Chapter 5 – Action on Vimy Ridge:
Taking over at the Berthonval Section.
In accordance with operational orders, on the evening of 20th May and with a trench strength of 20 officers and 423 men, the Battalion moved up from Villers-au-Bois and Carency to take over a part of the front line. During this period, the Divisional front was being amended. On the left, the Lorette defences were taken in the area of the 23rd Division. On the right, the 47th Division was to extend further to the right to take over a portion of the 25th Division’s front, this part of the line being described as the Berthonval Section.
Confusion over Line Takeover Dates.
The London Irish were to take over a length of the line beyond the right of the 141st Brigade’s front so that the 141st Brigade would slip slightly to accord with the new disposition of the 47th Divisional front. When the Battalion set out at about 7pm on 20th May, there was considerable artillery activity on the Ridge. Little notice was taken of this as it was thought to be the prelude to a mine explosion and it was quite usual for artillery duels of some severity to boil up and spread all along the Ridge in the mornings and evenings. However, the gunfire increased in intensity and, instead of proceeding along the track in the open, the Battalion took to the trenches on leaving Villers-au-Bois.
Guides were to be met at Cabaret Rouge, the usual rendezvous, and, on arrival at Cabaret Rouge at about 10pm, there was the familiar atmosphere of intense activity, occasioned by the presence of much transport and many working parties. “A” Company, which led the Battalion, could not find its guides and, as the other Companies reached the rendezvous, a search for the expected guides proved fruitless. The Battalion was ordered to remain in the trenches, while Colonel Tredennick, 2nd Lt Hone (the Adjutant) and the Company Commanders made enquiries to ascertain what had happened. The night was pitch black and, because of the darkness, the shelling and the constant coming of transport and working parties, there was much congestion and some swearing.
Eventually, Colonel Tredennick managed to get on the phone from the RE Headquarters near Cabaret Rouge to the CO of the Battalion, which the London Irish was to relieve. It was ascertained that no relief was expected until the following night (ie on the 21st/22nd) and the CO of the Battalion in the line confirmed this with his Brigade.
Colonel Tredennick, with the London Irish at Cabaret Rouge – twenty four hours before time – not unnaturally stormed at the Adjutant for blundering over the date of the relief and Lt Hone, only 19 years of age, had a very uncomfortable time. However, the Adjutant was sure that the orders were correct but was unable to verify his contention as the orders received from Brigade were, in accordance with the usual custom, left in the orderly room at Villers-au-Bois.
The situation was very trying. The Battalion had moved up to Cabaret Rouge – over a three hours march – through trenches from Villers-au-Bois and, while enquiries were being made, had been kept hanging around until nearly 1am and, finally, there was no recognised accommodation or the troops to occupy until 10pm the next night, 21st May.
After some difficulty, Lt-Colonel Tredennick managed to get on the phone to Brigade. There was some derangement at Brigade Headquarters as the Staff Captain – acting as Brigade Major – had gone on leave (the Brigade Major being then due back) and handed over to Captain Webb, 1/18th Battalion’s Transport Officer. The Colonel could not get hold of anyone but Brigadier General Thwaites, himself, who informed Col Tredennick that an order had originally been issued for the changeover to take place on the night of 20th/21st but Division had altered this to 21st/22nd. So far as he knew, the change of date had been notified twenty four hours previously and he did not know why the Battalion had moved up before time.
The Brigadier General ordered Col Tredennick to dispose his men as conveniently as possible in Zouave Valley alongside the supports and reserves of the Battalion to be relieved and to keep the troops there until the changeover took place in the normal course on the night of 21st/22nd.
After much difficulty, the Companies were settled just before dawn with one Company in dug outs in Zouave Valley to the rear of 20th Battalion, while other Companies were accommodated in odd dugouts forward of, and near, the temporary Battalion Headquarters, which was situated at the junction of Cabaret Rouge road and Bajolle Trench.
Eventually, it transpired that, though the orders had originally been given for the relief to be postponed for twenty four hours, those orders had arrived at Brigade Headquarters just when the Acting Staff Captain (Captain Webb) was taking over from the acting Brigade Major (Captain Mann). Each had thought that the other had notified the London Irish whereas, in fact, no action had been taken and this had caused the confusion.
Fortunately for the Battalion, during the whole time the men were bunched up at Cabaret Rouge, – about three to four hours – the enemy artillery was only moderately active; otherwise, the consequences might have been more serious and. luckily, there were no casualties.
May 21st dawned beautifully fine and the chaos of the previous night looked a little less vexatious. All four Companies were settled in positions in advance of the temporary Battalion Headquarters but only in touch by runner. However, the Battalion was in contact with Brigade by RE phone, which was situated in a nearby dugout.
Dispositions and Heavy Bombardment.
The 141st Brigade section of the line was held by 19th Battalion on the left, 17th Battalion in the centre and 20th Battalion on the right. Beyond the right flank of 141st Brigade, the Berthonval section was held by 140th Brigade, with 8th Battalion on the left (in touch with 20th Battalion) and 7th Battalion on the right. To the right of the 7th Battalion, the line was held by 25th Division.
At 6am on 21st May, the enemy opened a heavy bombardment on the centre and left sub-Sections (17th and 20th Battalions). The bombardment of the front and reserve lines was accompanied by considerable bombing by minenwerfers and continued for some hours. The 17th Battalion communicated the circumstances to Brigade but retaliation, by heavy, medium and field artillery, brought no relief from the enemy’s fire. The German bombardment was directed by an aeroplane, which patrolled the front and by an observation balloon, which was very high and directly overlooked the Division’s trenches.
At 930am, the Brigadier and Brigade Major went up to visit the line but were stopped in Ersatz Trench by a barrage of fire in Zouave Valley. After a slight lull, the enemy bombardment of the Ridge and supports was resumed and, by 330pm, was so intense that the left Battalion (19th) verbally reported that shaking of the ground, caused by the enemy shelling, felt like a mine explosion.
As the afternoon wore on, the enemy fire increased in power and violence and, at about 340pm, the German artillery was barraging the front line heavily and also the support and reserve trenches half way down the hill behind part of the 141st Brigade and the Berthonval Section (140th Brigade).
The principal weight of the barrage extended from a little north of Ersatz Trench to a point approximately 2,000 yards to the south. The fire was particularly intense and, about 410pm, the enemy bombardment assumed a box form, completely enclosing the front line and the support and reserve trenches. The enemy’s heavy guns were directed mainly on the reserve line and behind, while the front and support lines were dealt with by heavy minenwerfers and field guns. The box barrage was of stupendous power and ferocity and the rate of fire so rapid that the artillery observation officer was quite unable to count the number of heavy shells falling. Not less than 100 to 150 heavy calibre shells crashed on to the line every minute, while the unceasing explosions of the smaller calibre shells made a veritable curtain of fire. When the box barrage commenced, it was obvious that the enemy intended to attack.
At 415pm, the London Irish were ordered to stand to and to await further orders. The enemy fire severed all communication from 4pm onwards, and thereafter, all messages had to be sent or received by runner. On the Ridge and half way down Zouave Valley, the box barrage continued. The countless shell explosions created the impression that the entire length of the Ridge was alive as earth, flame and smoke jumped and spurted upwards unceasingly.
After a short time, a film of light yellow and greenish smoke obscured the line of the Ridge, and then at 630pm, the enemy commenced using shells, which emitted dense clouds of black smoke. The whole of the forward area was rapidly and completely blotted out by an impenetrable pall of Stygian darkness, several hundred feet high – which the myriad flashes of the exploding shells only appeared to emphasise.
Colonel Tredennick was verbally instructed to send two Companies of the London Irish to the Bajolle Line and runners were dispatched with orders to “A” Company (Captain Hobbs) and “C” Company (Captain Mahon) and two Lewis guns (Lt Keane) and half the Bombers to take up positions in the Bajolle Line with “A” Company on the right. The verbal orders were confirmed in writing at 530pm and, in addition, “D” Company (Captain Maginn) was ordered to proceed to the Maistre Line.
On account of the shelling, it was uncertain whether the runners would get through. “C” Company was furthest away and, apart from knowing that the men were in the best available accommodation, there was some doubt as to whether they could be located. At 630pm, however, messages arrived reporting that “A”, “C” and “D” Companies were in position and being heavily shelled and that casualties were being incurred.
The Enemy Attack and the British Counter Attack.
On the Ridge itself, the position was obscure as the barrage raged with undiminished fury and all phones, including buried cable, were cut. Although the front was normally admirable for visual signalling, the smoke and dust from exploding shells made it impossible to read any signals from the forward area. The enemy shell fire searched the approaches to the line and, simultaneously with the descent of the box barrage on the advanced line, three east and west barrages were put down: one on a line by Berthonval Road, one on the south side of Carency and the third on the south side of Ablain. Most of the shells were of tear gas, designed to hamper the batteries in these areas. After an hour or so, gas shell was abandoned in favour of direct high explosive shelling of the actual positions believed to be occupied by the guns.
During the afternoon and evening, Division put the defence scheme for the district into operation and troops in the rear moved up to occupy the dominating tactical features of the front. At about 740pm, the enemy attacked, On the Division’s front, the Germans assaulted on a 1,500 yard front from the boyau Coburg on the left to Central Avenue on the right. Southward of Central Avenue, the attack flowed over a portion of the line held by 25th Division. The German right emerged from behind the Love and Momber Craters, moved due west to the British wire, then turned north and attacked Ersatz and 141st Brigade in the Carency sector. The enemy came over in large numbers of small groups and swamped the line held by 8th and 7th Battalions, taking in a portion of that held by the 20th Battalion.
On the Berthonval Sector, the few members of the garrison, not killed or wounded by the bombardment, held on and continued firing until overwhelmed by the Germans.
On the Carency section, the garrison was either buried in dugouts or exterminated by hostile fire. The actual moment of the assault was not known to the Division’s supporting artillery as no SOS rockets were seen. The rockets were either wrecked by shell fire or made invisible by reason of the smoke, which enveloped the battle line. In consequence of the destroyed communications, Brigade and the Battalion Commanders were unaware of the actual time and extent of the enemy assault and penetration and could not effectively coordinate counter measures. At 855pm, Brigade asked 20th Battalion for information by runner and, at 858pm, a message was received by Brigade to the effect that the enemy had obtained a lodgement in the right and centre Companies but the left Company was still holding its front. Later, it became known that the enemy had advanced on the 140th Brigade front and beyond, penetrating to a depth of 100 to 300 yards.
At 915pm, Brigade ordered one Company of the London Irish to proceed to Cabaret Rouge and “D” Company duly moved from the Maistre Line to the Cabaret Rouge bomb dump, near the temporary Battalion Headquarters. Captain Maginn and about 40 men were sent forward to the 20th Battalion with bombs and ammunition and their departure was reported to Brigade.
“B” Company (Captain Skevington) and the remainder of Captain Maginn’s “D” Company, with two Lewis guns, were kept close at hand and, at 10pm, took over Alhambra Trench. This had been manned as an emergency measure by some Tunnelling details and these were placed at the disposal of the 20th Battalion.
Captain Hobbs later phoned from the Headquarters of 8th Battalion (left of 140th Brigade) to say that he had moved his Company forward from the Bajolle Line to the rear support trenches of the 8th Battalion and had suffered some casualties from the heavy shelling, which continued in Zouave Valley. He also reported that it was necessary to counter attack to drive out the enemy before they could establish themselves.
The situation was grave and the CO of 8th Battalion wanted to use Captain Hobbs’ “A” Company for the counter attack. The 7th Battalion (right of 140th Brigade) made a local counter attack at 840pm, but without success. On the right of the 141st Brigade, Captain Williams MC, of 20th Battalion, was successfully protecting his exposed right flank but had no Bombers for a counter attack and asked for sufficient Bombers to launch simultaneous attacks up Ersatz and Gobron Trenches.
The situation at midnight was that counter attacks had failed to cover any ground and the enemy was busy consolidating his gains.
At 108am on 22nd May, Brigade reported the disposition of the London Irish to Division: one Company was being used by 8th Battalion to reorganise; one Company and two Lewis guns had reinforced Right sub-Section (20th Battalion); one Company had reinforced the Centre sub-Section (17th Battalion) and the remaining Company and Battalion Headquarters were staying at Cabaret Rouge.
Counter Attack Failures and Successes.
The use of “A” Company for the counter attack by 8th Battalion was sanctioned by Brigade and the assault was timed for 2am on the night of 21st/22nd. It was impossible to ensure adequate artillery preparation and Captain Hobbs was ordered to make the best possible arrangements through the CO of 8th Battalion.
In pitch darkness and accompanied by one Company of 15th Battalion at 2am on 22nd May, “A” Company attacked in two waves, the first wave led by 2nd Lt AU Conlon and 2nd Lt JP Butcher and the second wave led by Captain Hobbs The attack was a complete failure: there was little or no artillery assistance and the task was too big for the few troops employed. The first wave disappeared from sight and the officers and men were simply mown down. The second wave suffered severe casualties from the German machine guns and, in the darkness, became thinned out and were forced to take to shell holes for cover. Eventually, the mere handful of survivors were withdrawn, having accomplished nothing. Captain Hobbs was wounded and 2nd Lts Conlon and Butcher were reported missing.
During the night, ammunition parties from “D” and “C” Companies, under Captain Mahon, floundered through slippery mud across Zouave in complete darkness, which was only relieved by the flickering glare of Very Light and the flashes of exploding shells. Trench mortar bombs, grenades and SAA were badly needed in the line and, with shells bursting about them and machine gun bullets “zipping” overhead, the parties slowly toiled across the Valley and up the slopes to the forward trenches. The loads were delivered safely at their destinations and were gratefully received.
Parties of London Irish Bombers reinforced the 20th Battalion and prepared for bombing attacks designed to retake the lost portions of the 20th Battalion’s right. The greater part of the London Irish grenadiers were with the 20th Battalion and assisting in manning the defensive flank of the Battalion.
At 145am on 22nd May, Bombers on the 20th Battalion front attacked along Tanchot and Gobron and, by 450am, the OC of 20th Battalion was able to report that he had retaken the whole of his original front, except for the trench line trench between Gobron and Ersatz – the trench line between the trench junction Gobron to the front line being “no-man’s land”.
The original and reserve line were held in its entirety, except for the last 50 yards of the support line leading north from Ersatz, which was completely flattened out. Thus, the 20th Battalion’s right flank (extreme right of 141st Brigade) comprised a double block in the front line, one in the support line just north of Gobron and another double block in Gobron just short of the junction at the support line. Contact with 8th Battalion was secured in the reserve line. During the morning, further reinforcements of London Irish Bombers were dispatched to the 20th Battalion and these men duly arrived after running the gauntlet of the enemy shelling in Zouave Valley.
Division arranged a conference at 1230pm, at which the three Brigade Commanders were present. The situation was examined and explained and plans for counter attacks were arranged. At 435pm, the Battalion was notified that the 142nd Brigade would relieve 140th Brigade and would attack on the right of 20th Battalion between Gobron and Ersatz. The OC of 20th Battalion was asked to prepare a scheme of attack but, at 830pm, the assault was postponed.
Temporary Battalion Relief.
At 3pm, London Irish troops, except Lewis gunners and Bombers, were ordered by Brigade to return to Cabaret Rouge. The Battalion received orders to return to Villers but, as the Companies were scattered, it was difficult to get the orders through. However, Brigade notified all units that possessed detachments of the London Irish, to order them to rendezvous at Cabaret Rouge at 9pm and to report to the Adjutant, 2nd Lt Hone. At 830pm on 22nd May, “B” Company and the remnants of “D” Company moved out. At this time, a fairly heavy bombardment was proceeding and troops of the 2nd Division were moving up for a counter attack, which was planned to take place at 130am on 23rd May. “C” Company reported (less 20 men left in the line with two Lewis guns) and, later, the remnants of “A” Company and the remainder of “D” Company and continued the journey to Villers. The CO, Adjutant, Medical Officer and HQ details followed and, for the time being, the Battalion was out of the action.
Preparing for Another Assault.
The Battalion had no peace at Villers as, soon after their arrival, order were received from Brigade that they were equipped to take part in a large scale attack that was to be made by 142nd Brigade and 99th Brigade at 130am on 23rd May. Subsequently, the attack was deferred until 825pm and the London Irish spent the day at Villers in reorganisations, checking up on casualties and preparing – from the Battalion, only one Company (“B”) was at full strength – for the attack. At 5pm, “B” Company, in full marching order, and with 200 rounds of SAA per man, left Villers to rendezvous at 7pm at Cabaret Rouge in their role as an advance reserve to support the counter attack. At 615pm, another section of Bombers was dispatched to reinforce the 20th Battalion.
The time fixed for the assault was 825pm but, at 750pm, as the result of tapped telephone messages, the enemy furiously barraged the line and Zouave Valley. The German artillery fire inflicted very heavy casualties on the troops assembled for the counter attack but, at the appointed time, the assault was delivered by the 21st and 24th Battalions and the left company of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers (99th Brigade). The remainder of 99th Brigade failed to attack.
The 21st Battalion captured the old German front line and bayonetted the enemy there but were afterwards forced out by a bombing attack. The 24th Battalion was held up by the German wire. The Royal Fusiliers entered the first objective without difficulty. A second attack by the 21st Battalion succeeded in entering the enemy line but the ground could not be held due to lack of manpower. Some ground was gained and, at this point, the London Irish Bombers greatly distinguished themselves once more.
During this action, “B” Company remained at Cabaret Rouge and the remainder of the Battalion stood by at Villers.
The Brigadier General is Wounded and Replaced by the London Irish CO.
At 530pm, Colonel Tredennick enquired of Brigade if he should move his HQ forward in order to keep in touch with “B” Company and mentioned that he only had six officers, including himself, and three depleted Companies. At 625pm, Brigade replied that the CO should remain but be ready to move forward at any moment. Brigadier General Thwaites was wounded outside advanced Brigade Headquarters at Cabaret Rouge at 130pm on the 23rd and it was popularly believed that when the General was picked up, it was found that his monocle was as firmly fixed in position as before. Colonel Tredennick was ordered to proceed to advanced Brigade HQ to take command of the Brigade and assumed his duties at 1230am on 24th May, while Major Trinder took over temporary command of the London Irish.
Relief and Return to Corps Reserve.
At 445am on 24th May, the three Companies of the Battalion were ordered to move from Villers to the forward area in connection with a further attempt to eject the enemy. “D” Company was sent directly to Cabaret Rouge and, from there, moved up to support 20th Battalion. Both “A” and “C” Companies remained at the Cabaret Rouge dugouts and Battalion Headquarters was established there. As the day advanced, there was considerable artillery activity but the situation generally became quieter and no further infantry action occurred. Further attempts to recover the lost ground were abandoned and, at 1135pm, orders from Division arrived regarding the relief of the 141st and 140th Brigades by the 6th Infantry Brigade.
At 2am on 25th May, “A” and “C” Companies of the London Irish were relieved and moved down to Villers-au-Bois. Later, “B” and “D” Companies, the Lewis Gunners and Bombers were also relieved and the Battalion thereupon marched back to Camblain l’Abbaye.
Into Corps Reserve.
On the following day, 26th May, the 141st Brigade went into Corps reserve, the London Irish proceeding to billets at Marest near Pernes via Estree Cauchie, Bajus and Dieval. The London Irish casualties reported by Brigade during the action on Vimy Ridge amounted to 3 officers (one wounded, two missing and almost certainly killed), and 92 men (8 killed, 55 wounded and 29 missing).