Chapter 13 – The German Advance across the Somme:
To the Front Line and the German Attack.
The Battalion, under the command of Lt-Col GH Neely, moved into the front line on Welsh Ridge, La Vacquerie Sector on 20th March 1918, relieving two Companies of 17th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and 2nd South Staffs. “A” and “B” Companies occupied the front line, “C” and “D” Companies support and reserve with Battalion Headquarters in the sunken road known as Surrey Street. 19th Battalion took over on the left, with 20th Battalion in support in Diarmid Trench on Highland Ridge. On the right of the London Irish was 17th Battalion (140th Brigade).
The 141st Brigade frontage, which was situated on the reverse slope of the high ground known as Welsh Ridge, comprised a front line with a screen of forward posts, with the main line of resistance along Sailor Reserve – Central Avenue – Ape Lane – Naval Reserve. It was common knowledge that critical days were ahead and all possible preparations had been made to meet the obvious menace.
The night of 20th/21st March was quiet and gave no indication of the storm which was about to break. Expectations of a day of normal routine were rudely shattered at 430am on the 21st, when the enemy’s guns opened on the front line and supports. The bombardment with gas, high explosive and trench mortars raged with tremendous fury for hour after hour and, although there was a sight lull at 745am when the use of gas shell creased, the shelling continued with terrific intensity. On the London Irish front, the gunfire was particularly severe and heavy casualties were sustained.
The posts and trenches, systematically battered were, by 9am, almost obliterated. At 912am, gas shells were again being freely used and the London Irish front, Couillet Valley and the vicinity of Beaucamp were saturated with gas, and the troops forced to wear gas masks continuously.
Just after 9am, the 17th Battalion (on the right flank of the London Irish) put up the SOS signal and the remnants of the 17th Battalion’s left Company withdrew from the posts to Prentice Trench. Between 930am and 1115am, the enemy advanced to the attack and, after a gallant resistance by the survivors of the posts’ garrisons, the enemy succeeded in occupying some craters and forward posts on the London Irish front: Ostrich Post and the left post of 19th Battalion. From these positions, the enemy made repeated efforts to extend his gains but was checked by the dogged defenders. The 19th Battalion, by a counter attack, ejected the enemy and reoccupied the left half of the front line and patrolled the remainder.
Meanwhile, the enemy continued to shell the London Irish front very heavily and a fierce minenwerfer bombardment completely wrecked the front line posts and, by noon, had destroyed about 400 yards of Naval Reserve in the neighbourhood of Good Old Man’s Farm. The London Irish “A” and “B” Companies, holding the front line posts and the support trenches (Naval Reserve), had by this time lost about 50% of their effectives and a support company was sent for from its position on Highland Ridge.
At 1230pm (21st), the Brigade’s line ran Sailor Reserve, Central Avenue, Apex Trench and Naval Reserve with a line of posts in the front line adjacent to Sunken Road. At 230pm, there was a considerable gap between the right of the London Irish and the left of 17th Battalion. At about 230pm, about 60 of the enemy, with two machine guns, pushed their way down Farm Avenue and established themselves in Naval Reserve.
Two platoons of support companies of the London Irish, arriving from Highland Ridge and, at 315pm, made a dashing counter attack, which forced the enemy out of Naval Reserve with heavy loss. Large bodies of the enemy in artillery formation appeared at intervals during the afternoon and were held off by artillery, rifle and machine gun fire.
At 5pm, “C” Company, 20th Battalion moved up from Brigade Support to Naval Reserve to strengthen the left of London Irish and re-establish connection.
At 615pm, the line ran Naval Reserve – Ostrich Trench – Apex Lane – Central Avenue – Sunken Trench. The enemy maintained his pressure and artillery fire continued to harass the front line and supports.
Withdrawals to Defensive Positions.
To avoid further losses from shell fire and to conform to the remainder of the line, posts held by 19th Battalion on the left, were withdrawn to Sailor Reserve.
During the day, the enemy attacked and occupied the front line positions of the Division on the right, while on the left, 63rd Division held their ground but the position further north and south of 47th Division was not so satisfactory and the possibly of a retirement to conform had to be considered. A warning order was received by Brigade at 7pm from Division, to prepare to withdrawal troops across Couillet Valley and a confirming order was received a 922pm. The evacuation was commenced at 1130pm, under cover of an outpost line, and all wounded were brought in, ammunition and stores as far as possible were brought back and some demolition was accomplished.
The new position, 2,000 yards in the rear on Highland Ridge and which had been previously reconnoitred, was occupied in good order by 330 am on 22nd March. The front line garrison consisted of London Irish on the right and 20th Battalion on the left. 19th Battalion withdrew during the night to a position in Diarmid Trench on Highland Ridge.
After a night comparatively free from artillery fire, dawn brought renewed enemy activity. Hostile patrols cautiously moved forward and soon occupied the evacuated positions and, later, strong bodies of the enemy moved down the southern slope of Welsh Ridge and were engaged by artillery, rifle and machine gun fire. Observation from the new position was excellent and heavy toll was taken of the enemy.
Repeated Attacks on the London Irish.
About 7pm, two enemy columns, each about 300 strong, advanced, one from the direction of Villers-Plouich and the other from the east, and attacked the London Irish. Both columns were fiercely engaged and the London Irish crushed the attack, driving the enemy back into the valley with heavy loss.
The enemy re-formed and made a second attack, which again was heavily repulsed. A third attack was launched and again the London Irish, full of fight, held their ground and beat off the enemy.
Later, a fourth onslaught was directed against the London Irish front, when a large body of Germans moved up the communication trenches: Rhonddda, Merthyr and Taff Valley. Once again, the London Irish faced their determined foes and with rifle barrels almost red hot with rapid fire, forced the enemy to retire. The triumphant Irish followed up their advantage with an audacious forward movement and cut off a large body of the enemy in Merthyr Trench. Most of these were killed but seven prisoners of the 88th RIR were brought back.
In no uncertain measure had the London Irish demonstrated their fighting power and, although reduced by heavy casualties, and wearied and weakened by the artillery fire, exposure and the actions of the previous day, they had lived up to the best traditions of the British Army.
March 22nd 1918 was a proud day for the London Irish and very largely thanks to their efforts, the Division’s line remained secure.
From the Kaiser’s War by Martin Middlebrook – Quotation from Rfn Chapman 1/18th Bn.
“The bombardment on our trenches started around dawn on the 21st March and was sheer hell – shells, trench mortars, the lot, gradually cutting down our platoon. During this time, our Lieutenant Colonel, the Captain and his runner came along the trenches to see how things were. At that time, there were only about three or four of us alive but no order was given to draw back or pull out. While we were discussing what was to do – there being nobody in charge – my pal was hit with a piece of shell which sliced his head completely off. You can imagine how I felt. All the rest were dead by now, most having lost their limbs so I decided to go along the trenches to see if I could find anybody alive. This was not easy as part of the trench was blown in….Giving up all hope of survival and feeling hopping mad, I waited with my Lewis gun for the enemy to come over the top.”
The Divisional Flank Exposed and Further Withdrawals.
Unfortunately, the trend of the battle southward was unfavourable and the withdrawal of the 9th Division left the 47th Division’s right flank dangerously exposed as early as 730am.
During the day, the position worsened and here was great danger of the enemy getting behind the Division’s position on Highland Ridge. By the evening (22nd), the retirement on the right made the retention of the Highland Ridge position impossible.
Division issued a warning order at 108pm, stating that the withdrawal would be continued at night, in conjunction with 63rd Division (left flank) by successive movements from the left. Confirmation was received by 141st Brigade in the afternoon, with instruction to withdraw through 142nd Brigade in the second position, into Reserve and to concentrate west of Metz-en-Couture.
The movement was executed under cover of a rear guard but in view of the fact that all through the evening the London Irish were fighting continuously, the movement was extremely difficult and considerably delayed. Withdrawal was reported complete at 520am on 23rd March.
The London Irish took up their positions near Rocquigny, with 19th Battalion in camp, between Neuville-Bourjonval and Fins and 20th Battalion in camp between Metz-en-Couture and Fins.
The retirement of the 9th Division on the right, from Equancourt to Manancourt, seriously jeopardised the Division’s line and the enemy, who had closely followed, was able, at dawn (23rd), to enfilade the Division’s right flank battalion. The circumstances compelled GOC 47th Division to order a withdrawal to the third line, an old German trench system running east of Etricourt and Ytres.
At 6am on the 23rd, the 141st Brigade was ordered to move, forthwith, to take up a position in the second system, Dessart Ridge Switch, from a point 800 yards north of Fins to a point 700 yards north east of Neuville-Bourjonval (Prattle Trench), to cover the retirement of the 140th and 142nd Brigades to the Green Line.
Seeking Contact on the Right Flank.
In accordance with orders, 19th Battalion took up a position in the third system, south east of Neuville-Bourjonval, with 20th Battalion on the right in Neuville Switch. The London Irish were ordered to take up a line on the right of 20th Battalion and to face south. Enemy patrols had been reported west of Fins, and 140th Brigade, on the Division’s right, intimated that they were not in touch with the troops on their right: 99th Infantry Brigade. 141st Brigade issued orders that every effort was to be made to re-establish contact with 99th Infantry Brigade and the OC London Irish was instructed that he must fight for touch with these troops if necessary and that the 3rd Field Company RE, in support on the right. could be used to extend the right, if required.
At 1002am on 23rd March, the OC London Irish reported to Brigade that he had taken up his position with few casualties and that every effort was being made to secure contact with 99th Infantry Brigade. Brigade was also informed that the enemy was established in Dessart Wood, west of Fins, south of Fins and in Dessart Wood Switch. The London Irish and RE made several attacks, with the object of clearing up the situation but it was not possible to deliver these attacks in sufficient strength to eject the enemy completely from our lines.
Enemy Attacks Repulsed.
Meanwhile, after heavy artillery, machine gun and trench mortar fire, the enemy, preceded by strong patrols, armed with machine guns, pressed forward wave after wave and heavy fighting ensued. The London Irish were heavily enfiladed by machine gun fire and considerable losses were sustained. RSM Harry Tyers gallantly attacked a troublesome machine gun and put the crew out of action with a grenade – for which feat the RSM was awarded the DCM.
The Divisional history records that the enemy’s plan was to break through and roll up our line from the position to which he had penetrated on our right rear. Credit for frustrating this plan, which, if successful, would have had disastrous consequence to the Division and the right of the III Army, is given to 15th Battalion, the REs and the London Irish, all of whom showed fighting qualities of a very high order.
The Withdrawal and Enemy Pursuit.
At 1130am, Battalions were advised by 141st Brigade that 140th and 142nd Brigades would withdraw to the Green Line and would pass through the third system at zero plus 75 and that 141st Brigade would not withdraw from the third system until definite orders were received. These orders came to hand later and 141st Brigade began to withdraw to the Green Line, in front of Vallalat Wood and Ytres, in succession from the left.
The withdrawal was a difficult operation and the enemy pursued with heavy machine gun fire and followed up closely. On reaching the Green Line, the troops of 142nd Brigade were found in position, manning the trenches in front of Vallulart Wood with Artist’s Rifles (63rd Division) on the left. The 141st Brigade, after remaining in the Green Line for an hour, were ordered to proceed to assembly positions, between Lechelle and Rocquigny.
GOC Division visited 141st Brigade about 530pm and issued orders for the Brigade to man old trenches on the ridge in front of Rocquigny. This line ran east and south east of Rocquigny, the Brigade’s left flank resting on the Bus – Rocquigny road and the right on the railway. 20th Battalion took up position on the north of Rocquigny – Equancourt road and the London Irish and 19th Battalion were disposed south of the road, with London Irish in the centre position.
At this stage, a large gap still existed between the Division’s right flank and the 9th Division and information was received that the gap would be filled by troops of 2nd Division.
March 23rd was a very heavy day for all units of the Division. On the right flank, the more rapid withdrawal of 9th Division and the gap which hourly widened there, necessitated troops of 47th Division extending southward and forming long defensive flanks. The sadly depleted units of the Division cheerfully answered every call made upon them and their resistance to a thrusting enemy, with an overwhelming weight of men employing new tactics in open order fighting, was magnificent. In spite of repeated frontal attacks and continuous pressure on the exposed flank with the inevitable heavy losses from enfilade fire, the Division was able to check the enemy’s advance and make it conform to planned withdrawals.
The night, 23rd/24th March passed quietly, illuminated, however, by the glare of burning dumps and large fires in Bus, Ytres and Lechelle. Connection was established during the night on the left flank with 12th Manchesters (63rd Division) but although patrols were continuously searching for troops on the right flank, they were unsuccessful and it would appear that the gap was not filled with other troops as was anticipated.
However, at 830am, the 19th Battalion made contact with 10th Battalion Notts and Derbys’ of 51st Brigade, 800 yards away, holding a line Rocquigny – Sailly – Saillisel. The OC 20th Battalion, on the left flank, sent a body of Berkshires and Royal Welsh Fusiliers into this gap. Meanwhile, the enemy, in large numbers, advanced over Lechelle Ridge. As it was impossible to get artillery on to them, they were able to made good use of the “dead” ground between Lechelle and the Brigade’s position, and work round on the flanks of 19th Battalion – after forcing back the battalion of 51st Brigade, which had come up during the morning.
The enemy secured a footing in the south west corner of Rocquiny village soon after midday and, from this position, brought to bear a small trench gun and machine guns in enfilade on 19th Battalion and the London Irish. At 1240pm, the OC London Irish reported that the enemy was assembling in the valley north and north east of Mesnil-en-Arrouaise but, opposite the 20th Battalion front, the enemy had twice been repulsed and was retiring over the crest.
From his position in the south west corner of Rocquigny, the enemy inflicted heavy casualties on the 19th Battalion and the London Irish and, at about 1pm, 19th Battalion was forced to withdraw and the London Irish were compelled to conform. 20th Battalion, further away on the left, with 21st Battalion (142nd Brigade) and 12th Manchesters, were making a determined stand against the enemy. At a critical moment, three tanks appeared and checked the enemy with machine gun fire. Later, these units were compelled to withdraw. 20th Battalion however, full of fight, remained until practically surrounded. They fought their way back, suffered heavily from concentrated fire and lost their CO and their Adjutant was captured.
In accordance with orders, the Brigade withdrew to rendezvous at High Wood via Gueudecourt and Flers and took up a line on the eastern edge of the Wood.
From 9pm throughout the night of the 24th/25th, the survivors of 141st Brigade occupied a line on the south east of High Wood and during the morning (25th), in accordance with orders, withdrew to a line held by 140th Brigade through Bazentin-le-Petit. About 10am (25th), remnants of 141st Brigade were withdrawn to a line on the high ground east of Contalmaison, where the position was maintained until 3am after which, in accordance with orders, the Division withdrew across the river Ancre at Aveluy.
Much Reduced in Strength and Out of the Battle.
Reduced in strength by the casualties of the previous few days to about half a company, the London Irish joined the Depot near Millencourt on 25th March, moving onto Vauchelles-les-Auchie on 26th March.
On 27th March, Major HS Read MC took over temporary command of the Battalion and on this day, the London Irish, with other units of the Brigade, withdrew to billets in Toutencourt.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s “backs to the wall” order was received on this day and circulated throughout the Divisions. On 28th March, the Battalion moved to Senlis-le-Sec with the rest of the Brigade and 140th and 142nd Brigades then moved to Warloy-Baillon en-route for the lane in Aveluy Wood and on the high ground east of Bouzincourt.
On 30th March, 141st Brigade was in Divisional Reserve in Senlis-le-Sec, its role being to support the right Brigade, particularly at the junction with 17th Division.
Information was communicated to all ranks that further enemy attacks might be expected on 1st April and, at 5am on that day, all ranks “stood to” and field artillery fired on SOS lines for 20 minutes from 515am. A heavy bombardment continued until 6am but no infantry action developed.
Lt MacKenzie Smith in Command.
Major HS Read of 20th Battalion, who had been acting CO of the 18th Battalion, returned to 20th Battalion and Lt FS MacKenzie Smith assumed command of the London Irish.
After a couple of days supplying working parties, the London Irish moved to Bouzincourt and relieved 17th Battalion in support – under orders of 140th Brigade. On 5th April, preceded by heavy artillery fire which lasted from 630am to 8am, the enemy launched an attack on the front of 12th, 47th and 63rd Divisions with the object of seizing Bouzincourt and Mesnil. The Division was engaged in heavy fighting and for the most part preserved the line intact, the enemy being repulsed with heavy loss after repeated attacks lasting two days.
The London Irish Battalion was not seriously involved in this action and was relieved on 7th April by 21st Battalion, thereafter moving to Senlis. In heavy rain, the Battalion moved from Senlis-le-Sec to Acheux-en-Ameinois, where a large draft was welcomed. On successive days, the Battalion marched to Mirvaux, Domart-en-Ponthieu and Domvast and remained in Army reserve until 30th April 1918.
A Letter of Appreciation from General Gorringe.
On 30th March, the Divisional Commander circulated a letter addressed to the Division summarising the operations which commenced on 21st March and expressed his appreciation of the spirit and conduct of his troops in the following terms:
“It is now ten days since the great German offensive commenced and we are once again taking over an important sector of the battle front. During the past ten days, you have been called upon to carry out one of the most difficult and trying operation, which can fall to the lot of any troops viz, a withdrawal in the face of an overwhelming enemy. On 21st instant, you successfully withstood the strong enemy attacks on the Welsh Ridge with the greatest gallantry. On this day, the 18th and 21st Battalions greatly distinguished themselves. In accordance with instructions from higher authority, you were ordered to withdraw that night to the Highland Ridge. This operation was successfully carried out and the line held all day and could, I am confident, have been held for many days. Owing to the Army on your right withdrawing on the afternoon of the 22nd, you, in conjunction with the 63rd Division on our left, were ordered to again withdraw to the line of the second system. This further withdrawal at night was again carried out in accordance with orders in a manner most creditable to all concerned and this line, I am confident, could also have been held by you.
However, we were again ordered on the morning of 23rd instant to another line from Metz Switch to Dessart Ridge. Later in the day, a further withdrawal was ordered to a line running from Equancourt to the east side of Ytres. RE and Pioneers, 140th, 141st and 142nd all successively were heavily attacked on the right flank by the enemy during the withdrawal. The enemy had driven a wedge between our right and the left of the 5th Army, who had again withdrawn before the hour of our withdrawal. You, however, of 140th Brigade held on and covered the right of the 63rd Division at Ytres with great gallantry and when the enemy had penetrated between Ytres and Lechelle and had seized Bus, you withdrew fighting and again formed up on the left of your comrades.
On the night of the 23rd/24th, you again established a line from Mesnil to Rocquigny, which line you held next day with the greatest gallantry against four enemy attacks. Here, 141st Brigade especially distinguished themselves and here again had troops to the right and left of you not withdrawn you could have continued to hold the enemy at bay.
Owing to the enemy having broken through to the south of our line and were again pressing on our right rear, you were ordered to withdraw later in the afternoon of the 24th. Before these orders had reached you, the troops on both flanks had both withdrawn and you had to fight your way back by a long and circuitous route to the position assigned to you in and to the west of High Wood. During the operation, the withdrawal of the transport was covered by the REs and Pioneers under Major Langton and all enemy attempts to cut into the line of withdrawal of the same were gallantly frustrated. The enemy had, however, penetrated between them and the Brigades rendering the withdrawal of the latter a hazardous operation.
In spite of this, by the morning of the 25th instant, you established and held all day a line 4,000 yards long in the Contalmaison Ridge, joining hands with the Divisions on the right and left of you. This position, which you occupied under conditions of great difficulty after five days of continuous fighting, was again held by you against all attacks but owing to the enemy having broken through to the north of us, you were again called upon to withdraw on the morning of the 26th across the Ancre. This withdrawal was carried out in good order and with credit to all concerned. No words of mine can adequately express to you my admiration for the gallantry, determination and endurance of all ranks during the above trying ordeal.
We have lost many gallant comrades but the magnificent spirit of the division still remains and those of us still left must fight on with determination and now hold on at all costs to the Sector allotted to us, from which, please God, there will be no withdrawal.
I thank you, one and all, for your loyal and untiring energy with which you have carried out all the above difficult operations; it has been a trying ordeal but you have done your duty to your King and Country in a manner beyond all praise – you have in any case the reward of knowing that you have done your best and done it brilliantly and well.”
GF Gorringe, Major General.
Casualties during the Withdrawal.
During the withdrawal, the London Irish took their fair share in the heavy fighting and suffered the heaviest casualties in the Brigade: the officers and men killed, amounting to 22 officers and 586 men wounded, and missing.
Officer Casualties, London Irish Rifles: 19th March 1918 to Noon 12th April 1918.
21/3/18 Lt HT Miller.
21/3/18 2nd Lt NS Agate Wounded (died of wounds 22/3/18).
24/3/18 Lt KDA Houston.
22/3/18 Capt RHV Hobbs.
23/3/18 Lt-Col GH Neely MC.
23/3/18 Capt CP Watson MC.
23/3/18 Lt HR Hone.
23/3/18 Lt C Hall.
23/3/18 2nd Lt MB Owen.
23/3/18 2nd Lt PR Parkes (died 4.4.18 at Le Cateau POW).
23/3/18 2nd Lt WC Pike.
23/3/18 2nd Lt R Bronner.
23/3/18 2nd Lt LW Boxall.
23/3/18 2nd Lt PO Knowles (gas).
23/3/18 Capt HT Ordish MC (also missing).
23/3/18 Lt RW Monypenny (POW).
23/3/18 2nd Lt CE Hemming (POW).
23/3/18 2nd Lt AM Pitcher (died 6.6.18 at Valenciennes POW).
23/3/18 2nd Lt HR Stone (also missing).
23/3/18 2nd Lt A Eltrincham (attached from 3rd London Yeomanry, POW).
24/3/18 2nd Lt JW Carrington (POW).
25/3/18 Lt GB Newton (attached TMB, POW).