to the Line.

The Battalion packed up and left Halifax Camp in the evening of 6th April and marched up to the line via Cage Belge and Woodcote House, taking over from 8th London Regiment in the left sub-Section of the Canal sub-Sector. En route, Capt PE Fairley, OC “B” Company, was hit and severely wounded and died later to the great regret of the whole battalion.


The Raid.

April 7th dawned fine and clear and, as all preparations had been completed overnight, normal routine was followed during the day. At 730pm, in accordance with instructions, the Battalion was correctly assembled in the front line, the men in fighting order and wearing their distinguishing marks, while scaling ladders were already set up in readiness for rapid exit from the trench into the open. All was still, but an air of suppressed excitement prevailed.

The quietude of the evening was broken at 750pm by the boom of the heavy guns as fire was opened on the enemy trenches at the Bluff (to the south) and on Hill 60 (to the north). The discharge of smoke at these points was answered by the enemy with artillery and machine gun fire. The spluttering of machine guns overhead caused the men to look up and, in a few seconds, a British plane, attacked by two enemy machines, was sent spinning to the earth in flames.

Rifleman George Hall killed at Hill 60.

At 758pm, word was passed along: “two minutes to zero” and, while the men were making last minute adjustments, the artillery and trench mortars opened fire on the raid front. At precisely 8pm, the barrage crashed on to the line and the air was rent with the thunder of gun and the whistling, screaming and shrieking of shells as they flashed over. Shrapnel and high explosive tore into the enemy defences and, within a few seconds, the enemy front line was outlined by bursts of flame and smoke. The hurricane of shells, accompanied by the raging clamour of the guns, was maintained with ceaseless fury and debris and smoke whirled above the enemy trenches.

The barrage was wonderfully accurate and although, on a portion of the “C” Company’s front, the enemy trenches were only 35 yards distant, the gunners were striking their targets in splendid style.

From the enemy front, distress rockets soared skywards and the German artillery replied with vigour and precision. An enemy plane raced along the raid front and fired signals on the flanks of the attack. These signals dropped slowly in the form of glittering cascades of golden rain and, in between points thus indicated, the enemy concentrated his artillery fire.

At 803pm, in the afterglow of a perfect sunset, the first wave clambered out of the trenches, paused to get into line, and then moved forward. Enemy machine guns and rifle fire swept across no-man’s land and shrapnel and high explosive shells burst among the raiders. No-man’s land was a dreadful quagmire, the whole area being nothing more than a dreary expanse of shattered tree stumps and water filled shell holes, liberally bestrewn with barbed wire. HE shells pitching into the ground threw up flurries of mud and water, be-spattering the raiders with slime and filth as they advanced.

Little groups of the enemy fired steadily into the attacking troops but made off over the top to the support line as the raider’s leading waves pushed through the remnants of the barbed wire. The remainder of the Battalion followed the first wave in correct order and the attack pressed onto the intermediate and support line.

The German front line was in ruins and, as the leading wave jumped in, the men sank up to their waist in mud and water. The crackle of musketry and machine guns, firing from the high ground on the right and left, took the Battalion in enfilade on both flanks, while the German gunners barraged their own front line with heavy shells.

The London Irish Bombers forced their way along the trenches, on the boundaries of the attack and Lewis gun teams pushed out and engaged the enemy, while the raiders bombed dug outs and put to flight enemy troops who resisted the advance. Strong forces of enemy storm troops manned the support line and put up a determined opposition but the raiders attacked with impetuous vigour and, after a heavy fight at close quarters with bomb and bayonet, drove out the enemy with heavy losses on both sides and occupied all objectives.

Many Germans surrendered but only 18 succeeded in reaching the British lines, the remainder being killed en-route by their own artillery and machine guns which continued to sweep across the open.

In the failing light, the raiders, covered by bombers and a screen of Lewis guns, set to work with a will to wreck the German defences, while the RE detachment used high explosives to blow up dug outs and machine emplacements. L-Cpl Dicker, on ”C” Company’s front, succeeded in getting his telephone across and, from a concrete machine gun emplacement in the German front line, passed frequent messages to Battalion Headquarters.

Capt CP Watson, OC of the raid, as fearless as usual, strolled about the occupied enemy territory and, regardless of the perilous nature of his journeys, calmly directed operations.


The Withdrawal.

Red rockets, shot up at 840pm to recall the raiders, were clearly seen and, exactly in accordance with orders, the withdrawal commenced.  Unhurried and carrying back their dead and wounded comrades, the London Irish withdrew. The failing light and the bad condition of the ground made the movement slower than was planned and, caught in the open by heavy shell and cross machine gun fire, the raiders lost many men. The flashes of the guns and exploding shells provided the only illumination and, on their way back, many men fell into water filled shell holes and tripped over barbed wire.

Enemy troops followed up and the rear guard of Bombers and Lewis gunners were closely engaged. As soon as the fourth, third and second waves reported through, the first wave, occupying the enemy front line commenced their withdrawal. Many dead and wounded were stretched out in no-man’s-land and the returning raiders picked up as many as possible, using scaling ladders and traverser mats to ease the burden.

A heavy bombardment of the enemy trenches was maintained and stretcher bearers and others, braving the flying shells and bullets, combed no-man’s land for casualties. Meanwhile, the enemy pushed forward to reoccupy his line and the explosions of bombs clearly indicated the movement.


Relief and Return to Camp.

When back in their own lines, the London Irish reorganised and, sadly depleted in numbers, resumed their normal dispositions. At 230am on 8th April, relief by 15th Battalion London Regiment was complete and the survivors of the raid returned to Halifax Camp, arriving at 430am.

In readiness for the Battalion’s return, the Quartermaster Sergeants and cooks had made excellent provision and, after a substantial meal, the men, thoroughly weary, turned in and were soon asleep.


The Casualties.

The raid was a costly one and, out of a total of approximately 500 men who participated, there were 196 casualties. Two officers, 2nd Lts Wilson and Dubois were killed; three officers, Capt Tierney, 2nd Lts Sheridan and Haylock, were wounded as was 2nd Lt ME Thomas of the RE detachment. Thirty two other ranks were killed, 139 wounded and 25 missing.

Communication from Lt PF Keane:

“I think I should not correct, but amplify the information in the raid in the Verbrandenmolen Sector, Ypres….Lt HB Wilson was killed after returning unhurt with the raiding party to our trenches. On hearing from the stretcher bearers that there were wounded in no-man’s-land, he volunteered to assist and was killed in the attempt.”

Sgt Major Rixon and Sgt Duggleby were amongst the killed and L-Cpl Holman of the Bombers, one of the best liked and skilful of the Battalion’s boxers was among the missing.

Communication from James W Cullen:

“Sgt Major Rixon was killed during the raid. No one seemed to know at the time what had happened to him. Two months later, during the 7th June Messines attack, we advanced over the same ground as the raid had taken place. Here, we came upon Sgt Major Rixon’s body and were able to give him a fairly decent burial.”


Messages of Congratulation and Intelligence Comments.

After the raid, the following messages were received:

“Congratulate 18th London and all concerned on a successful raid.”

From 47th Division to 141st Brigade on 8.4.17:

“The GOC wishes you to express his high appreciation of the work carried out by all concerned last night, the infantry fully carried out the tasks allotted to them and that greater results were not effected was in no way their fault. He sincerely regrets the casualties but trusts that the successful manner in which the Battalion secured all objectives will give them great confidence for any work before them in the near future.”

Extract from 47th Divisional Intelligence summary 17th/18th April 1917:

“Our raid on the salient L34d and b on evening of 7th resulted in gaining all objectives. 18 prisoners were taken. 20 enemy killed were counted in the enemy front line and in addition many were bayonetted. Two  emplacements and eight dug outs were destroyed, enemy put heavy barrage in our support line within four hours of zero and subsequently barraged his own and our front line rendering our withdrawal somewhat difficult.”


Comments on the Raid.

It is questionable whether it was wise to carry out the operation as an exact duplicate of the 6th Battalion’s raid of 20th February but the proposal was an audacious one and, given the element of surprise, might have been a brilliant success.

Subsequently, it was found that the enemy was aware of the scheme and, prior to the raid, German officers were observed to be scrutinising the Battalion’s lines carefully and an intelligence report revealed the fact that the enemy registered on his own front line with granatenwerfer (a grenade discharger mounted in a platform) at 210pm and 255pm on the afternoon of the raid.

As soon as the attack commenced, a devastating “nutcracker” barrage was put down by the enemy on both front lines and a battalion of storm troops, which had been standing in close support, was at once pushed into the fray. That the London Irish forced their way forward and captured the whole of their objectives, in the teeth of a fierce and skilfully planned opposition, speaks wonders for the leadership and fighting qualities of the Battalion.

The work of the artillery and Capt Eames’ trench mortars and other troops engaged was particularly effective and was gratefully acknowledged by the OC London Irish Rifles.

Chapter 10 – In and out of the line at Ypres.