Chapter 15 – The Happy Valley Attack.
The Allied Offensive.
After the German offensive, which opened on 21st March 1918, had been brought to a standstill, the initiative passed to the Allies and, in July, the French attacked in Champagne. The success of this assault led to further offensive action and the battle gradually spread northwards.
On 8th August, Australian and Canadian troops advanced and, on the following day, the 58th and 12th Divisions continued the attack. Operations involving 47th Division were planned to open on 22nd August, with the 3rd Australian Division attacking on the right of 47th Division, 12th Division on the left of 47th Division and the 18th Division beyond.
The scheme comprised the capture of a line 3,000 yards distant, extending roughly from the Somme River to a point 1,000 yards west of Bray to Albert.
The 47th Division Objectives.
47th Division’s final objective was known as the Green Line, on high ground east of Happy Valley.
141st Brigade was to attack from a point east of Tailles Wood and seize the first objective, the enemy position known as the Brown Line, on the Bray/Albert Road and 142nd Brigade was detailed to pass through and carry the assault to the Green Line. 140th Brigade was to be held in reserve, ready to advance through 142nd Brigade onto the second objective, if enemy resistance showed signs of weakening.Tanks and cavalry were to be available to push on beyond the Green Line, if the opportunity occurred.
141st Brigade was disposed with 20th Battalion on the right, 19th Battalion on the left and the London Irish in support. The role of the London Irish was to advance in immediate support of 19th and 20th Battalions to a position 700 yards in the rear of the Brown line and to be ready to reinforce either Battalion or to pass through the Brown Line and mop up Happy Valley.
At 225am on 22nd August, the Battalion moved up under heavy fire and took up assembly positions by 415am. The movement cost one officer, 2nd Lt Mackenzie wounded, and 23 other ranks killed or wounded.
Promptly, at zero hours, 445am on 22nd August, our artillery and machine gun barrage opened and troops of the Brigade quickly closed up to the barrage from their assembly positions. The German guns, firing HE gas and shrapnel, crashed into action immediately, the enemy having prior knowledge of the impending attack.
From the assembly positions, the Battalion advanced, following 500 yards in the rear of the attacking battalions, 20th on the right and 19th on the left. Local mist and smoke from the German barrage made it difficult to keep direction but Thermite shells gave valuable assistance. By 645am, the position known as Straggly Tree had been won and, at 7am, the Brigade had taken the Brown Line: the first objective.
The left Battalion (19th) lost all its officers and was checked. 2nd Lt CRC Vincent of the London Irish observed the situation and went forward and led troops to their objective. When the Battalion arrived at the Quarry, about ten of the enemy, with two machine gun, emerged, and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing three other ranks. 2nd Lt FE Taylor and his men rounded up this party, all of whom fought until killed. At 7am, 142nd Brigade passed through the Brown Line to assault the second objective.
In blazing heat, three platoons of “D” Company and one platoon of “B” Company of the London Irish, followed up into Happy Valley, to carry out their mopping up duties. These platoons had a most successful time and succeeded in capturing 2 officers (including a Battalion Commander) and 103 other ranks. When their task was accomplished, the platoon withdrew and moved over to fill a gap, which had existed between the right flank of 12th Division and the 19th London Regiment. By 830am, cavalry had endeavoured to go east of Happy Valley but machine guns firing, from the hill south east of the valley, inflicted heavy casualties and prevented any progress.
142nd Brigade struck heavy opposition from the enemy, who was disposed in depth but, at 1015am, it was reported that the Green Line had been taken. Cavalry and tanks advanced beyond the Green Line but were obliged to return. For an hour or two, the situation became quieter but, at 1215pm, the enemy shelled the Brown Line heavily and consolidation was considerably interfered with. At 4pm, the enemy again heavily bombarded the new positions and then attacked 142nd Brigade. The attack achieved some success, but the troops dislodged were collected west of the first objective.
By 530pm, the enemy was back in Happy Valley and, at 645pm, was reported to be massing. The enemy attack progressed towards the Bray – Meaulte road but the Brown Line, reinforced by three platoons of the London Irish and Cambridgeshire Regiments, held firm. A reconnaissance at 9pm by COs of the 18th and 17th Battalions revealed the enemy still east of the Bray – Meaulte road.
At midnight on 22nd/23rd August, the front line consisted of 17th Battalion in the left, 20th Battalion centre and 15th Battalion on the right. The London Irish were withdrawn to support. At 1015am on the 23rd, the right of 17th Battalion swung back across the London Irish and to their rear, thus placing the London Irish in the front line. The enemy established rifles and machine gun posts on the Bray – Meaulte road and one platoon of “D” Company and some men of 19th Battalion, who were forward of this position, were brought back west of the road.
During the evening, orders were received for 141st Brigade to make good the line of the main road and to form a line of posts 100 yards to the west of the Bray – Meaulte road to enable 141st Brigade to form up for a further assault on the Green Line. This operation was carried out at 10pm by 50 other ranks of the London Irish. These men, led by Colonel Neely, quietly worked their way behind the enemy’s forward lines and attacked and occupied the German posts and, in a completely successful movement, captured 2 officers and 65 other ranks and seven machine guns.
Orders were received that the attack would be continued on the morning of 24th August – with 140th Brigade on the left, 175th Brigade (58th Division) on the right and, with 173rd Brigade in readiness to exploit the operation, if successful. The night attack by the London Irish and a similar operation by 20th Battalion, also on the night of 23rd August, provided a good jumping off position and the assaulting troops assembled without difficulty.
At 1am, in moonlight, on 24th August, the attack opened and, under heavy shell fire, the right Brigade (175th Brigade, 58th Division) forced the enemy into Trigger and Bromfay Woods. The left Brigade (140th) was severely enfiladed by machine gun fire from the 12th Division front – the 37th Brigade being short of its objective – and were forced to form a defensive flank facing north. Elements of this Brigade, forced back by shell fire, were collected by the London Irish, reorganised and led back to their objective.
The London Irish remained in the Brown Line all day and were subjected to heavy shell fire continuously.
Brigade Relief into Corps Reserve.
58th Division continued the attack beyond the Green Line at 230am on 25th August and discovered that the enemy had retired, leaving a screen of machine gun posts to hold up the advance. 141st Brigade was relieved by 175th Brigade (58th Division) and went into Corps Reserve but remained in readiness to take part in the pursuit of the enemy. The London Irish removed at dawn to a position in the Green Line, east of the Bray – Meaulte road, with Battalion Headquarters in an old German Regimental Headquarters, and with the Battalion in old German shelters. For the remainder of the day, the Battalion rested but personnel of the Band were employed in collecting salvage and in burying the dead. Cookers and Lewis Gun limbers joined the Battalion in lines in Happy Valley.
During the fighting from 22nd to 25th August, the Battalion’s casualties were 7 officers wounded and 204 other ranks killed and wounded. The officer casualties were Lt Col Neely MC (remained on duty), 2nd Lts AF Mackenzie, LA Mann, E Michael DCM, RD Vernon, CR Vincent MC and AH Farrant (gassed).
The GOC Division and the Brigade Commander visited the Battalion and congratulated officers and men on their share of the recent successes.
Refitting, Reorganisation and a Return to Action.
The Battalion was occupied with refitting and reorganisation until 29th August when 47th Division took over the front of 12th Division, 141st Brigade relieving 36th Brigade on the Hardecourt-aux-Bois to Horn Farm lane
The London Irish moved from the Green Line to Faviere Wood in the evening (29th), stopping at Carnoy for tea. The Transport section moved to a position half a mile north of Mametz, accompanied by a draft of 200 men.
The enemy’s retreat transformed the fighting into a moving battle with no strictly defined objectives and the troops moved forward, exploiting gains as circumstances permitted. 141st Brigade received orders to follow 142nd Brigade, with 20th Battalion on the right, London Irish on the left and 19th Battalion in reserve.
At 630am on 30th August, the London Irish advanced across country in artillery formation, “A” and “C” Companies leading with “B” and “D” Companies following and, at 845 am approximately, took up a position north east of Maurepas, Battalion Headquarters and “A” echelon transport being held in reserve.
The London Irish moved in artillery formation through Leforest and, at 410pm took up a position south west of Hospital Farm with “A” Company actually in Hospital Farm. The Battalion came under very heavy fire from 5.9 guns, firing with open sights from the directly of Arderlu Wood as it came down the slopes of Maurepas Ridge to Leforest. The Battalion moved on calmly and fortunately suffered few casualties. On arrival, it was found that a gap had already been filled by 4th Suffolk Pioneers (58th Division).
At 630pm, orders were received for the Battalion to side slip to the north, taking up a position south of Ardelu Wood and in the rear of 142nd Brigade. These orders were, however, cancelled and new instructions received to continue the attack in the morning (31st) at 530am in conjunction with 142nd Brigade on the left and 58th Division on the right. The duty of 47th Division, on this occasion, was to swing forward on the right flank to conform to the flank Divisions and to reach the road between Rancourt and Bouchavesnes-Bergen.
141st Brigade’s advance was to be made in a north easterly direction, by the London Irish on the left, 20th Battalion on the right, with 19th Battalion in support with the object of seizing high ground, immediately west of the Rancourt to Bouchavesnes-Bergen road.
The Battalion formed up at one hour before zero, on a line running north and south about 200 yards west of Hospital Farm, with “A” Company on the left, “C” Company on the right, “D” Company left support and “B” Company right support. A gap of about 1.000 yards was purposely left between 142nd Brigade and 141st Brigade and this gap was supposed to be adequately covered by machine guns – but in this regard, the machine guns failed.
The Battalion attacked at 530am, but came under heavy fire and lost heavily and, unfortunately, about sixty percent of the casualties were caused by our own barrage, which was short. After shelling heavily all the morning, the enemy counter-attacked at noon, with troops of 13th Reserve Division from Rancourt towards Leforest and Priez Farm. The attack was repulsed in front and the London Irish broke up the assault on their left flank but the enemy succeeded in effecting a lodgement in the gap between 142nd Brigade and our left. ”A” Company of 19th Battalion was ordered forward and led by the OC of that Company and Lt II Jones of the London Irish – strengthened by a new draft – attacked and, after a brisk fight, drove out the enemy, capturing 25 (159th Regiment) prisoners.
Heavy shell fire and machine gun fire swept the Brigade front all afternoon and heavy casualties were suffered. By 5pm, posts had been established on the Rancourt to Bouchavesnes-Bergen road but as Rancourt was still in enemy hands, snipers and machines guns gave a good deal of trouble.
A Brief Relief for Reorganising.
During the night of 31st August/1st September, the Battalion was relieved and moved back to Needle Wood to reorganise.
Orders for a resumption of the offensive at 530am on 1st September by 141st Brigade were received: the objective given being the western edge of St Pierre Vaast Wood. The attack was to be made by 20th Battalion on the right, 19th Battalion on the left and London Irish in support. The assault was successful and many prisoners were taken (15th and 16th Regiments). The London Irish reported to Brigade that the left flank of the Brigade was being held up by machine gun fire and that the troops were unable to keep up with the barrage. A gap was located at the front of the attack on the left of Agile Avenue, between 140th Brigade and 141st Brigade, 141st which was then too weak to fill the gap without assistance, but 140th Brigade reinforced their right flank. Pressure on the flanks prevented the enemy from taking advantage of the opportunity. At night, the London Irish were ordered to relieve the Civil Service Rifles (15th Battalion) on the left of the Divisional front and this movement was carried out with the assistance of a draft of 200, which arrived that night.
At 530am on 2nd September, the attack was resumed on the whole Corps front. The London Irish took advantage of an attack, which was proceeding on the right flank, to mop up a troublesome group of Germans on Amazon and Amulet trenches. This operation was carried out with great success and 2 officers and 65 other ranks were captured. The remainder of the Germans were driven into the lines of 142nd Brigade in St Pierre Vaast Wood, where they surrendered. 47th Division’s attack proceeded with 142nd Brigade, which passed through the right of 141st Brigade and 140th Brigade, followed in close support of 74th Division.
141st Brigade was ordered to withdraw from the front line taken on the night of 1st/2nd September and to reorganise west of the main Rancourt – Peronne road – the line being held by four Companies of machine gunners already in position.
The withdrawal was successfully carried out on the afternoon of 2nd September, the London Irish moving back to Hospital Farm. 141st Brigade was ordered to be prepared to act as advance guard on 4th September and the London Irish moved from Hospital Farm at Alf Cut just east of the Rancourt to Bouchavesnes-Bergen road. Enemy resistance, east of Moislains, was reported to have increased considerably at dusk on the night of 4th/5th September, necessitating the withdrawal of the advanced posts of 142nd Brigade to permit the artillery to deal with the enemy.
141st Brigade moved up to assembly positions along the Canal du Nord and passed through 142nd Brigade at dawn on 5th September. The London Irish moved forward behind 19th and 20th Battalions, across the Canal du Nord, just north of Moislains, under heavy artillery fire. The leading Battalions were held up just 600 yards short of their objective where the London Irish joined them.
The attack was resumed at 7am in a thunderstorm with the Quarry as the objective. The right half of 20th Battalion and the left half of 19th Battalion did not attack and, as it was not possible to mop up the Quarry unless the lines of the main road were captured and made good, two companies were pushed through 19th and 20th Battalions. The attack was successful and the line of the main road was consolidated. The remaining two companies cleared up enemy groups in the Quarry.
The Advance on Lieramont.
On the morning of 6th September, the 19th and 20th Battalion were ordered to capture a line of trenches 800 yards east of the Peronne – Nurlu road and, by 8am, the London Irish were thereupon able to pass through and assault the village of Liramont and establish a line running north and south 600 yards east of the village. 12th Division on the left, and 74th on the right were to conform to the advance of 47th Division.
The attack opened successfully but, at 830am, the 19th and 20th Battalions were held on the Peronne – Nurlu road by some enemy machine guns. A patrol of the London Irish advanced on the right flank of 19th Battalion across the road, shot half the machine gunners and captured the rest. This skilfully executed operation removed the difficulty and the advance was resumed by the 19th and 20th Battalions. The London Irish followed up immediately and pushed through and advanced on Lieramont. The enemy’s resistance was weakening and the London Irish swept into the village and, after a fight lasting about three hours, ejected the enemy and, as instructed, established a line of posts 600 yards east of the village at 112pm. During the action in Lieramont, there was some trouble from a German sited on the ridge beyond the village but this gun was eventually taken by a London Irish rifleman: Rfn Mills.
Final Relief from the Somme.
141st Brigade was relieved by 175th Brigade (58th Division) on the night of 6th/7th September and withdrew westwards, the London Irish moving back to huts east of Moislains, arriving at 530am on the 7th. Orders were received for the Brigade to embus at 730am and, at 7am, the Battalion moved off to the embussing point west of Moislains. After an hour’s wait the Battalion, less 2nd Lt Seaby and 100 men for whom no accommodation could be found, embussed and proceeded to Corbie. The troops arrived at 4pm and were immediately lodged in good billets.
After a day spent in cleaning and bathing, the Battalion enjoyed a concert given by “The Shamrocks” at 6pm in the Anzac Coves Concert Hall. The performance was one of the best given by the Battalion’s concert party and the audience, which included 700 Australians, showed considerable enthusiasm.
On 9th September, the Battalion received orders to en-train at 10am but departure did not actually take place until about 430pm, when the Brigade left Corbie for Calonne – Ricouart – Raimbert, where the Battalion was billeted in comfortable, but scattered billets.
The Division had left the Somme for ever and their record of service and achievement there was one of which they could be justly proud. Hard tasks had been set, many difficulties experienced and very heavy casualties suffered. The traditions established by the veterans of Festubert, Loos, Vimy and Ypres had been full maintained and the youthful reinforcements, that arrived after the March 1918 withdrawal, added lustre to the name of the Division and a wealth of achievement.
Messages of Appreciation.
The share of the London Irish in the work of the Division was considerable and the messages of appreciation given below speak for themselves:
Message received from Lt General AJ Godley KCB KCMG, Commanding 3rd Corps.
“I saw the London Irish on parade not long ago. I formed an opinion of them and what they would do in action. No regiment in this Corps has excelled them and the value of their work has been beyond praise.
I am personally indebted to the London Irish Rifles and I thank them most heartily.”
Message received from Major General Sir FG Gorringe KCB KCMG DSO, Commanding 47th (London) Division.
“The Divisional Commander has pleasure in congratulating Col Neely and all ranks of 1st London Irish Rifles on the very successful manner in which they covered the assembly of the 140th and 175th Infantry Brigades on the night of 23rd/24th instant. He was particularly pleased with the manner in which the German machine guns and prisoners were captured during this operation.”
Message received from Brigadier General WF Mildren CMG DSO, Commanding 141st Infantry Brigade.
“The Brigadier General wishes to express his admiration for the London Irish and to thank them for their very excellent work, which was done very efficiently and with great gallantry.”
On the work of 47th Division, GOC 4th Army wrote as follows:
“The 47th Division has now been with 4th Army since April 29th and I desire to place on record my appreciation of the excellent work done by this Division both in holding the line and in the offensive since August 6th.
The success, which they have gained, and heavy fighting, which they have taken part in especially at Happy Valley and near Bouchavesnes and Moislans, shews that the fighting spirit of the Division is as fine as ever it was in the days of Loos and that the training, which has been so carefully carried out, has brought this Division to a high standard of efficiency. I congratulate all ranks on this satisfactory result. It reflects great credit not only on the senior officers but likewise on the company and platoon leaders, who have had a hard time.
I offer all ranks my warmest thanks and wish them all possible good luck in the future. At some future time, I trust it may be my good fortune to find the 47th Division once again under my command.”
Rawlinson, General Commanding 4th Army.
HQ 4th Army 8/9/1918.
Statement of Casualties.
Statement of casualties in operations on the Bray – Meaulte Front during the period from 22nd August to 6th September 1918: (Officers, Other Ranks,Total).
Killed 3 62 65
Died of wounds – 7 7
Wounded 14 339 353
Gassed – 38 38
Wounded and at Duty 2 5 7
Missing – 33 33
Total 19 484 503