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47th (London) Division – May/June 1916

The situation was thus eased on our front; but the enemy was continuously aggressive, worrying the front line with many “minnies,” and the whole of the forward area with frequent bombardment. Immediately south of us he did some successful mining, and the 25th Division were blown out of a part of their line in the Berthonval sector. They counter-mined, and on May 15th put up a string of mines and reoccupied their line. On May 19th this troubled sector was taken over by the 140th Brigade, who handed over to the 23rd Division the pleasantest part of our line, the Lorette defences.

Our new piece of front was not a satisfactory inheritance. Lately the scene of destructive mining, it was in a bad state of disrepair. No wire covered the front or support lines; the front line consisted of disconnected posts, isolated by day; there were no shelters of any kind in the front system. Altogether it was a position ill-equipped to counteract the increasingly aggressive efforts of the enemy, who lost no chance of inflicting casualties on our unprotected troops. His trench-mortars were more than usually active on the 19th and 20th, and on the latter day there was a heavy bombardment from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. of the trenches near Ersatz Alley. The 141st Brigade, however, managed to relieve the 142nd Brigade on this day in the Carency sector, now the left section of the divisional front. The night was quiet, and was spent in hard work on the new sector.

On Sunday, May 21st, the German guns started work early. All the morning the trenches in both brigade fronts were persistently shelled. At 3.40 p.m. the bombardment became intense, and a barrage on Zouave Valley — the first “box barrage” which we had experienced — practically cut all communication with the front. During the next four hours the trenches south of Love and Member Craters were pounded mercilessly, and the garrison, especially those in the shelterless trenches of the Berthonval sector, suffered terribly. The battery positions had their share, too, and four guns were knocked out.

At 7.45 p.m. the shelling was lifted off the front trenches, and fell with increased violence on Zouave Valley and farther back, especially on gun positions. At the same time the German infantry attacked, with their right flank on Love and Momber Craters, across the whole 140th Brigade front, into the line of the 25th Division. They came over in great force, and the weight of the attack fell upon the 7th and 8th Battalions, who had lain for four hours in unprotected trenches, under a bombardment far heavier than any we had ever known before. These battalions with the troops on their right were driven out of the front trench, across two supports, into a line half-way down the slope.

The 7th Battalion, on the right, made a local counter-attack as early as 8.40 p.m., but it was not in sufficient strength to recapture any ground. The attack on this sector was effectively held up by a block established in Old Boot Street, a very gallant action led by Captain L.E. Rundell. Night fell upon the confusion caused by the attack. Many of the survivors of the bombardment in the front line were captured — among them Captain G. Portman and Captain G. N. Clark, of the 8th, together with Captain F. M. Davis and Lieutenant Brooks, of the 7th, who had held the front trenches till 7.45 p.m.— and, until the first lull came at about ten o’clock, it was extremely difficult to get any accurate idea of the situation. Communications were broken, and the battalion commanders concerned found it impossible to co-ordinate their arrangements for counter-attack. At 2 a.m. on the 22nd a company each of the 15th and 18th Battalions made an effort at the junction of the brigade fronts, but without success.

Captain H.B. Farquhar, who led the 15th Battalion company, was wounded and missing. Lieut.-Colonel A. Maxwell, of the 8th, was wounded during the night, and the remnant of his battalion came under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Warrender, of the 15th, who relieved them before dawn. As soon as it was light. Major Whitehead, in the absence of Lieut.-Colonel Mildren, of the 6th Battalion, reconnoitred the right front, and fixed on an old French trench as the best line of resistance. This was successfully occupied and consolidated by the 6th and 7th Battalions on the evening of the 22nd. Throughout these operations the 140th Brigade was commanded by Colonel Faux, of the 7th Battalion, while Brig.-General Cuthbert acted as divisional commander. General Barter being on leave.

The 20th Battalion was holding the right of the 141st Brigade line, including the craters, and joining the 140th Brigade at Ersatz Alley. The top of this communication trench had been the centre of the bombardments, and was practically obliterated. The right company (A Company) held up the first attack, Captain Young directing the rifle-fire in the line. After a fight they were driven back into the support trench.

Captain Young was able to bring the three platoons of A Company back over the top with very little loss owing largely to the very gallant action of Sec-Lieutenant Lomas, D.C.M.,the Battalion Lewis-gun officer. The latter, by himself, took a gun into the open over the top of the support-line and covered the retirement of the company. He was killed shortly afterwards.

The enemy in his first rush got into the craters held by B Company. Their commander. Captain Taylor, was acting as adjutant at the time, but on hearing of his company’s plight, he went forward and organised a counter-attack, which drove the enemy from the craters. Unfortunately, both he and Captain Young lost their lives in this action. Lieut. -Colonel W. H. Matthews, of the 20th, unable to counter-attack in view of the situation on his right, established a defensive flank by means of blocks in the lines forward of that to which the 140th Brigade had been driven back.

In this he was greatly assisted by Captain G. Williams, M.C. (officer commanding A Company), who now took command of B Company in addition to his own, and maintained the position in the support and reserve lines, and successfully defended the exposed right flank. Captain Williams, whose conduct won him the then rare distinction of a bar to his Military Cross, was severely wounded on the following evening. His company, which had gone on to the Ridge 120 strong a few days earlier, left it with only 17 remaining. The honours it had won included a Military Cross (C.S.M. W.H. Davey), two D.C.M.’s (Ptes. Martin and Andrews), and five Military Medals.

The exact position of the right flank of the 141st Infantry Brigade being now in some doubt. Major B.C. Battye, the Brigade major, at great personal risk, undertook a close reconnaissance and was able to locate it. For this service he was awarded the D.S.O.

Two companies of the 18th Battalion reinforced the 20th during the night of May 22nd. Brig.-General Thwaites was wounded on the night of the 23rd, and Lieut.-Colonel Tredennick, of the 18th Battalion, took over temporary command of the 141st Brigade. The 142nd Brigade had been brought up from reserve on the afternoon of May 21st. By evening it was in the support system along the Divisional front. The C.R.E. (Lieut.-Colonel S.D.A. Crookshank), who was at advanced Brigade Headquarters at Cabaret Rouge on the same afternoon, organised the R.E., who were in billets thereabouts in an old French line on the forward slope looking across Zouave Valley. During the night 21st-22nd the 2nd Division moved forward from Corps Reserve, and its 99th Brigade was placed at the disposal of the 47th. Units of the 2nd Divisional Artillery also reinforced our artillery. On the night of the 22nd the 142nd and 99th Brigades relieved the 140th Brigade and a part of the 20th Battalion, and were ready to counter-attack on the following day.

Our own counter-attacking battalions on the evening of May 23rd were the 21st and 24th. The 24th Battalion (Lieut.-Colonel G. A. Buxton-Carr) was not supported on their right. On each flank of their attack was a communication trench held as a sap by the enemy, who could enfilade any advancing troops. Bombers were sent forward to deal with these, but they made no progress, and the battalion was held up. The 21st (Lieut.-Colonel H. B. Kennedy), on the left, went ahead and recaptured the old line north of Ersatz Alley, where they stayed for an hour, and did great execution among the enemy whom they found in the trench and dugouts. But no troops came up on their right, and they were compelled to come back to their starting-point. Nothing was left to show for this gallant and costly action beyond a few yards of our old front line, where the block was moved southwards to include in our line its junction with Gobron communication trench. Seven Military Crosses were awarded to members of the 21st Battalion for gallantry in this action — probably a record number for one battalion in a single operation.

On the night of May 25th the 6th Brigade relieved the 141st and 142nd Brigades, and on the 26th the 2nd Division took over command of this sector and the 47th Division was in reserve.

The Vimy fighting cost us 63 officers and 2,044 other ranks killed, wounded, and missing. At that price we were taught the necessity to arrange our defence in greater depth to meet new methods of attack with increased weight of artillery. Our own guns adapted themselves quickly to new conditions, and the Divisional Artillery between noon on May 21st and 4 p.m. on May 24th fired over 32,000 rounds, which must have taken their toll of casualties on the other side. It seems doubtful now whether our risky position near the crest of the ridge was worth holding at such cost, when a strong position on the high ground near Cabaret Rouge, with the same observation from the Lorette Heights, was available. The magnificent spirit which refuses to yield to the enemy any ground, however useless, is worth much; but were the Higher Command justified in incurring the resulting losses?

Read June/July 1916.