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Explanations of British/Canadian military abbreviations can be found at http://www.1914-1918.net/abbrev.htm and http://www.wakefieldfhs.org.uk/military%20abbrevations.shtml
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE 6th DIVISION
Aug. 1914-March 1919
MAJOR-GEN. T. O. MARDEN C.B., C.M.G.
London Hugh Rees, Ltd. 5 & 7 Regent Street, S.W.1 1920
This short history has been compiled mainly from the War Diaries.
My reason for undertaking the task is that there was no one else to do it, the units composing the Division being scattered far and wide, and there being no Divisional habitat with local historians as in the case of Territorial and New Army Divisions. My object is that all who served with the Division for any period between 1914-1919 may have a record to show that they belonged to a Division which played no inconspicuous part in the Great War.
I regret that it has been impossible to tabulate the honours (except V.C.s) won by officers and men of the Division, and it is also inevitable that the names of many individuals to whom the success of the Division in many operations was largely due should go unrecorded. The Infantry naturally bulk large in the picture, but they would be the first to admit that their success could not have been obtained without the splendid co-operation of the Artillery, who are sometimes not even mentioned in the narrative; and this theme might be elaborated considerably.
My particular thanks are due to Lt.-Col. T. T. Grove, C.M.G., D.S.O., R.E., to whom the credit belongs for the form taken by the history and the more personal portions of the history itself. I also wish to thank Lt.-Gen. Sir J. Keir, K.C.B., D.S.O., and Major-Gen. C. Ross, C.B., D.S.O., as well as several Brigadiers and C.O.s, for so kindly reviewing the periods of which they had personal knowledge.
In conclusion, I wish to add that every copy sold helps towards the erection of Battlefield Memorials to be placed in France and Flanders.
T. O. MARDEN, Major-General. April 1920.
I. MOBILIZATION AND MOVE TO FRANCE 1
II. BATTLE OF THE AISNE 3
III. MOVE TO THE NORTH AND FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES 6
IV. ARMENTIERES 10
V. YPRES SALIENT 13
VI. THE SOMME 20
VII. LOOS SALIENT 28
VIII. CAMBRAI 35
IX. GERMAN OFFENSIVE OF MARCH 1918 44
X. YPRES SALIENT AGAIN 53
XI. THE ALLIED OFFENSIVE IN THE SOUTH 58
XII. THE MARCH TO THE RHINE AND OCCUPATION OF GERMANY 76
I. BATTLE CASUALTIES 81
II. V.C.s WON BY THE DIVISION 82
III. DIARY 85
IV. ORDERS OF BATTLE ON MOBILIZATION AND ON 11th NOVEMBER 1918 102
V. CHANGES IN COMMANDS AND STAFFS 109
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE 6th DIVISION
MOBILIZATION AND MOVE TO FRANCE
The Division mobilized with its Headquarters at Cork—two brigades in Ireland, namely, the 16th Infantry Brigade at Fermoy, and the 17th Infantry Brigade at Cork, and one Infantry Brigade—the 18th—at Lichfield. Divisional troops mobilized in Ireland. The order for mobilization was received at 10 p.m. on the 4th August 1914.
On the 15th August units mobilized in Ireland commenced embarkation at Cork and Queenstown for England, and the Division was concentrated in camps in the neighbourhood of Cambridge and Newmarket by the 18th August.
The period from the 18th August to the 7th September was one of hard training. Those who were with the Division at that time will also remember, with gratitude, the many kindnesses shown them by the people of Cambridge; the canteens and recreation rooms instituted for the men, and the hospitality shown by colleges and individuals to the officers. They will remember, too, their growing impatience to get out, and their increasing fear that the Division would arrive too late.
On the 7th September, however, entrainment for Southampton commenced, and on the 9th the first troops of the Division disembarked at St. Nazaire.
From St. Nazaire a long train journey, which the novelty of the experience robbed of its tediousness, took the Division a short distance east of Paris, where it concentrated in billets in the area Coulommiers—Mortcerf—Marles—Chaume by the 12th September.
BATTLE OF THE AISNE
The period 13th to 19th September was spent in the march to the Aisne, where the Division arrived at a time when a certain amount of anxiety was felt by the Higher Command. The 5th French Army on the right, the British Army in the centre, and the 6th French Army under General Maunoury on the left, had pushed the Germans back across the Marne, and on the 14th September the British troops had crossed the Aisne on the front Soissons-Bourg—the I Corps at Bourg, the II Corps at Vailly and Missy, and the III at Venizel. The French right attack from the direction of Rheims and the British attack by the I Corps had progressed much faster than the left, and had reached the heights on the line Craonne-Troyon, astride the famous Chemin des Dames. These were now the objective of fierce attacks by the Germans, and the 6th Division, which had been allotted originally to the III Corps, was put into General Reserve instead, only the artillery joining the III Corps. The units of the I Corps were very tired and weakened after the big retreat from Mons and the subsequent hard fighting on the Marne and Aisne, so immediately on its arrival the 18th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. W. N. Congreve, V.C.) was ordered to relieve the 2nd Infantry Brigade on the right of the British line. The front taken over ran diagonally from north-east to south-west along the high ground just south of the Chemin des Dames to the north and north-east of Troyon. The East Yorks on the left relieved in daylight on the 19th September the D.L.I., and the West Yorks during the night of the 19/20th September. The West Yorks had two companies in front trenches, one company echeloned in right rear and one company in support. The Sherwood Foresters were in reserve.
At dawn on the 20th September, the enemy delivered a heavy attack on the I Corps and on the French left, driving in the Tirailleurs d'Afrique and turning the flank of the West Yorks. The echeloned company formed front to the flank, and the supporting company followed suit. The Germans annihilated the right front company, and, using the white flag ruse, apparently captured some of the next company. Major Ingles, collecting a proportion of the front companies, withdrew a short distance and counter-attacked, but was unsuccessful and lost his life in this gallant endeavour. At about 1 p.m. a counter-attack was delivered by the Sherwood Foresters, who were in Brigade Reserve, the support company of the West Yorks, under Lt.-Col. Towsey, and a squadron of the 18th Hussars from Paissy. These, advancing over the perfectly open ground, recaptured the trenches and gallantly held them against further attacks. In this affair the West Yorks suffered casualties amounting approximately to 15 officers and 600 other ranks, the Sherwood Foresters also losing 12 officers and 180 other ranks. The temporary loss of the trenches by the West Yorks exposed the trenches of the D.L.I, to enfilade machine-gun fire, from which they had considerable casualties, including Majors Mander and Robb. This was the only serious fighting in which the Division was engaged, but a certain amount of trouble was caused by the arrival of guns from Antwerp which fired "Black Marias," and the enfilade gun and machine-gun fire to which portions of the main line lent themselves.
On the 21st September the 17th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. W. R. B. Doran) relieved the 6th Infantry Brigade and the 4th Guards Brigade on the front Fort de Metz-La Cour de Soupir, and held the portion without much incident till 2nd October, when they were withdrawn into Corps Reserve.
The 16th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. E. C. Ingouville-Williams) relieved the 7th and 9th Infantry Brigades to the north-east of Vailly on the 21st/22nd September, and remained in trenches until 12th October, some time after the rest of the Division had gone north. They received the thanks of the II Corps for their soldierly conduct. The divisional artillery (Brig.-Gen. W. H. L. Paget) was in support of the 5th Division opposite Missy, but only the 2nd Brigade was engaged. It had already been re-organized since mobilization by the inclusion, in each of 12th, 24th and 38th Brigades, of a battery of 4.5-in. howitzers.
The Battle of the Aisne marked the commencement of trench warfare, and the Royal Engineers (Lt.-Col. G. C. Kemp, C.R.E.) were employed to some extent in wiring at night.
MOVE TO THE NORTH AND FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
The diminishing pressure of the Germans on the Aisne had made it evident that an attempt by them to reach the Channel ports would be made very soon. This would best be frustrated by an outflanking movement of the Allies to the north, with the ultimate aim of joining hands with the Belgian Army at that time holding Antwerp. Sir John French was most anxious to place the British Army in its original position on the left of the French, as it was based on Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk.
The II British Corps was the first to move from the Aisne and prolonged the French line towards La Bassee; the I and III Corps extending inwards to relieve it. Next followed the III Corps, relieved by the French and destined to take its place north of the II Corps towards Bailleul.
The Cavalry Corps advanced north of the III Corps towards Kemmel, and at a later date the I Corps, handing over to the French, was moved towards Ypres, while the 7th Division, just arrived in France, was directed on Menin.
The III Corps consisted of the 4th and 6th Divisions under Lt.-Gen. Pulteney. The period 6th to 9th October was occupied in the march to the entraining station near Compiegne. The Division detrained at St. Omer on 10th October, and was joined by the 19th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. Hon. F. Gordon), which remained with it until 31st May 1915. The battalions composing this brigade were 2nd R.W.F., 1st Cameronians, 1st Middlesex, 2nd A. and S. Highlanders. The 5th Cameronians were added on 19th November 1914.
On the 12th October the Division marched to Hazebrouck, where it covered the detrainment of the 4th Division and came into touch with the enemy. The latter, consisting of two Cavalry Divisions with some Jaeger (Rifle) Battalions, and at least one Division of the XIX Corps, were fighting a rearguard action until such time as they should be reinforced. The character of the advance may be illustrated by an incident on the 14th October, when a platoon of the 1st R.F. (of the Reserve Brigade) was detailed to rescue General Keir's car, which had run into snipers near Merris. Fortunately the G.O.C. was not in it. The reinforcement by the enemy occurred on the 20th October, on which date began the Battle of Ypres-Armentieres, generally called the First Battle of Ypres. As far as the Division was concerned this took place on the western portion of the ridge between Armentieres and Lille, and resulted in the Division being forced back from the line Preniesques-Radinghem (almost on top of the ridge) to the low ground Rue du Bois-La Boutillerie after very fierce continuous fighting from 20th to 31st October, in which the Division suffered nearly 4,000 casualties. To revert, on 13th October the III Corps advanced with the 4th Division on the left and the 6th Division on the right. An action took place on the line of the Meteren Brook, commencing at 1 p.m. and continuing till dark, when the 17th and 18th Infantry Brigades had captured Meteren and Bailleul with about 400 casualties. Pushing forward, the 17th Infantry Brigade crossed the River Lys at Bac St. Maur, and the 18th Infantry Brigade at Sailly on the night 15/16th October, and approached on the 17th the ridge west of Lille, where the enemy were reported to be entrenched. The 16th Infantry Brigade now rejoined the Division from the Aisne, and on the 18th October a reconnaissance in force was ordered, which was brilliantly carried out. The Buffs and Y. and L. on the right captured Radinghem without much opposition, and advanced across a small plateau, 300 yards in width, towards the woods in which stands the Chateau de Flandres. They here came under a heavy cross-fire of machine-guns and shrapnel, and were counter-attacked and driven back. The situation, however, was saved by Major Bayley's company of the Y. and L., which had worked round on the left and threatened the flank of the counter-attack, which thereon withdrew. The Y. and L. suffered considerable casualties in this little action—Major Robertson being killed. Meanwhile the 18th Infantry Brigade had captured Ennetieres and the south end of Capinghem, while the 17th Infantry Brigade reached Premesques, but was unable to take Perenchies. The 4th Division had not been able to cross the Lys north of Armentieres, which necessitated the 17th Infantry Brigade throwing back its flank to l'Epinette. On the 19th October the Division entrenched on the line it had won. To the right were French cavalry and cyclists, covering the gap between the right of the III Corps and the left of the I Corps near Aubers. The advance from Hazebrouck to the ridge had occupied six days, and cost the Division some 750 casualties.
On the morning of the 20th October the Germans attacked very heavily on the whole front. Fighting on a very extended front (five miles) and with very little in hand, the Division was soon in difficulties, particularly on the exposed left flank, where the Leinsters had their three left companies quickly driven in, and the situation at midday was critical. One company with the machine-guns was able to hold on until the afternoon at Mont de Premesques, and to withdraw under cover of darkness, having inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. Meanwhile units of other brigades were putting up a gallant fight against great odds, each unit generally with one or both flanks unsupported. At Ennetieres, which formed rather a salient, the Sherwood Foresters held out all day, but were attacked at dusk by three battalions and practically annihilated or captured, only the CO., Adjutant, Q.M. and 250 other ranks remaining the next day.
The Buffs, after a splendid fight, were driven out of Radinghem, and by night the Division was practically back on the line which it was to hold for the next few months, and on which the German offensive of 1918 still found the British. Continuous unsuccessful attempts to break through occurred till 31st October, when trench warfare set in. Notable among these was the attack on the K.S.L.I. and Y. and L. on the 23rd October, when 300 enemy dead were left in front of our trenches; on the 18th Infantry Brigade on the night of the 27/28th October, when the enemy captured the line, but was driven out by a counter-attack, in which the East Yorks specially distinguished themselves; and on the night of the 29/30th October, when the 19th Infantry Brigade lost some trenches, but counter-attacked successfully, and counted 200 German dead. The incident of Cpl. Forward, 1st The Buffs, is typical of the fierce fighting. On 30th October, when the O.C. machine-guns of The Buffs and all the team had been killed or wounded, this gallant N.C.O. continued to fire his gun until eventually wounded in five places, when he crawled back to report the situation. He was rewarded with the D.C.M. During the whole period, 20th to 30th October, the guns were woefully short of ammunition, and consequently a greater strain was thrown on the infantry.
Active fighting now died away on this front, but its place was taken by constant shelling and the deadly sniping which claimed so many victims at this time. The weather during November and December was truly appalling. All trenches were knee-deep and more in mud and water, and it is on record that the B.G.C., 19th Infantry Brigade, had his boots sucked off by the mud and went round trenches without them. Parapets would not stand and were so flimsy that many men were shot through them. But the weather eventually improved, material for revetment began to appear, and by the commencement of 1915 it was possible to move in the trenches in comparative safety.
The next few months were uneventful ones, the only incidents worthy of remark being a visit from the King on the 2nd December; a minor operation by the North Staffordshire Regiment on the 12th March, resulting in the inclusion in our line of the unsavoury Epinette Salient; the sudden move of the 16th Infantry Brigade to Vlamertinghe at the time of the enemy's attack at St. Eloi in the middle of March, and a little mining and counter-mining on the Frelinghien and Le Touquet fronts in May. The minor operation at l'Epinette was a very well-planned night affair, whereby the 17th Infantry Brigade advanced their line 200-300 yards on a frontage of half a mile. It was carried out by the 1st Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment and 12th Field Company, and Sir H. Smith-Dorrien (Army Commander), in congratulating the regiment, mentioned particularly Lieuts. Pope and Gordon for fine leading. But if there was no heavy fighting, the trench casualties from sniping and enemy shell-fire were quite considerable (see Appendix). We had practically no artillery ammunition with which to worry the enemy, as the following extract from the Divisional War Diary shows:—
24th April 1915.—"In view of the fighting in progress in the north (Second Battle of Ypres) the Corps Commander allots an extra ten rounds of shrapnel per gun for 18-pounders with a view to making a demonstration by fire to hold the enemy in front of us." Amusing reading in 1919!
The Division continued to hold a quiet but very extended front till the end of May, receiving a succession of units from new Divisions to serve their apprenticeship to trench warfare.
Amongst our visitors, during this period, were units of the 9th Division, and some of those who have read Ian Hay's The First Hundred Thousand will have recognized in it a description of a part of the trenches of the 19th Infantry Brigade.
During this period the four brigades each received a fifth Territorial Battalion—the Queen's Westminsters joining on the 11th November and being allotted to the 18th Infantry Brigade; the 5th Scottish Rifles, who went to the 19th Infantry Brigade, joining on the 19th November; the 2nd Battalion London Regiment joining the 17th Infantry Brigade in February, and the 5th Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment the 16th Infantry Brigade on the 15th of that month. The 38th Field Company left the Division on the 9th April, and on the 21st December 1914 the 1st London Field Company, later the 509th, began its long connection with the 6th Division. The Division lost its squadron of the 19th Hussars, receiving in its place "C" squadron of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry.
It was during the sojourn in Armentieres that the "Fancies," without mention of whom no history of the Division would be complete, came into being. With the "Follies," the 4th Division troupe, formed a few weeks before them, also in Armentieres, they were the forerunners of the Divisional theatrical troupes which subsequently became universal.
At Armentieres also took place the first 6th Divisional Horse Show, a highly successful two-day show—the first of its kind held in the B.E.F.
On the 27th May 1915 began the relief of the Division by the 27th Division, and on the following days its move northwards to join the newly formed VI Corps. Major-Gen. Sir John Keir left on the 27th to take up command of the new corps, taking with him—as B.G., R.A.—Brig.-Gen. W. H. L. Paget.
Major-Gen. W. N. Congreve, V.C., from the 18th Infantry Brigade, succeeded Sir John Keir in command of the Division; Brig.-Gen. Humphreys taking the appointment of C.R.A.
On the night of the 31st May/1st June the Division took over its new front in the Ypres Salient, commencing its long tour in that unsavoury region, and trench casualties almost doubled immediately. It continued in the Salient up to the end of July 1916, with three periods of rest, each of about a month's duration: the first spent in the neighbourhood of Houtkerque and Poperinghe, in November and December 1915; the second in the Houtkerque-Wormhoudt area, with one brigade at a time back at Calais from mid-March to mid-April 1916; and the third again in the Houtkerque-Wormhoudt area from mid-June to mid-July 1916. The nature of these rests has been humorously but not untruthfully portrayed in the columns of Punch; the author of "At the Front" in that paper having been an officer in the K.S.L.I.
The line was just hardening after the Second Battle of Ypres when the Division moved up to the Salient, and no active operations took place on the actual front taken over by the Division, but its artillery was called upon to assist its neighbours on either flank, i.e. on the 16th June when the 3rd Division attacked Bellewarde Farm north-west of Hooge; on the 22nd June when the 42nd Infantry Brigade of the 14th Division attempted a small operation, and on the 6th July when the 4th Division carried out a successful minor operation near Pilkem.
On the 30th July the 14th Division was attacked at Hooge and driven back to Sanctuary and Zouave Woods. Their counter-attacks, gallantly delivered, but under the circumstances giving very little prospect of success, failed, and for a time the situation was critical. The 16th Infantry Brigade was moved up to the area about Goldfish Chateau (half-mile north-west of Ypres) as a precautionary measure, and was at one time in danger of being thrown in to make a hasty counter-attack. Fortunately this proved unnecessary, and on the 31st July the Corps Commander decided to relieve the whole Division, and to allot to it the task of restoring the line at Hooge in a carefully prepared attack.
The relief was carried out on the 2nd and 3rd August 1915, and on the 6th the Division took over its front of attack, and the preparatory bombardment was commenced. This bombardment was very carefully planned, carried out with great thoroughness and accuracy, and was one of the most effective and severe that had, up to that time, been put down by the British. The artillery co-operation in the attack was on a similar scale and equally effective, except so far as counter-battery work against enemy artillery to the south was concerned, and the attack owed much of its success to the assistance it received from the artillery. To this assistance two French batteries of "75's," lent by the 36th French Corps, ably contributed.
The attack was launched on the 9th August at 3.15 a.m. on a front of about 1,000 yards—the 18th Infantry Brigade (Lt.-Col. F. W. Towsey) attacking on the right with the 2nd D.L.I. in front line and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters in support, the 16th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. C. Nicholson) on the left, with the 1st K.S.L.I. and the 2nd Y. and L. Regiment in front line, and the 1st The Buffs in support.
The attack was completely successful; all objectives were quickly gained. A very large number of German dead were counted in the recaptured position, and a considerable number of prisoners taken. The captured position was subjected to a very heavy bombardment, especially on the right; principally by guns firing from the south-east, not opposite the corps front, which took the new line in flank and often in reverse. The troops of the 18th Infantry Brigade held on to their positions with their usual gallantry and determination, in spite of very heavy casualties. The 2nd D.L.I. particularly distinguished themselves by the tenacity they displayed, and they and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters and 1st East Yorkshire Regiment suffered severely. In face of the heavy shelling it was found impossible on the right to establish a line on the final objective, where all the former trenches had been entirely obliterated. The advanced troops had accordingly to be withdrawn on this flank, but some time after this withdrawal was thought to have been completed a message was received from a Lance-Corporal of the 2nd D.L.I. to the effect that he was established in the stables of the chateau with a few men, and asking that rations and ammunition might be sent up to them. On the left not only was all the ground lost on the 30th July regained, but an important spur north of the Menin Road, which had hitherto been in German occupation, was included in the final position consolidated. Three officers and 124 other ranks were taken prisoners, and over 500 of the enemy were counted dead on the captured ground. The gallant work of the R.E. in wiring the position was specially mentioned in the accounts from G.H.Q. which appeared in the papers.
The attack at Hooge was particularly interesting, as it was the first attempt made to follow the barrage really closely. The barrage did not, however, "creep" up to the German front line, but was placed directly on it at once at zero and lifted back from there, the 6-in. howitzers lifting slightly before the Field Artillery. The infantry lay out as close to the barrage as possible before zero, and moved in on time as soon as the Field Artillery barrage lifted. The attack was looked upon for some time as a model of really close co-operation between infantry and artillery.
For this operation, skilfully planned and most gallantly and successfully carried out, the Division received great praise. The casualties were 70 officers and 1,700 other ranks. (A very full account of this operation can be found in the fourth volume of The Great World War, published by the Gresham Publishing Company, Limited.)
Other incidents of the tour in the Salient were the gallant voluntary assistance rendered on the 6th July 1915 by Lieut. Smith, 1st North Staffords (died of wounds), with his grenadier party to a post of the 41st Brigade which was being heavily attacked, and which brought him the thanks of General Allenby, commanding V Corps; the enemy gas attack of 19th December 1915, when no actual attack was launched against the Division, and the minor operations near Turco Farm and Morteldje Estaminet on 19th-22nd April 1916. Certain trenches, D20 and 21 and Willow Walk, were much overlooked by High Command Redoubt, some 150 yards away. The Germans throughout the 19th April heavily bombarded these trenches, and succeeded in seizing them at night. One company 8th Bedfords and two companies Y. and L. delivered a counter-attack in the early hours of 20th April, but could not retake the position. The Brigadier-General therefore decided to bombard them steadily throughout the 21st, and recapture them on the night 21st/22nd April with three companies of the K.S.L.I., then in Brigade Reserve. This was brilliantly accomplished in spite of the very heavy going, and the line firmly re-established, but with the loss of Lt.-Col. Luard, commanding K.S.L.I., who died of wounds. It was found that the enemy had dug good new trenches in several places, and equipped them with steel loop-hole plates, and these were occupied thankfully by our men. The general state of the trenches, commanded as they were by the enemy's positions, in the water-logged Ypres Salient during the winter of 1915-1916 defies description, and all praise must be given to the regimental officers and men for their hard work and cheerfulness under most depressing conditions.
Mention must be made of the thirty-five-mile march to Croix Dubac to assist in an extensive raid by the Anzac Corps, made by the 24th Brigade, R.F.A., at the shortest notice. The brigade was away ten days.
During this period the principal change which occurred in the Order of Battle of the Division was the arrival of the 71st Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. M. Shewen) instead of the 17th Infantry Brigade, which took the place of the former in the 24th Division. Consequent on this was a redistribution of battalions to brigades—the 1st Leicestershire Regiment, from the 16th Infantry Brigade, and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, from the 18th Infantry Brigade, being transferred to the 71st Infantry Brigade in exchange for the 8th Bedfordshire Regiment and the 11th Essex Regiment respectively. These exchanges took place—the former on the 18th November 1915, the latter on the 28th October 1915. On 1st April the 11th Leicestershire Regiment (Pioneers) joined from the United Kingdom.
On the 11th June the 5th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment left the Division, and on 11th October the 2nd London Regiment; on the 26th November the 1st East Yorkshire Regiment was transferred to the 1st Division, and on the 28th November the Queen's Westminsters left to join the 56th Division, the 14th D.L.I. arriving the same day to take their place in the 18th Infantry Brigade. On the 13th October the 2/2nd West Riding (later the 459th) Field Company joined. Machine-gun companies took their place—the 18th M.G.C. in January, the 16th M.G.C. in February, and the 71st M.G.C. in March 1916. Medium T.M.s came into being in May 1916, and L.T.M.s in August 1916. The cyclist company and the squadron of Northamptonshire Yeomanry also left during this period on becoming Corps troops.
The changes in the Divisional Artillery were numerous. On 12th May the 12th Brigade, R.F.A., was broken up—the 87th Battery going to the 2nd Brigade, and the 43rd Battery to the 24th Brigade; each battery giving one section to form "D" Battery, 38th Brigade, which latter replaced the 34th Battery transferred on 15th February to a T.F. Division. The 86th Battery had previously been transferred from the 12th Brigade, R.F.A., to another Division. The 38th Brigade later became an Army Brigade, R.F.A.
On the 14th November 1915 Major-Gen. C. Ross, D.S.O., assumed command of the Division, on the appointment of Major-Gen. W. N. Congreve, V.C., to the command of the XIII Corps. Lt.-Col. J. M. Shea (now Major-Gen. Sir J. M. Shea, K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O.) was succeeded as G.S.O.1 on the 5th July 1915 by Lt.-Col. G. F. Boyd, D.S.O., D.C.M., who finished the war as Major-General commanding the 46th Division. On the 29th February 1916 Major W. E. Ironside, who has since reached the position of Major-General commanding the Allied Forces at Archangel, was succeeded as G.S.O.2 by Major L. P. Evans of the Black Watch, who subsequently, after winning the V.C. as a Battalion Commander, finished the War in command of an Infantry Brigade.
A history of the Division would hardly be complete without a short reference to "The Admiral." Many of those who knew and liked him well by that name probably never knew him by any other. Lieut. Smith was an owner driver in charge of a convoy of 'buses with the Royal Naval Division at Antwerp, whence he escaped to France. In October 1914 he seized the opportunity of an officer requiring to be taken up to join his unit, to make his way with his car to the front. Arrived there he contrived to get himself attached to the 6th Division Headquarters, remaining with them until he was reported missing on the 10th June 1916. Consumed with a good healthy hatred of the enemy, and keen to be of assistance in any way that he could, he devoted the greater part of the time he was with the Division to experimenting with bullet-proof shields on wheels to be propelled by manpower, a sort of embryonic tank. His ambition was himself to take the first of these into action. At last he was offered an opportunity of co-operating with a small 3-man pattern in a minor raid near Forward Cottage. What success he might have achieved it is impossible to say, as in his eagerness he preceded the shield by several yards to show the crew the way and was hit in the neck by a splinter from a bomb. The name of Admiral's Road, given to the road past Crossroads Farm and Forward Cottage, commemorates the incident of which it was the scene. Later "The Admiral" turned his attention to Bangalore torpedoes, in the use of which he trained the unauthorised party which had long existed under the name of the 6th Division Shield Party. With them he took part in many raids and minor enterprises, one of which earned him the D.S.O. On the 10th June he was reported missing from a patrol of the 9th Norfolk Regiment, and nothing has since been heard of him. For nearly two years he contrived to serve voluntarily with the Division, nobody quite knows in what capacity or by what authority, and during that time he endeared himself to all by his unfailing good nature and cheeriness, his whole-hearted enthusiasm and his lack of fear.
It may here be mentioned that during its last "rest" the Division carried out very hard training over dummy trenches for an attack on the Pilkem Ridge, in conjunction with the Guards. This attack was abandoned when the Division moved to the Somme, but it formed the basis of the very successful attack delivered by the Guards and Welsh Divisions in July 1917.
At the end of July the Division was at last relieved from the Salient, where it had suffered nearly 11,000 casualties during its thirteen months' sojourn, and went south by train to join the Fifth Army.
The greater part of August was spent on the Ancre, on the front opposite Beaumont-Hamel, making preparations for an attack which was eventually abandoned for a time.
After a short period in reserve the Division was moved, between 6th and 8th September, to join the XIV Corps, Fourth Army (Lt.-Gen. Lord Cavan), to which corps it had for some time belonged up north. The XIV Corps was the right corps of the British attack, and had its right on the north bank of the Somme. In a succession of hard-fought battles the Fourth Army (Gen. Sir H. S. Rawlinson) had pushed the Germans back a considerable distance; units were feeling the strain badly, and fresh troops were needed.
On 9th September a successful attack had given us Ginchy and Leuze Wood, but the Germans were holding very strongly the high ground which lies in the form of a horseshoe between the above-named points, and which dominates the country for some distance to the south. The trenches followed the shape of the spur roughly at the back end of the horseshoe, and covered access was given to them by a sunken road leading back to the deep valley which runs north from Combles.
At the top of the spur, just south of the railway and communicating with the sunken road, was a four-sided trench in the form of a parallelogram of some 300 yards by 150 yards, called by us the Quadrilateral.
It was this strong point and the adjoining trenches which had held up the advance of the Fourth Army on the 9th September, and it was the first task of the 6th Division to obliterate the horseshoe and straighten the line preparatory to a general attack on the 15th September.
On 12th September attacks by the 56th Division on the south and the Guards on the north reduced the neck of the horseshoe, or pocket, to about 500 yards, but could not close it. The situation within the horseshoe was undefined, and the exact positions of the Quadrilateral and other trenches were not known, owing to the bad flying weather. Even our own positions were in doubt, as almost every vestige of roads, railways and even villages had disappeared under the continuous bombardments.
On night 11/12th September the 71st Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. J. F. Edwards) relieved part of the Guards Division and the 16th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. W. L. Osborn), part of the 56th Division, with orders on the 13th September to straighten the line by capturing the Quadrilateral. The 71st Infantry Brigade attacked with the Foresters north of the railway and 9th Suffolk Regiment south of the railway, while the 8th Bedford Regiment, who were close to the Quadrilateral on the north-east of the Leuze Wood, co-operated by bombing up the trench towards it. The artillery co-operation was weak, observation being difficult, and though the troops advanced with the greatest gallantry the northern attack could only make 500 yards, and the southern attack of the 71st Infantry Brigade still less, while casualties from the enemy artillery and machine-gun fire were very large.
A second attack at 6 p.m. the same day succeeded in bringing our line to about 250 yards from the Strong Point, and in getting touch on the right with the 16th Infantry Brigade.
Preparations were now made to include the Quadrilateral in the general attack of the 15th September instead of making it a subsidiary operation—a situation which recurred two years later almost to a day in the attack on Holnon Village, and which had similar results.
The British objective for the 15th September was Gueudecourt-Flers-Lesboeufs-Morval—the XIV Corps (Guards and 6th Division) to capture the two latter. It was the first occasion on which tanks were employed, and as far as the Division was concerned was a failure, for of the three allotted to the 6th Division two broke down before starting, and the third, moving off in accordance with orders long before the infantry, had its periscope shot off, its peep-holes blinded, was riddled by armour-piercing bullets, and had to come back without achieving anything. This again found a parallel in the attack on the Quadrilateral, near St. Quentin, on 18th September 1918, when the tanks were ineffective.
To facilitate the movement of the tanks a gap of about 200 yards had been left in the creeping barrage. This gap unfortunately coincided with the strongest point of the Quadrilateral. The barrage, moreover, had passed over the German trenches by the time the infantry advanced; the latter had, consequently, to attack up the glacis-like slopes without any artillery support except the bombardment. This, owing to the enemy's trenches not having been accurately located, was ineffective.
The 16th Infantry Brigade attacked on a battalion front—one company of the Bedfords bombing up the trench from Leuze Wood, and the remainder over the open to the north against the south-west face. The Buffs and York and Lancasters supported the attack, but in spite of the greatest gallantry could not take the Strong Point.
The 1st Leicesters and the Norfolks, passing through the entrenched Foresters and Suffolks, attacked the Quadrilateral from the north-west with equal drive, but they too failed. Some ground, however, was made, and by 10 a.m. the 16th Infantry Brigade on the south, and the 71st Infantry Brigade on the north, were digging in close to the enemy's wire and trenches.
During the day constant reports arrived that the Guards had gained their objectives, and that tanks and cheering men were moving through Lesboeufs. It was not until the following morning that this report was proved to be incorrect, and that it was Flers which had been captured. In the meantime it appeared to the Divisional G.O.C. (General Ross) that the prospect of a break-through on a large scale was prejudiced solely by the repulse of the 6th Division. He therefore ordered a night attack on the flanks of the Quadrilateral to be executed by two battalions of the 18th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. R. J. Bridgford). These battalions, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry and the 11th Essex, moved round after dark and attacked; the former from the north, the latter from the south-east to the left of the 16th Infantry Brigade. The 11th Essex lost direction, while the 2nd D.L.I. bombed down a trench only to find that it did not lead into the Strong Point. Except on the 6th Divisional front and at High Wood, which was captured during the night, the whole line had advanced, and it was a bitter blow to the Division to think that their sacrifices had been in vain.
On the night of the 16/17th September the 18th Infantry Brigade relieved the sorely-tried 71st Infantry Brigade, and fresh preparations were made for an attack, on the 18th, of the Quadrilateral, which had been strongly reinforced by the enemy through the sunken road.
The K.S.L.I. dug themselves in with their left on the railway, so as to assault the south-west face of the Strong Point. The weather having cleared, the trenches were now carefully located from the air and heavily bombarded, and on the 18th September, under both a stationary and creeping barrage, and with the York and Lancasters bombing up the trench from Leuze Wood, and the 18th Infantry Brigade (West Yorks and 14th Durham Light Infantry) attacking the north-west face and the trench running north from the Quadrilateral, this redoubtable Strong Point was at last captured with comparatively small loss after what must be conceded as a magnificent defence, and which had cost the Division upwards of 3,500 casualties. Nine machine-guns and 160 unwounded prisoners were taken in the Quadrilateral and many Germans killed.
The Quadrilateral once captured, the advance was carried forward for 1,000 yards to within half a mile of Morval and Lesboeufs. These, which were the original objectives on the 13th September, were now to be attacked on the 25th September. Relieved for rest on the 16th, the Division came in again on 21st September, and dug good assembly trenches. The most forward portion of the line taken over by the Division consisted of 250 yards of one of the main German trenches, which was held by the Germans on both flanks for some distance. Fortunately we were in possession of the communication trench leading up to it, and during the three nights after taking over considerable excitement and amusement were caused by the occasional arrival of German ration parties at our part of the trench, having failed to hit off the part occupied by their own troops. Uttering many guttural oaths these fled for their lives, speeded up by our machine and Lewis guns. A few prisoners were captured in this way, and some valuable information obtained. Spurred on apparently by the loss of their rations, the Germans attacked on the 24th September both flanks of this trench under cover of a mist, but were driven back without reaching it, except on the extreme right. Here they entered a bombing post, but were ejected, leaving one officer and twelve other ranks dead and an unwounded prisoner, while our casualties were practically nil.
The objective allotted to the Division for the 25th September was the ground between the north end of Morval (attacked by 5th Division) and the road which passes through the centre of Lesboeufs. At 12.35 p.m. the attack was launched—the 16th Infantry Brigade on the right gaining the first objective with the Buffs, and the final objective with K.S.L.I. and the Y. and L. On the left the 2nd D.L.I. and the Essex captured the first objective, and the West Yorks and two companies 14th D.L.I. the final objective. This was one of the most successful battles on the Somme—thanks to good weather and observation, a carefully arranged creeping barrage, and a sound preliminary bombardment.
The Division captured over 500 prisoners, 6 machine-guns, and 4 heavy trench-mortars. Tanks were not used. We here turned the tables on the 52nd Division, 26th Reserve Corps, our old opponents at Ypres, where the ground was all in their favour and where they had proved troublesome antagonists.
After consolidating its ground the Division was relieved by the 20th Division on 30th September, and the long struggle began for the possession of the high ground overlooking the Bapaume-Le Transloy Road.
On 7th October the XIV Corps (20th and 56th Divisions) attacked with only partial success, and the 6th Division was brought in again on night 8/9th October for a general attack on the 12th October. The enemy had dug a series of trenches named by us Rainbow—Cloudy—Misty—Zenith, etc., a portion of which had been captured by us, making a somewhat pronounced salient. All three brigades were in the line, with one battalion in front trenches, the 71st Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. E. Feetham) being in the salient, with the 16th Infantry Brigade on the right and the 18th Infantry Brigade on the left. The objective of the attack of the 12th October was the line of trenches running north from Le Transloy.
At 2.5 p.m. the flank brigades attacked, but with only partial success. The failure to make ground, which was general all along the British front, was attributed to want of surprise, as we had bombarded the position for two days, and always attacked in the early afternoon. Further, the ground was very heavy and observation extremely bad. The Germans were fresh troops, and fought well. Perhaps more than anything it was due to the effect of their machine-gun fire. Taught by our creeping barrage that machine-guns in the front line were useless, the enemy had drawn them across the valley towards the road, and caught our advance over the brow of the rise with accurate distant machine-gun fire.
Changing the time of zero, the attack was renewed at 5.35 a.m. on the 15th October, the 18th Infantry Brigade on the left (2nd D.L.I. and 11th Essex) attempting to seize those portions of Cloudy and Mild trenches still held by the enemy, while the Sherwood Foresters on their right attacked some gun pits which lay about 200 yards in front of their line. This latter attack succeeded, but with the great loss of Colonel Hobbs, O.C. The Foresters, who died of his wounds. The left attack made a little ground. A final attempt to push forward the line was made on the 18th October by the 9th Norfolks, but was only partially successful.
On 20th October the Division (less artillery) was relieved and moved to the First Army, going into Corps Reserve of the I Corps, with Divisional Headquarters at Bethune and the units in the town and surrounding area.
The artillery of the Division (Brig.-Gen. E. S. Cleeve, C.R.A.) had first come into action on the Somme on the 3rd September, supporting the attack of the 16th Division on Guillemont. It was grouped and re-grouped in accordance with the requirements of the situation, but never as a whole covered the operations of the Division.
On the 9th November it was withdrawn and marched to First Army area, where for about a month it covered the 56th Division, XI Corps, with 6th D.A.H.Q. at La Gorgue, rejoining the Division in I Corps in December. Brig.-Gen. E. F. Delaforce replaced Brig.-Gen. Cleeve as C.R.A. on 25th October.
The Division had taken part as a whole in three general attacks on the Somme (15th and 25th September and 12th October), and had also carried out subordinate operations on 13th and 18th September and 18th October.
It had suffered casualties amounting to 277 officers and 6,640 other ranks, and had well earned a rest.
On 25th November the Division took over the La Bassee sector, which included the famous Givenchy Ridge and Cuinchy Brickstacks. After about a month it side-stepped to the Cambrin-Hohenzollern Quarries front of about 5,500 yards, where it remained until the 28th February 1917. All this front had a most evil repute, but so exhausted was the enemy by the Somme fighting that this four months' trench sojourn proved the quietest the Division ever experienced, except before the storm of March 1918, and the casualties would have been far fewer had it not been for several raids carried out by us.
The machine-guns of the Division were strengthened on 15th December by the arrival of the 192nd M.G. Company, and on 2nd January 1917 Lt.-Col. G. F. B. Goldney, D.S.O., succeeded Lt.-Col. H. R. S. Christie as C.R.E., the latter having been nearly a year with the Division.
On the 1st March the Division took over a 11,000 yards' front extending north from the Double Crassier at Loos with sectors Loos—14bis—Hulluch—Hohenzollern, all three brigades being in line and a brigade of the 21st Division also which came under the command of G.O.C., 6th Division.
March and the first portion of April were notable for raids and counter-raids, and for considerable artillery and trench-mortar activity, which gave place to more or less continuous fighting consequent on the withdrawal of the enemy opposite the right of the Division after the successful attack by the Canadians at Vimy.
Notice was received on the morning of the 13th April that a withdrawal was contemplated by the enemy opposite part of the Divisional front. The right section of the front was at that time held by the 16th Infantry Brigade, with the 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment on its right. On the 13th April the withdrawal commenced, the enemy being so closely followed up by the York and Lancaster Regiment that by 6.20 p.m. the brigade was able to report the Railway Triangle in our occupation, and the whole of the battalion in the enemy's trenches. Our troops were into the enemy's dug-outs before the candles left by them had burnt out.
The policy laid down for the Division was that the enemy was to be closely followed up wherever he fell back, but that our troops were not to be committed to a serious engagement. In accordance with these instructions the enemy's trenches were subjected to heavy bombardment, with pauses during which patrols were sent forward and occupied as much ground as they could. This policy was maintained for four days, during which the 16th Infantry Brigade pressed the enemy with such vigour, within the limits allowed to it, that he was evidently rushed rather farther back than had been his intention, and began to become apprehensive as to his hold on Hill 70. The opposition stiffened on the 15th April, and on the 16th a counter-attack drove the 1st The Buffs back slightly, but was unsuccessful against the 8th Bedfordshire Regiment on the right. An advanced post of the latter battalion put up a very fine defence and maintained its position. A further attack on this battalion on the following day again failed to shake the defence.
On the 16th April a systematic bombardment of the trenches on Hill 70 was commenced, and authority was given for a slightly greater employment of force. Attacks on the 18th and 19th April, by the 1st K.S.L.I. and the 8th Bedfordshire Regiment, gained some ground and gave us between forty and fifty prisoners.
By this time continuous fighting, under very trying weather conditions, had exhausted the 16th Infantry Brigade. In order to maintain the pressure it became necessary to withdraw battalions from the front of the other brigades and to put them straight in on the offensive front, replacing them by the battalions withdrawn from that front.
An attack by the 14th D.L.I. on the 21st April in conjunction with the left of the 46th Division, who by this time had relieved the 24th on the right of the 6th Division, yielded thirty-five prisoners and two machine-guns, and disposed of a strong machine-gun nest on the Double Crassier Railway which had been holding up our right. Two counter-attacks were repelled, and on the 22nd April the 14th D.L.I. and the 11th Essex Regiment delivered a combined attack. The 14th D.L.I. secured the whole of their objective, with forty-six prisoners and three machine-guns, but the 11th Essex Regiment was unable to gain any ground. The 46th Division had been prevented by uncut wire from co-operating in the attack, with the result that the 14th D.L.I., after enduring a very heavy bombardment with exemplary determination, were eventually sniped and machine-gunned out of the captured line from the houses on their right. Eventually the position stabilized itself, with the enemy in possession of Nash Alley.
During ten days the Division had been engaged in continuous fighting on the front of one brigade, whilst holding with the other two a front of approximately 7,000 yards. Four battalions from other brigades, in addition to its own four, had passed through the hands of the 16th Infantry Brigade which was conducting the fighting. Battalions relieved from the fighting front one night were put straight into the line elsewhere on the following night, and battalions which had already done a long continuous tour in the trenches were relieved one night, put into the fighting front on the following night, and twenty-four hours later had to deliver an attack. The enemy, concerned about the fate of Hill 70, concentrated a very formidable artillery on the narrow front involved, and the bombardments and barrages on the front of attack were of exceptional severity. The extent to which the Division was stretched on the rest of its front is exemplified by two incidents. On one occasion an enemy raid penetrated both our front and support lines without being detected or meeting anyone, and came upon our reserve line by chance at the only place on the front of the brigade concerned where there was one company in that line. At another part of the front it was found, when normal conditions were restored, that in an abandoned part of our front line between two posts, the enemy had actually made himself so much at home that he had established a small dump of rations and bombs.
For the manner in which the Division had followed up and pressed the enemy withdrawal it received the thanks of the Commander-in-Chief.
On the 26th June 1917 the 46th Division was engaged on our right in active operations in the outskirts of Lens. The 2nd Sherwood Foresters and the 9th Norfolk Regiment were placed at the disposal of the 46th Division for these operations. The 9th Norfolk Regiment was not actively engaged, but the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, used in the later stages of the attack, fought with great gallantry and suffered fairly heavily.
On the 25th July the Division was relieved after a continuous tour in the Loos front of just under five months—a period of particularly bitter and severe trench warfare. Trench-mortaring was continuous on both sides on the greater part of the front held, and shelling heavy. The artillery suffered no less severely than the infantry, owing to the very restricted choice of positions and the advantages of the observation enjoyed by the enemy. Raids and counter-raids were numerous. An analysis of the diary shows that during the six months from the end of January to the end of July the Division carried out 30 raids, of which 13 were successful in obtaining their objective and securing prisoners (total for the 13 raids: 54), 11 secured their objective but failed to yield any prisoners, and only 6 definitely failed. During the same period the enemy attempted 21 raids, of which only 4 succeeded in taking prisoners, 5 entered our trenches without securing any prisoners, and 12 were entire failures. Three of the enemy's attempted raids yielded us prisoners, and 4 yielded identifications. The low average of prisoners taken by us in successful raids is attributable to two causes—first the extraordinary precautions taken by the enemy in the latter part of the period to avoid losing prisoners by evacuating his trenches on the slightest alarm or remaining in his dug-outs, and secondly the fierceness engendered in our troops by the severity of the bombardment, and particularly of the trench-mortaring to which they were normally subjected.
A very successful battalion raid by the 1st The Buffs on the 24th June, which yielded 15 prisoners, might have made a better showing if it had not followed closely on the receipt of the mail containing accounts of an enemy bombing raid on Folkestone.
It is invidious to differentiate among so many carefully prepared and gallantly executed enterprises, but a reference to the successful battalion raid of the 11th Essex Regiment on the 24th March, to the raid carried out by the 14th D.L.I. on the 15th June, in the early morning which caught the Germans at breakfast, and particularly to the combined raid by the 2nd D.L.I. and the 11th Essex Regiment on the 28th June, will perhaps be forgiven. The latter was an exceptionally fine performance. It was carried out in connection with the operations of the 46th Division already referred to, by one company from each of the two battalions. Everything possible had been done beforehand to induce the enemy to expect attack on the front of the Division, yet these two companies succeeded in establishing and maintaining themselves for one hour in the enemy's line, though constantly counter-attacked. They inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy, who counter-attacked both over the open and by bombing along the trenches. It was on this occasion that 2/Lieut. F. B. Wearne, late 11th Essex Regiment, won the V.C. Mention ought also to be made of the very gallant repulse of an enemy raid by the 1st K.S.L.I. and the 1st The Buffs on the 7th July. In one post of the 1st K.S.L.I. one wounded Lewis gunner, the only survivor of his post from the enemy bombardment, kept his gun in action and beat off the raiders.
On the 25th July the Division was relieved by the Canadians, with a view to an attack by the latter on Hill 70, and withdrew into rest in the Monchy Breton area with Divisional Headquarters at Ourton.
A feature of this period of rest was the very successful two-day rifle meeting, held on the Monchy-Breton Range.
During the month's rest out of the line Major-Gen. Ross left the Division, being succeeded in command by Major-Gen. T. O. Marden, C.M.G., on the 19th August, and Brig.-Gen. Feetham, C.B., C.M.G., left the 71st Infantry Brigade to assume command of the 39th Division, in command of which he was killed in March 1918.
From the 31st July to the 5th August the 1st Leicestershire Regiment and 9th Norfolk Regiment were away from the Division, lent to the 57th Division to assist in a relief at the time of the gas shelling of Armentieres.
On the 24th to the 27th August the Division was relieving the Canadians on the Hill 70 front. The month spent in that sector was one of hard work for all ranks consolidating the newly won position, but was without important incident.
On the 24th September the Division side-stepped into the Cite St. Emile sector just north of Lens, and commenced preparations for an attack north of Lens, to be carried out in conjunction with the projected attack by the Canadian Corps on Sallaumines Hill. This project was, however, abandoned, and on the 23rd October the Division was withdrawn into rest in the St. Hilaire area, west of Lillers.
Six days later it commenced its march south to the Riencourt area, to join the Third Army for the Battle of Cambrai.
The 11th Leicesters (Pioneers) had gone north to the II Corps, to work on light railway construction near Dickebusch on 2nd July 1917. Their absence was much felt by the Division, and in view of the approaching operations they were welcomed back on 6th November, when they brought with them a letter from G.O.C., II Corps (Lt.-Gen. Jacob) congratulating them on their excellent work.
Before leaving the subject of the tour of the Division in the Loos-Lens front, some reference ought to be made to the successes won during that period by the Division in horse shows. After practically sweeping the board in all events at the I Corps show for which it was eligible to enter, the Division secured seven first and eight second prizes at the First Army show, as well as the cup for the best R.A. turn-out presented by G.O.C., R.A., First Army, and also that for the best R.E. turn-out, presented by the C.E., First Army.
The Divisional Ammunition Column secured prizes for the two best teams of mules, the best single mule, and the best light draught horse.
The general situation on the British Western Front in November 1917, though fairly universally known to-day, may now be outlined, and the hopes and aims which led to the Cambrai offensive be touched on shortly. The prolonged and hard-fought attacks in Flanders by the British, and in other portions of the front by the French, had caused the enemy to concentrate his forces in the threatened sectors, denuding those portions of the line which appeared reasonably safe and quiet. The Cambrai sector was included among the latter, for not only was the ground very open, forbidding to us the unseen concentration of the large forces and masses of heavy artillery which at that period were deemed essential, but also the Hindenburg Line was immensely strong and the trenches so wide that the tanks in use by us could not cross them.
This enemy sector was, therefore, particularly suitable for surprise by us, as it was deemed by the enemy to be unassailable.
The Hindenburg Line ran north-west for six miles from the St. Quentin Canal at Banteux to Havrincourt on the Canal du Nord, where it bent sharply north for four miles to Moeuvres, thus making a pronounced salient. The Commander-in-Chief's plan was to smash the salient, to occupy the high ground overlooking Cambrai—notably the Bourlon Wood Ridge—push cavalry through the gap in order to disorganise communications and the arrival of reinforcements, and to roll up the enemy's defences to the north-west.
The French held considerable forces in the immediate vicinity to exploit successes. It was reckoned that the enemy could not reinforce his front under forty-eight hours. Everything depended in the first instance on successful surprise, and in the second on securing within forty-eight hours the important tactical points within the salient. The difficulties of surprise, which were many and serious, were most successfully overcome, but the enterprise failed eventually because the key points were not seized.
The principal factors operating against success were the limited hours of daylight and the long distances to be traversed both by men and by tanks, which, though vastly improved since 1916, were still very slow. There was also, in the case of securing the high ground west of Cambrai, the canal to be crossed by tanks. While smashing in the enemy's salient we ourselves were making a salient, extending our front, as far as the Third Army was concerned, from a straight 7,000 yards to a curving 15,000 yards, thus affording the enemy a chance of a blow at the sides and hinges of the salient, of which he availed himself to good purpose ten days after our initial attack.
To ensure success the troops which were to undertake operations practised with tanks in back areas, and officers and men went through the operation on a carefully made ground model without being aware what ground it represented. Units were brought up just before the 20th of November, the day of the attack, marching by night and hiding in villages and woods by day. In some cases battalions were quartered in flat canvas erections, looking like ammunition or supply dumps. The 6th Division were fortunate in being in woods and destroyed villages. No unusual activity on ground or in the air was allowed, no guns registered as had been usual, even the Home mails were stopped for a short period, and a screen of the troops which had held the line for some time was kept in front trenches to the last. Under General Byng's initiative the difficulty of tanks crossing the wide Hindenburg Line trenches was overcome by each tank carrying on its brow a huge faggot which it deposited in the trench at its selected crossing-place, and which gave its tail a purchase to enable it to climb the opposite side of the trench. The ground was very suitable for tanks, as it was moderately hard grass land, and the first portion of the attack on much of the front was downhill.
The III Corps (Lt.-Gen. Sir W. Pulteney) was on the right, and consisted of the 12th, 20th, and 6th Divisions, which attacked in the order named. The left corps (IV) consisted of the 51st and 62nd Divisions. These covered the six miles with an average frontage of one and a half miles. The 6th Division attacked on the front Villers Plouich-Beaucamps, with the 71st Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. P. W. Brown) on the left next to the 51st Division, the 16th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. H. A. Walker) on the right next to the 20th Division. These two brigades were to advance about 3,000 yards to the first objective (Ribecourt and spur to south-east of it), and another 1,000 yards to the second objective (support system). The 18th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. G. S. G. Craufurd) was ordered to advance through the 71st Infantry Brigade and secure the third objective about a mile farther on (Premy Chapel Ridge), throwing back a defensive flank towards Flesquieres for the further operations of the 51st Division on its left and securing the flank of the 29th Division on its right. The latter division passing through the right of the 6th Division and the left of the 20th Division, was charged with securing the crossings of the St. Quentin Canal at Marcoing and Masnieres and seizing the high ground at Rumilly, thus facilitating exploitation to the south-east, preventing a concentration against the widely stretched defensive flanks of the III Corps and threatening Cambrai.
The Divisional Artillery was reinforced during the first part of the operations by the 17th Brigade of the 29th Division and the 181st Brigade of the 40th Division, as well as by two R.H.A. Brigades. Batteries moved into position and camouflaged their guns. No registration could, of course, take place, but long practice enabled the gunners to put down a very accurate barrage without this desideratum.
Opposite the Division the Hindenburg Line commenced with an outpost line 750 yards distant on the left and 250 yards on the right. This was out of sight of our front trenches by reason of the curve of the ground. Half a mile behind this came the main system, consisting of two trenches 200 yards apart, the whole guarded by most formidable belts of wire about 150 yards in depth. The interval between outpost and main systems was sown with well-sighted and concealed machine gun positions. A mile farther on, and on the opposite side of the valley for the most part, ran the support system, similar to the main system. One and a half miles farther back again was the reserve system, of which only machine-gun dug-outs were completed, and a small amount of wire had been erected.
Two battalions of tanks, each of thirty-six tanks, were allotted to the Division. "B" Battalion (Lt.-Col. E. D. Bryce, D.S.O.) operated with the 16th Infantry Brigade, and "H" Battalion (Lt.-Col. Hon. C. Willoughby) with the 71st Infantry Brigade. The 18th Infantry Brigade advanced without tanks. The only points which caused anxiety, provided that the tanks functioned satisfactorily, were Couillet Wood on the right of the 16th Infantry Brigade front, in which tanks could not operate, and Ribecourt Village on the left of the 71st Infantry Brigade front.
The former was successfully cleared by the Buffs, and the latter gallantly captured by the 9th Norfolk Regiment; the 11th Essex clearing and securing it for the advance of the 18th Infantry Brigade, while the 71st Infantry Brigade attacked the second objective.
The 18th Infantry Brigade pushed through the 71st Infantry Brigade and secured Premy Chapel Ridge in good time, and rendered great assistance to the 51st Division on our left, who were held up at Flesquieres by guns in the valley picking off the tanks one by one as they breasted the ridge. The West Yorks and the 2nd D.L.I. each charged over the Premy Ridge spur and captured a battery at the point of the bayonet.
At 3.15 p.m. the cavalry, who would have been of the greatest assistance in capturing the enemy guns holding up the 51st Division, reported that they could not advance owing to snipers in Ribecourt. The village had been in our possession since 10 a.m., and the 18th Infantry Brigade had passed through it at 11.30, and were now two miles beyond it. However, the cavalry pushed through patrols before nightfall to Nine Wood.
A company of the 9th Suffolk Regiment successfully carried out its mission of advancing without artillery or tank support, and capturing the bridge at Marcoing. The Division had a most successful day, with very light casualties (about 650), capturing 28 officers and 1,227 other ranks prisoners, 23 guns, and between 40 and 50 machine-guns and many trench-mortars, and receiving the congratulations of the Corps Commander. Everything had gone like clockwork: the artillery had pushed forward to advanced positions to cover the new front before darkness came on; the machine-guns, under Major Muller, D.M.G.O., were likewise established in their new forward positions, thanks to careful arrangements and the use of pack animals; and the 11th Leicesters, under Major Radford, were repairing and clearing the roads before the third objective had been secured. The tanks, which had made surprise possible, were most gallantly handled, and all arrangements most carefully thought out by Col. A. Courage, D.S.O.
The next morning the 51st Division captured Flesquieres from the north, and three companies of the 14th D.L.I., moving forward slightly in advance of them and operating with a squadron of the Queen's Bays, entered Cantaing ahead of the 51st Division, handing over subsequently to the 4th Gordons.
The Buffs, with the assistance of the tanks, completed the clearing of Noyelles (a village some 2,500 yards north-east of Premy Chapel), which had been entered the previous day by the 29th Division, and relieved the latter there. On the night of the 26/27th November the 18th Infantry Brigade extended its left up to the south-east edge of Cantaing.
About half a mile of the original front had been handed over to the 29th Division, and the 6th Division now held a rectangular strip 2,500 yards by 7,000 yards, with the head at Cantaing and Noyelles, and the rear in the Hindenburg Main Line. The 29th Division had a precarious hold of the ground across the canal on the right, and the Guards Division was having hard fighting at Fontaine on the left.
Comparing the position with the back of a man's left hand, the 6th Division occupied the third finger, the 29th Division the main finger, the 20th Division the index finger, the 12th Division the portion below the index finger down to the lower portion of the thumb when fully extended, the 55th Division occupied the thumb. Such was the situation when the enemy delivered a heavy counter-attack, on the morning of the 30th November, on the 29th, 20th and 12th Divisions of the III Corps and the 55th Division of the VII Corps, driving the 20th and 12th Divisions on to the main finger except for a few posts, and occupying the thumb.
The Germans reached Gouzeaucourt at about 9 a.m., but were stoutly opposed by transport details of the 18th Infantry Brigade, who most gallantly led by Lieut. and Quartermaster J. P. L. Shea, 2nd D.L.I., and Capt. and Adjutant W. Paul, 1st West Yorks, checked the enemy in a portion of the village until it was retaken by the Guards about midday. These two brave officers, whose initiative and sound military action probably saved the situation from becoming much worse, were both wounded, and subsequently died of their wounds, a great loss to their battalions and to the Division.
A Staff-Officer arrived from the 29th Division about 9 a.m., and reported their Divisional Headquarters just north-east of Gouzeaucourt to have been captured and the Germans entering the village, which was about two miles to the right rear of 6th Divisional Headquarters. The 16th Infantry Brigade, which was in Divisional Reserve in the Hindenburg Main Line some two miles away, was ordered up to the ridge between Beaucamps and Gouzeaucourt. Brig.-Gen. Walker, commanding 16th Infantry Brigade, who was ordered to report to G.O.C., 29th Division, at Gouzeaucourt, narrowly escaped capture, together with his Brigade-Major, the enemy now being in possession of the village. G.O.C., 29th Division, had in the meantime passed through 6th Divisional Headquarters, and gone forward to his line.
The situation was now very confused, as all wires to corps had been cut, but it was evident that there was a gap between 12th and 20th Divisions, the latter still holding on to La Vacquerie, a strong point on the ridge two miles east of Beaucamps. The 16th Infantry Brigade was ordered to retake Gouzeaucourt, aided by some tanks which were at Beaucamps, and advanced about 3 p.m., but found the Guards already in the village. It therefore took up a position in the road between Gouzeaucourt and Villers Plouich, to the left of the Guards, and prepared to attack Cemetery Ridge between Gonnelieu and La Vacquerie, so as to re-establish the line. Patrols reported no enemy activity, and as there were no guns available (all in this sector having been captured or out of action) the Divisional Commander (Gen. Marden) thought a surprise attack by moonlight might succeed in capturing this important ridge before the enemy could reinforce it. An attack was launched at 1 a.m. hand in hand with 20th Division, but though most gallantly pushed, failed owing to loss of direction and heavy enemy machine gun fire. The ridge was captured by a Guards Brigade the next morning at 6.30 a.m., by the aid of tanks and artillery.
In the meantime the Reserve Battalion of the 18th Infantry Brigade (14th D.L.I.), and a battalion lent by the 57th Division, took up a position on Highland Ridge facing east, thus completely securing the flank.
On 2nd December the 16th Infantry Brigade was withdrawn and ordered to relieve 87th Infantry Brigade (29th Division), which had been having stiff fighting across and astride the canal east of Marcoing. The 14th D.L.I. (18th Infantry Brigade) were lent to 16th Infantry Brigade and on the night of 2nd/3rd December occupied the south portion of the loop across the canal, the K.S.L.I. taking over the north half. The 88th Infantry Brigade (29th Division) held the ground south of the canal. The whole position was a salient subject to shell, rifle and machine-gun fire from north, south and east. The 14th D.L.I. position had no wire, and only hastily dug trenches. At 10.30 a.m., after a heavy bombardment, the enemy attacked the 14th D.L.I. and the battalion of the 29th Division south of the canal, penetrating the trenches, but was counter-attacked and driven out. At 11.30 a.m. he attacked again with similar results. At 12.15 p.m. he attacked both D.L.I. and K.S.L.I. and penetrated the right of the D.L.I., but was again driven out. With a final attack at 12.45 p.m. the enemy succeeded in forcing both battalions across the canal by sheer weight of numbers.
Two companies of the 8th Bedfords now reinforced the 14th D.L.I., and this force again counter-attacked and recovered the bridge-head at dusk; the 88th Infantry Brigade, assisted by 2nd Y. and L., having also counter-attacked successfully south of the canal. Losses were, however, heavy, and the line was gradually withdrawn under Corps orders during the next two days to the Hindenburg support system, which became our front line. The 14th D.L.I. fought magnificently, losing 15 officers and 262 other ranks, more than half being killed. Capt. Lascelles, who led two of the counter-attacks and was twice wounded, here gained his V.C. The 16th M.G.C., both north and south of the canal, had very heavy losses, but put up a splendid resistance.
The only other incidents of note were the repulse by the 18th Infantry Brigade of a half-hearted enemy attack on Cantaing on the 1st December, and D.H.Q. being three times shelled out of its Headquarters between 30th November and 9th December.
During the whole period—20th November to 6th December—the Divisional Artillery were constantly changing position in order to support the infantry, either in advance or retirement, as closely as possible. It was a welcome change to them after the many weary months of position warfare, and it may be said, without fear of contradiction, that both brigades and batteries were extremely ably handled, and that the D.A.C. never left a battery short of ammunition, in spite of very long distances and rough going.
On 10th December the Division (less artillery) was withdrawn to rest in the Basseux area south-west of Arras, after a strenuous three weeks.
The Divisional Artillery remained in action, covering the 18th Division. A little later the 2nd Brigade, R.F.A., was withdrawn to rest, but the 24th Brigade, R.F.A., continued in the line.
GERMAN OFFENSIVE OF MARCH 1918
After a month's rest in the Basseux area, during the first few days of which the 16th and 18th Infantry Brigades were placed at the disposal of the 3rd Division to relieve two of their brigades on the Bullecourt front, the Division moved up, commencing on the 17th January to relieve the 51st Division in the front line between Hermies and Boursies. A month later it side-stepped northwards, relieving the 25th Division in the Lagnicourt sector. The period up to the 21st March was one of steady work on defences, but without special incident, except a gas-shell attack on the 71st Brigade, which caused a certain amount of casualties.
During this period Infantry Brigades were reduced to three battalions each—the 9th Suffolk Regiment, 8th Bedford Regiment, and 14th Durham Light Infantry being disbanded between 1st and 16th February. Shortly afterwards the three Machine-gun Companies and the Divisional Machine-gun Company were organized into the 6th Machine-gun Battalion, under the command of Lt.-Col. Rosher, D.S.O., late commanding 14th D.L.I.
Some description of the ground and defensive organization of the Division will not be out of place here. The front held by the Division was generally on a forward slope opposite the villages of Queant and Pronville.
No Man's Land averaged three-quarters of a mile in width. The whole area was downland, and very suitable for the action of tanks. The position lay astride a succession of well-defined broad spurs and narrow valleys (like the fingers of a partially opened hand), merging into the broad transverse valley which separated the British line from the two villages above-mentioned. All the advantages of ground lay with the defence, and it seemed as if no attack could succeed, unless by the aid of tanks. A large portion of the front line—notably the valleys—was sown with 2-in. trench-mortar bombs with instantaneous fuses, which would detonate under the pressure of a wagon but not of a man's foot. In addition five anti-tank 18-pounder guns were placed in positions of vantage. The wire was very broad and thick. The position would, indeed, have been almost impregnable had there been sufficient time to complete it, and had there been separate troops for counter-attack.
The ground was a portion of that wrested from the enemy in the Cambrai offensive of November-December 1917, but had only improvised trenches. A month's hard frost in January had militated against digging, and though there were a complete front trench and reserve trench, the support trenches hardly existed, and dug outs were noticeable by their absence. The front was 4,500 yards in extent, the three brigades in line—18th on right, 71st in centre, 16th on left—on approximately equal frontages. The depth from front or outpost zone to reserve or battle zone was about 2,000 yards. With only three battalions in a brigade, there was no option but to assign one battalion in each brigade to the defence of the outpost zones, and keep two battalions in depth in the battle zone. With battalions at just over half-strength, and with the undulating nature of the ground, the defence resolved itself everywhere into a succession of posts with a very limited field of fire.
A good corps line called the Vaux-Morchies Line had been dug, the nearest portion a mile behind the reserve line, and this was held by the Pioneers and R.E., owing to scarcity of numbers.
The Right Group, R.F.A. (Lt.-Col. H. Weber), consisting of 2nd Brigade (less 21st Battery), supported the 18th Infantry Brigade; the Left Group (Lt.-Col. J. A. C. Forsyth), consisting of 24th Brigade, 21st Battery, and 93rd (Army) Brigade, supported the 16th and 17th Infantry Brigades.
Reports from deserters that we were to be heavily attacked were persistent, and the Division stood to arms twice before 21st March. On 20th March aeroplane photos disclosed ammunition pits for seventy extra batteries opposite the divisional front, and when at 5 a.m. on 21st March the bombardment commenced, there was no doubt but that a real offensive had begun. Warning had been given overnight for all troops to be in battle positions by 5 a.m., but it came too late to stop working parties, and the reserve battalions of all brigades had marched ten miles before the battle commenced.
Fog favoured the Germans in that it prevented us seeing when the attack was launched, but every credit must be given them for the skill they evinced and the dash with which they pushed forward and brought up successive waves of attackers. By concentrating their efforts on the three main valleys, i.e. Noreuil Valley on our extreme left, Lagnicourt Valley in the centre and Morchies Valley on our extreme right, they avoided much of the fire which they would have encountered on the broad spurs, and thus worked round and isolated the garrisons of the latter. For five hours the bombardment continued with tremendous force, first with gas and H.E. on back areas to cut communications and disorganize reinforcements, later about 7 to 8 a.m. with smoke and H.E. on the forward system. The intensity of it may be gauged by the fact that four out of five concealed anti-tank guns were knocked out by direct hits.
This bombardment annihilated the garrisons of the forward system, and few survivors came back to the reserve line.
The only authenticated accounts of a successful resistance in the front system were from the 71st Infantry Brigade, where both 9th Norfolks and 2nd Sherwood Foresters repulsed the first attack. By 10.30 a.m. the enemy had nearly reached Noreuil and had driven back the 59th Division on our left, leaving the left flank of the 16th Infantry Brigade in the air, while its right flank went shortly afterwards, as the enemy captured Lagnicourt, driving in the Sherwood Foresters in the valley. The 16th Infantry Brigade was gradually squeezed out towards the corps line, where at 4 p.m. parties from the Divisional Bombing School counter-attacked and drove the enemy out of trenches on the immediate left. The 71st Infantry Brigade, with its right flank secure, threw back a defensive flank south-west of Lagnicourt, and successfully prevented issue from that village to the high ground. The enemy broke into Skipton Reserve Strong Point, but were thrown out again by a counter-attack of Norfolks and Leicesters.
Coming up a subsidiary valley the enemy nearly drove a wedge between 71st and 18th Infantry Brigades, but the 2nd D.L.I. counter-attacked gallantly and kept them out till dusk. On the right of the 18th Infantry Brigade, however, the enemy advanced up the Morchies Valley, capturing the left trenches of the 51st Division on our right at about 10 a.m.
The 2nd West Yorks, reinforced by two companies 11th Essex, gallantly led by Lt.-Col. Boyall, D.S.O., who was subsequently wounded and captured, drove back three attacks issuing from our support line. The 18th Infantry Brigade held on till 7 p.m. when, in trying to withdraw, it suffered heavy casualties. The last company was not overwhelmed till 8.30 p.m. The 18th and 71st Infantry Brigades, therefore, maintained their hold on the ground Lagnicourt and the Morchies Valley all day, though the enemy had penetrated far in rear on both flanks.
When darkness fell the remnants of the Division were back in the corps line, together with three battalions of the 75th Infantry Brigade (25th Division), the remaining troops of the Division not being strong enough to hold the line unaided. The 11th Cheshires were with 18th Infantry Brigade, 2nd South Lancs with 71st Infantry Brigade, and 8th Border Regiment with 16th Infantry Brigade.
The night was quiet, both sides preparing for the next day's struggle.
At 7.30 a.m. on 22nd March the 16th Infantry Brigade repulsed an attack, but the enemy renewed his efforts with great persistence, and with much heavy bombardment and trench-mortaring, at 9.30 a.m. and onwards in the vicinity of Vaux and Mericourt Woods. Though frequent counter-attacks were made, the troops were forced back little by little from the corps line towards some improvised trenches hastily dug under the C.R.E.'s (Col. Goldney) direction some 1,000 yards in rear, and manned partially by men from the Corps Reinforcement Camp under Major Jones of the 2nd D.L.I. As an example of the tenacious fighting, a sunken road which contained the Headquarters of the 16th and 71st Infantry Brigades changed hands three times. Throughout the day Lt.-Col. Latham, D.S.O., commanding 1st Leicesters, and Lt.-Col. Dumbell, D.S.O., commanding 11th Battalion Essex Regiment, distinguished themselves greatly in the defence of their sectors of the line. On the right of the Division the control had passed by dusk to the G.O.C., 75th Infantry Brigade (29th Division)—the 18th Infantry Brigade having only about 100 of all ranks left. On the left there was a large gap between the 16th Infantry Brigade and the 40th Division, which had been pushed up towards Vaux Vraucourt, and this the 6th Division had no troops with which to fill it. The enemy's pressure on the flanks of the 16th Infantry Brigade and in the centre on the 71st Infantry Brigade caused the line to fall back on the new Army line which was being dug and wired. This was done in good order, and at nightfall the weary remnants of the Division were relieved by the 41st Division and concentrated in the vicinity of Achiet, the artillery remaining behind and fighting in the subsequent withdrawal up to 26th March.
The Division had put up a resistance of which it had every reason to be proud, and which won for it the following letter from the G.O.C., Third Army (General Sir J. Byng):—
"I cannot allow the 6th Division to leave the Third Army without expressing my appreciation of their splendid conduct during the first stages of the great battle now in progress.
"By their devotion and courage they have broken up overwhelming attacks and prevented the enemy gaining his object, namely a decisive victory.
"I wish them every possible good luck."
To this magnificent result all ranks and all arms had contributed, and it is perhaps invidious to single out special instances for mention. The gallant stand of the 18th and 71st Infantry Brigades in the reserve line throughout the whole of the first day has already been referred to. Other outstanding incidents are the counter-attack by part of the 2nd D.L.I. against the enemy advancing from our support line, which relieved the pressure on the reserve line and captured four machine-guns; the holding out of a post of the West Yorks on the east side of the Morchies Valley from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. though completely commanded and surrounded; the counter-attacks by companies of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment and 9th Norfolk Regiment, which restored the situation in the Skipton Strong Point just east of Lagnicourt; that of a company of the 11th Leicestershire Regiment which drove the enemy out of the corps line when he had established a footing in it on the afternoon of the 21st; and that of the two platoons formed from the 16th Infantry Brigade School which regained posts on the extreme left of the corps line in the Divisional area on the evening of the 21st.
Another gallant deed must be mentioned. Sergt. Shales, R.E., and another signaller went from 18th Infantry Brigade Headquarters to a distributor station 400 yards distant during the full force of the bombardment, sorted out and tested wires in the open, and thus established communication between the front trenches and Battalion Headquarters. The burying and connecting up of the cable was to have been completed the day of the attack.
The casualties in the infantry were extremely heavy, amounting in the two days to some 3,900 out of a total for the Division of somewhat over 5,000 engaged, and out of a total trench strength of less than 5,000 infantry. The 18th Infantry Brigade suffered particularly heavily, being only able to muster in its three battalions 8 officers and 110 other ranks of those who had been through the fight, including 32 at Battalion Headquarters.
The Machine-gun Battalion did excellent service and great execution, many guns remaining in action until the enemy were within a few yards of them. Its losses were heavy—14 officers and 280 other ranks.
The field companies suffered heavily, and rendered good service as infantry. Special mention may be made of the action of 12th Field Company under Capt. Langley, who rallied some 300 stragglers of various units and filled a gap between the 18th Infantry Brigade and troops on its left.
The 11th Leicesters, under the gallant leading of Major Radford, fought splendidly, losing 14 officers and over 200 other ranks.
The artillery performed magnificent services, particularly on the 21st March. All guns that were not destroyed by the enemy's bombardment were fought until all the ammunition was expended or the enemy's infantry reached their position. The gunners enjoyed the novel experience of firing over open sights and seeing the effect of their fire, and not only with their guns but with rifles and Lewis guns did they inflict very heavy casualties on the enemy. The 42nd Battery, having kept their three forward guns in action after our infantry had fallen back behind them, succeeded in bringing the two that were not destroyed away, under the very noses of the enemy and through a heavy barrage and machine-gun fire. The forward section of the 53rd Battery had one gun destroyed. Lieut. Reeves got the other into the open, and, after firing 850 rounds with it over open sights and having exhausted his ammunition, brought back his detachment and the breech-block. The forward section of the 87th Battery continued firing until rushed by the enemy's infantry. Sergt. Pengelly of the 112th Battery, who was in command of a 15-pounder in an anti-tank position, having had his gun destroyed in the preliminary bombardment, fought for two days with the infantry, in command of a platoon, and did great execution himself with a pickaxe. A forward gun of the 110th Battery was fought until all its ammunition was expended, and the breech-block was then removed with the enemy almost on the top of the gun. For over seven hours the main battery fired on the enemy at ranges from 1,200 to 600 yards, expending over 2,400 rounds. The forward gun of the 111th Battery, after expending all its ammunition (500 rounds), largely over open sights, was withdrawn and brought into action again in the main position, a team coming up in full view of the enemy, and under very heavy shelling and a hail of bullets, for the purpose. The 112th Battery had two guns in action in advance of the corps line. These remained in action until all their ammunition was expended, and the detachments then withdrew with all their wounded and the breech-blocks of their guns, the enemy being by this time actually on the wire of the corps line.
The instances quoted are only typical of the conduct of the whole of the artillery of the Division, which fully justified the very high reputation it has always enjoyed, and the confidence which the infantry of the Division has always felt in its own artillery.
The morning of the 23rd March found the remnants of the Division, less artillery, assembled about Achiet-le-Grand and Bihucourt. The survivors of the 18th Infantry Brigade numbered 8 officers and 110 other ranks; those of the 71st Infantry Brigade 11 officers and 279 other ranks. Each of these brigades had had a trench strength on the morning of the 21st of just over 1,800 all ranks. Figures for the 16th Infantry Brigade are not available. The Division was most fortunate in having very few senior officers killed, though many were wounded. The most noticeable casualties among the killed were Major Lyon, 2nd Brigade, R.F.A., Majors Williamson and Wingate, D.S.O., M.C., R.E., and Capt. Harbottle, M.C., 1st Leicesters.
Even after relief the Division was not able to enjoy the rest it had so richly deserved, and of which it stood so much in need. The further progress of the enemy's attack and constant alarms necessitated its preparing and taking up a position of readiness covering Achiet, throughout the 23rd and the 24th.
On the 25th March it entrained for the north, to join the Second Army in its old haunts in the Ypres Salient.
YPRES SALIENT AGAIN
On the 30th March, whilst in rest in the neighbourhood of Steenvoorde, the Division had the honour of a visit from His Majesty the King. Representative survivors of all ranks from the recent fighting were drawn up in the square and were inspected by His Majesty, who spoke most graciously to every individual, questioning all as to their experiences during the fighting, and thanking them for and congratulating them on their services.
At the beginning of April the 16th and 18th Infantry Brigades took over the front from Broodseinde southwards to Polygon Wood, coming under the XXII Corps (Lt.-Gen. Sir A. Godley).
The general situation now was that the Flanders front was held by tired and decimated Divisions withdrawn from the big battle in the south. These had been brought up to a respectable strength by drafts from all sources—wounded men belonging to other formations, R.A.S.C., Labour Battalions, etc., many of whom had received no training in infantry weapons or methods of fighting. Officers and men were new to each other, and there was no chance to train as the whole of every Division was in trenches.
Against these forces the Germans now opened a determined offensive from Zandvoorde southwards.
On the 13th April, as a result of the German successes on the Lys, the 71st Infantry Brigade, which was in reserve, had to be rushed off to join the 49th Division on the Neuve Eglise front. It returned to the Division on the 26th April after a pretty rough time, during which it suffered considerable casualties (about 750), but earned great praise. A counter-attack delivered by the 9th Norfolk Regiment was a particularly creditable incident in this period.
Otherwise the first fortnight in the Salient was without special incident. On the 16th April, in consequence of the progress made by the enemy farther to the south, the Salient was reduced in accordance with plan, and the line withdrawn to the battle zone, where an advanced force was left out in a line of detached pill-boxes and works. The enemy followed up cautiously in the afternoon, but the garrisons of the line of posts by lying low were able in several cases to catch parties unawares, and a fair number of casualties were inflicted. One party of twenty-five in particular was annihilated.
On the 25th April the enemy attacked and captured Kemmel Village and Hill from the French. This decided the Higher Command to withdraw the advanced force, and this was successfully carried out on the night of the 26/27th to the line West end of Zillebeke Lake-White Chateau.
Incessant work on the new defences, and heavy shelling, particularly gas shelling of Ypres, were the only incidents for some time on the actual front of the Division, though heavy attacks on the 29th April on the Division on the right, and the enemy's unsuccessful attack on Ridgewood on the 8th May, kept it on the alert. The Division was on the edge of the battle, and stood to on several occasions for an attack on its own front.