3rd Battle of Ypres (Part 4)

The 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment 

14th August 1917 

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James Lewton-Brain who came from Yaxham

During a battlefield tour in June I found three Norfolk Regiment graves in Lijssenthoek Cemetery. Not knowing much about them I photographed them and then looked into their deaths when I got home.

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Douglas Arthur Leamon’s grave in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

They are:

DOUGLAS ARTHUR LEAMON

Rank: Lieutenant
Date of Death: 14/08/1917
Age: 22
Regiment/Service: Norfolk Regiment 8th Bn.
Grave Reference: XV. A. 15.
Cemetery: LIJSSENTHOEK MILITARY CEMETERY

Additional Information:Youngest son of Philip Augustus and Lucy Leamon of Headingley in Manitoba who was born in Norwich.

 

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Wilfred Robert Williamson’s grave in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

WILFRID ROBERT WILLIAMSON

Rank: Lieutenant
Date of Death: 14/08/1917
Age: 28
Regiment/Service: Norfolk Regiment 8th Bn.
Awards: M C
Grave Reference: XV. A. 18.
Cemetery: LIJSSENTHOEK MILITARY CEMETERY

Additional Information:Son of Annie Sophia Williamson of 67 Cecile Park Crouch End London and the late William Pope Williamson.

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James Lewton-Brain’s grave in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

 

JAMES ANDREW LEWTON-BRAIN 

Rank: Lieutenant
Date of Death: 14/08/1917
Age: 29
Regiment/Service: Norfolk Regiment 8th Bn.
Grave Reference: XV. A. 16.
Cemetery: LIJSSENTHOEK MILITARY CEMETERY

Additional Information: Son of James and Clara Lewton Brain of The Rookery in Yaxham who was born at Swanton.

All of these 3 officers died from the affects of gas when a phosgene shell penetrated the dugout they were in at Railway Dugouts near Zillebeke.

 

Zillebeke July 1917

The area where the 8th Battalion were positioned. The dugout where the shell landed was positioned was in grid 21.

A total of 11 officers and 12 other ranks were affected by the gas, 7 officers being seriously affected all of whom were evacuated.

I have included part of the after action report for this time.

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I will be visiting Railway Dugouts in October.

The 3rd Battle of Ypres (Part 3)

The 7th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment

10th – 17th August 1917

10th August 1917

The order of battle for 10th August 1917.

The 3rd Battle of Ypres did not resume until the 10th August when 2nd Corps were ordered to capture German positions from a line starting at the Ypres-Roulers Railway to Inverness Copse in the south. It is here that we will now look at the 7/Bedfords and the 8th Norfolks. The reason for this is that a man from my village was wounded during this engagement.

We already know that George Grimes was the brother of Victor. He probably enlisted at the tail end of 1915 and one soldier with a consecutive service number joined up in November 1915. That means that, at the very earliest, he could have gone across to the Western Front in early 1916.

George joined the 7th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment who had been serving in France since July 1915. They were part of the 54th Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Division and this division as we know from previous chapters had seen action on the first day of the Somme and subsequent actions fought there afterwards. During 1917 they had seen action there again during operations on the Ancre and Miraumont and they had also participated in the capture of Irles in March. When the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line they followed and had assisted in the capture of Achiet le Grand. They also saw action at the Third Battle of the Scarpe. But by July of 1917 they were in Flanders and trained for their participation in the 3rd Battle of Ypres. Their initial action happened at what became known as the Capture of Westhoek.

Initially we will look at the operational order for the battle that came as an appendix within the war diary.

The orders were simple and to the point with the document stating,

‘1. The II Corps will capture and hold at an early date INVERNESS COPSE, GLENCORSE WOOD and the Southern end of WESTHOEK RIDGE.’

This position was and still is situated to the north of the road to Menin and had been heavily fought over in October and November of 1914. It had been captured and held by the Germans until now and was heavily defended with the Germans having nearly three years to build up their defences. The 54th Brigade straddled the Menin Road facing in the direction of Glencourse Wood and Inverness Copse and formed the left flank of the division with the 25th Division to their left and the 55th Brigade to their right. The 24th Division would support the 18th Division on the right. This whole area, but especially Glencourse Wood and Inverness Copse, was bombarded between the 8th and 9th August with 3,000 heavy and medium shells being fired on Glencourse Wood on the 8th. There would only be a 46 minute pause in this bombardment for the 18th Division to attack and capture its objectives and only 25 minutes for the 25th Division to do the same.
The 7/Bedfords were positioned just to the east of a position known Surbiton Villas and roughly parallel to an old German trench known as Jargon Switch.

At Zero Hour, set for 04:35hrs on 10th August 1917, II Corps attacked. The initial advance on all fronts was successful with the left flank and the village of Westhoek being captured by the 74th Brigade of the 25th Division. The right flank, however, was not as successful. The 55th Brigade, notably the 7/Queens had advanced from the eastern edge of Inverness Copse but had been stopped by a machine gun post and had failed to occupy the southern edge of the copse. They retreated, being closely pursued by the enemy who re-took the copse and the 7/Queens failed to carry out any further advances losing 10 officers and 272 other ranks.

The 54th Brigade had far better success, occupying the German second line around Fitzclarence Farm and the eastern end of Glencourse Wood and although German resistance was seen to be thinly held, with the forward lines offering little resistance, it was noted by the official history that it was easier to capture than to hold what had been taken. Just after 06:00hrs the Germans fired a box-barrage designed to stop any reserves being brought up and launched localised counter attacks. All requests to bring up reserves were initially refused and when permission was granted to move up the 53rd Brigade they did not reach their assembly area until 19:00hrs. But, by that time, it was too late and by then most of what had been gained was back in German hands.

The 7/Bedfords have an after action report to describe in detail what happened to them.
The initial moves made by the 7/Bedfords went well and they had taken their objectives by 05:13hrs after clearing out around 150 Germans and destroying two machine guns in Glencourse Wood. The report notes that those Germans left alive surrendered by running forward shouting ‘KAMERAD!’ Once they had reached the new line fighting patrols were sent out to the southwestern end of Nonne Bosschen Wood where the barrage was still being fired. The battalion then set about consolidating the line. Throughout the day the Germans tried to counter attack but were beaten off with rifle and machine gun fire but by the afternoon this was beginning to run out and the right flank risked being overrun because of this. Artillery support was called for but could not be given even though SOS flares were sent up. However, no artillery came and then in the evening the Germans were seen to be forming up at Nonne Bosschen, Inverness Copse and the south western part of Polygon Wood. They then advanced under the cover of smoke and gas.

The after action reports stating,

At this time I cannot state the exact clock hour the artillery opened and with terrible execution, but the Bosch line came on delivering their attack on the right flank of the Battalion. The advanced posts were either killed or captured, it is impossible to say which, but judging from the very intense barrage which the Bosch rolled over GLENCORSE WOOD they were undoubtedly killed, a certain amount of confusion set in on our right and it was only by firm determination that the strong point at J.14.a.4.2. which I had taken over from the right Battalion (11th Royal Fusiliers) and JARGON TRENCH was held.

This placed the Bedfords almost back at their start point. The report continued,

When the attack was fully developing reinforcements (two Coys) of the Royal Berkshire Regt arrived and were sent forward to hold our original front line in case the Bosch succeeded in his object to gain the strong point and high ridge STIRLING CASTLE – STRONG POINT J 14.a.4.2. – JARGON TRENCH. The attack however did not materialise and only his advanced line got near the position. The situation quietened down and the relief of the Battalion by the Royal Berkshire Regt was carried out by 2 A.M. and the Battalion withdrew to CHATEAU SEGARD. Established line handed over was JARGON TRENCH – LADY’S LEG – STRONG POINT J14.a.4.2. Situation of forward posts was somewhat obscure. It is worthy of record the splendid manner in which the two Coys of the Royal Berkshire Regt came up to reinforce. They had a terrific barrage on the support line through which they travelled without a waver, shells falling into and all round each platoon. Major Longhurst of this Regt. arrived in advance of these two Coys and rendered most valuable assistance in establishing a second line of defence in case of necessity.

The 7/Bedfords then moved out of the line and moved to Dickebusch New camp to rest and refit. However, that is not the end of their story at 3rd Ypres. On the 12th August they were ordered to join the 53rd Brigade the war diary stating,

The Battalion was reorganised into four companies of two platoons each, each platoon had one rifle section one rifle grenadier section one bombing section one L/G section. Total Battalion strength about 300. Orders were received from Division to move into a field close to Div.H.Q. and rest there until the evening. After dinners the Battalion moved to the field mentioned where the Div.General (General Lee) address a few words to the men and thanked them for their gallant behaviour in the action of August 10th. He also said that he had given instructions (that) we were not to be used unless absolutely necessary. The afternoon having been spent in receiving SAA rations etc the companies moved off at 6.30 PM A and D companies to CRAB CRAWL C and B and HQ to RAILWAY DUGOUTS.

By 23:00hrs the war diary states,

The Battalion was in support to 53 Brigade.

Langemarck 16 Aug 17

The situation for 16th August 1917

The reason for this that the 53rd Brigade had been given to the 56th Division who had taken over from the 18th and were now forming the southern flank of this fresh unit. On the 13th August the battalion waited to see if it was needed in support of the 53rd Brigade. However, a thunderstorm on the 14th August postponed the next attack that was now set for the 16th. This became known as the Battle of Langemarck. The 7/Bedford received orders to relieve the 10/Essex Regiment at Stirling Castle and to prepare for an attack on the 16th.

This came as a surprise to the battalion having been promised not to be used unless absolutely necessary. However, they prepared for the attack. On the 15th August B Company was given orders to prepare for an attack on a German strongpoint to the south of the Menin Road and just shy of the edge of Inverness Copse.

The war diary for the 16th August states,

B Company having formed up on the tapes put out by 2nd Lt. Craig during the night attacked the enemy strong point at J14 c.4.4. This attack was carried out in conjunction with a large offensive by the Division on our left; a heavy shrapnel barrage opened at ZERO hour (4.45 AM) and 4.5 howitzers shot on strong points. Owing to some mistake a battery of 4.5 howitzers detailed to shoot on the enemy’s strong point at J 14 c.4.4 fired short and on to our B Company about to move forward to the attack, knocking 50% of their effective strength out. Captain Ferguson at once supported with a platoon of D Company but owing to the heavy enemy M.G. fire little could be done and the attempt to capture the strong point was abandoned. The day was chiefly spent in artillery duels no further infantry activity taking place on our sector.

The Battle of Langemarck failed in this area with only minimal gains in this sector and a few gains in the north, around the town of Langemarck. The attack that B Company assisted in was thwarted when the Germans poured artillery fire on the leading companies and then stopped the advance by pouring fire on the survivors with machine guns sited in Inverness Copse. During the night what was left of the 7/Bedfords were relieved by the 12/Middlesex and they saw no more offensive action at 3rd Ypres. The after action report finished with eight recommendations/observations on the attack and was made by the C.O. of the 7/Bedfords Lieutenant-Colonel George Pilkington Mills D.S.O.

For general interest I have listed them.

Lessons:

1. I venture to think had a fresh Battalion been close at hand when the situation on the right became obscure and pushed in, in attack formation a good deal more ground would have been taken and the Bosche routed from his position.

2. Artillery should not cease firing on protected lines until Battalion Commander is satisfied all is well. Artillery ceased on the 10th without any reference to Battalions (at least not to 7th Bedfords). I consider it of great importance that Battalion Commanders should be able to convey to Artillery, which fire other than S.O.S. is required.

3. No telephone wire to be laid beyond Brigade HQ as it is used for all kinds of things that hopelessly give away arrangements, and too many other ranks have access to it and the Commanders of the sector having no knowledge of many things happening on the wire unless he or his Adjutant sits by it. The telephone was a nuisance and not the least assistance to the Battalion on the 10th inst.

4. It took from 5 to 6 minutes before the Hun Barrage got really going on our lines; it was severe when it did do so.

5. The 54th Brigade arrangements for ordering up the reserve Coys from RITZ area and the Coys for mopping up was excellent, timing was also extremely good.

6. To avoid any Platoon going astray I placed Battalion Police posts 100-200 yds apart along the ATN track from RITZ area to MENIN road passing point.

7. Our own Artillery inflicted many casualties on our troops by firing very short what appeared to be one 8” gun in particular.

8. The Bosche attack was guided by a line of his men at a few paces apart firing very lights, during the advance these were with the first wave.

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The casualty list for the 7/Bedfords records that between the 10th and 17th August 1917 that they lost 7 officers killed, wounded or missing and 259 other ranks went the same way. Of this total George is listed as being wounded but did not recover and he died of his wounds on 25th October 1917.

He got as far as being moved to one of three CCS around the town of Westvleteren, which is situated to the west of the front. All three were prepared for the forthcoming offensive and were given the nicknames of Mendinghem (Mending them), Dozinghem (Dosing them) and Bandaghem (Bandaging them). He is now laid to rest in grave X. D. 9. in Dozinghem Military Cemetery. I have visited George’s grave on numerous occasions and he now lies in a beautiful cemetery surrounded by trees and farmer’s fields in a very peaceful part of Flanders Fields.

 

The 3rd Battle of Ypres (Part 2)

The 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment

The Capture of Westhoek

10th – 11th August 1917

Langemarck 16 Aug 17

The order of battle for 10th – 11th August 1917

At Zero Hour, set for 04:35hrs on 10th August 1917, in what became known as the Capture of Westhoek, II Corps attacked. The initial advance on all fronts was successful with the left flank and the village of Westhoek being captured by the 74th Brigade of the 25th Division. The right flank, however, was not as successful. The 55th Brigade, notably the 7/Queens had advanced from the eastern edge of Inverness Copse but had been stopped by a machine gun post and had failed to occupy the southern edge of the copse. They retreated, being closely pursued by the enemy who re-took the copse and the 7/Queens failed to carry out any further advances losing 10 officers and 272 other ranks.

The 54th Brigade had far better success, occupying the German second line around Fitzclarence Farm and the eastern end of Glencourse Wood and although German resistance was seen to be thinly held, with the forward lines offering little resistance, it was noted by the official history that it was easier to capture than to hold what had been taken. Just after 06:00hrs the Germans fired a box-barrage designed to stop any reserves being brought up and launched localised counter attacks. All requests to bring up reserves were initially refused and when permission was granted to move up the 53rd Brigade they did not reach their assembly area until 19:00hrs. But, by that time, it was too late and by then most of what had been gained was back in German hands.

On the morning of 10th August 1917 the 8th Battalion were called forward to Chateau Segard and then to Inverness Copse where they were to take part in the attack at 7 p.m. They were to assault the north-west corner of the wood after the 55th Brigade had failed to take the wood. At 2 p.m. they were at Ritz Street where they came under the orders of the 54th brigade.

Charles Riches KIA 11 Aug 17

Charles Riches who was born in Catton was killed in action on 11th August 1917.

At 5.30 p,.m. they took over the 54th Brigade’s front with the 6th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment. Although this relief was met with confusion the Germans did not attack and only did so at 4.30 a.m. on 11th August. At this time the Germans attacked just as the battalion was relieving the 7/Bedfords and the enemy captured a strong point and broke through, especially in the line held by ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies.

‘B’ Company was was ordered to be ready to counter attack but it was found that although ‘A’ Company had been forced back the left flank was still holding and ‘C’ Company was ordered  to counter and take back the strong point. This was held by 4 machine guns and the C.O. Colonel Ferguson decided to make a converging attack using ‘C’ and ‘B’ Companies.

Inverness Copse & Glencourse Wood

Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood seen from the air in 1917.

The attack went in with the support of Lewis gunners and snipers and was assisted by a platoon of the 6/R. Berks and the strong point was recaptured. Captain Frederic Morgan led this attack and after the capture of the strong point the enemies fire slackened and ‘B’ and ‘C’ Company were able to support each other. In this attack Captain Morgan was severely wounded.

A line was then reorganised and ‘A’ Company was put into the line to the left of the strong-point, held by ‘C’ Company, and the right of the line was held by ‘B’ Company with ‘D’ Company in reserve at Surbiton Villas. 

Capt Frederic Morgan D of W 19 Aug 17

Captain Frederic Morgan who was severely wounded on 10th August 1917.

The Germans attempted to counter attack on a number of occasions and each one was repulsed and the line held. They were relieved on 12th August 1917 and were sent back to Railway Dugouts.

Reginald Tweedy KIA 11 Aug 17

Reginald Tweedy who was killed in action on 11th August 1917. Reginald was the son of Elizabeth Tweedy of ‘Clovelly’ at 41 Tennyson Avenue in King’s Lynn he was 19 years old when he died. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

I am often contacted by people or have conversations with them on social media. Recently I spoke to Shannon Taylor whose relative served with the 8th Battalion. John Wells came from Santon Downham and enlisted in December 1915 and went to France in December 1916. He had contracted scabies whilst the battalion was in trenches around Irles in March 1917 and also received a gunshot wound 4 days layer on 10th March 1917 and was admitted to No 10 Hospital in Rouen. John recovered from that so that he was present during the attack on 11th August and was killed in action during the fighting. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate. John was 29 when he was killed and was the husband of Lily Emily Wells of 90 London Road in Brandon. His death was reported in the Brandon Times which stated that a sniper’s bullet had killed him and he left a young daughter ‘Joan’ who was only 10 months old when he was killed. My thanks go to Shannon for providing me with this information.

John Wells KIA 11 Aug 17

John Wells who was killed in action 11th August 1917.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 3rd Battle of Ypres (Part 1)

The 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment

31st July – 1st August 1917

3rd Ypres 31 Jul 17

The start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. The 18th (Eastern) Division were positioned to the west of the 30th Division for the opening of the battle on 31st July 1917.

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of what is considered one of the most contentious and bloodiest battles of the Great War. Over the next few months I will be following the progress of this by using the Norfolk Regiment battalions who fought there. We will start with the 8th Battalion who would see action on the first day.

By July of 1917 they were in Flanders and trained for their participation in what would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

This offensive came after the major success at the Battle of Messines, which was fought, between 7th and 14th June 1917. This offensive’s objective was to relieve the pressure on the French Army who had suffered greatly after the failed Nivelle Offensive and were now at risk of collapse after a series of mutinies. Haig planned a new summer offensive on the Ypres Salient and he appointed General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of 5th Army, to plan and implement an attack. The initial attack would fall on Messines Ridge, which dominated the area to the south of Ypres.

This plan utilised the firing of 19 mines under the German lines and a preliminary bombardment that began of the 21st May. Nine divisions, including the 3rd Australian and the New Zealand Divisions, attacked after the mines were fired. The battle is generally considered one of the most stunning victories of the war and caught the Germans completely by surprise. They lost well over 25,000 men in the seven-day battle but recovered enough to bolster their defences and the battle came to an end on the 14th June with the British now holding the Messines Ridge.

The successes at Messines should have been carried but there was a halt and the German 4th Army, which was on full alert, soon guessed that there was going to be second offensive on their front. The architect of Messines, General Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer, advocated continuing the attack immediately into Passchendaele ridge, arguing that the morale of the German troops was, for the present at least, broken, and that this combined with a shortage of forces would virtually guarantee Allied capture of the ridge.  Haig however disagreed, choosing not to bring forward his plans from the end of July.

The defences here were built upwards due to the high water table, the origin of the word Flanders can be traced to medieval times and it can be translated to the term ‘Flooded-Plain’, and the German trenches were interlaced with machine-gun positions protected by concrete pillboxes. The allied offensive was hampered by delay and the artillery bombardment did not start until the 18th July, ten days prior to the launch of the attack, and it made use of 3,000 guns which expended four and a quarter million shells.  This led General Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin, the commander of the German 4th Army, to fully expect that an imminent offensive was on the cards.

The Third Battle of Ypres was opened by Sir Hubert Gough ‘s 5th Army, with 1 Corps of Sir Herbert Plumer’s 2nd Army joining on its right and a corps of the French 1st Army, led by General Francois Paul Anthoine, to its left, in total twelve divisions, and did not start until the 31st July when they pushed outwards of Ypres towards the north east. 

However, the Germans soon recovered and counter attacked. The advance was also hampered by rain, which fell on the first night. This rain, the heaviest of the war, flooded friend and foe alike and the offensive could only make a gain of two miles before grinding to a halt. 

Zillebeke July 1917

The area around Zillebeke where the 8th Battalion started. They were positioned to the west of Zillebeke Lake between the railway to the south and the grid to the extreme north of the lake.

The 18th (Eastern) Division had the job of following the 30th Division who were given the task of advancing on Glencourse Wood and stopping midway through the wood on what was called the ‘Black-Line’ and then capturing and consolidating the ‘Blue-Line’ which ran parallel and intersected Nonne-Bosschen. The 53rd Brigade, to which the 8th Battalion were part of, was placed on the left of the 30th Division and would leap-frog them when they had reached their objective. 

Glencourse Wood TM

A trench map from the 8th Battalion’s war diary. The Black-Line can be seen in Grid J-14 and the Blue-Line is situated to the east of it intersecting Nonne-Bosschen.

In reality the 30th Division attacked Chateau Wood and the 53rd Brigade moved into the gap they made and the lead battalions, the 8/Suffolk and 8/Berkshire Regiments, met strong German fire and suffered heavy casualties from German strong points at Clapham Junction and Surbiton Villas.

8th Battalion started to the west of Zillebeke Lake along a long from south to north from Railway Dugouts to the western bank of the lake (Zillebeke Bund). At 10 a.m. ‘C’ Company advanced as per their timetable and moved through a heavy barrage under the command of Captain Arthur Patten. They reached the Blue-Line at 10.55 a.m. and found out that the 8th Division was held up. He then came under heavy fire from the north-west edge of Glencourse Wood. 

Captain Arthur Patten

Captain Arthur John Hickson Patten who commanded ‘C’ Company on 31st July 1917.

He extended his platoons out and conferred with Captain Hudson who was in command of a very weak company from the 6/R.Berks and it was then noticed that the Germans were preparing to attack from Stirling Castle and the north-east corner of Glencourse Wood.

 

 

Glencourse Wood No 2

The area where Patten set up his platoons to repulse a German counter attack. Nonne-Boschen and Glencourse Wood can be seen in the distance and Stirling Castle, without any new buildings or orchards, would have been seen with nothing in-between!

Patten identified that there was a gap between him and the 8th Division after the 2/Linclons had been forced back 350 yards by determined enemy fire from Glencourse Wood. He therefore attempted to plug that gap by slotting in next to the reduced company of Berkshires. He then ordered his platoons to open fire on the Germans. They carried on in the same light all day whilst constantly under the fire from German artillery. Casualties were high and Patten eventually ended up with a mixture of Berkshire, King’s Liverpool and Essex Regiment men.

He divided this force up into four strong-points until he was relieved at 3.30 a.m. in the morning of 1st August 1917. He then retired back to the original start line at Zillebeke.

Glencourse Wood No 1

Glencourse Wood in 1917.

 

The war diary noted that all of the casualties for the day were from ‘C’ Company and that amounted to 3 officers wounded and forty other ranks killed, wounded or missing.

Arthur Wade KIA 1 Aug 17


Lance Serjeant 43718 Arthur Wade who was killed in action on 1st August 1917. Arthur had previously served as Private 628 1/6 Battalion Norfolk Regiment prior to them being sent to France in 1916. He was 24 when he died and is now buried in Grave XXVII. B. 7. in New Irish Farm Cemetery and was the son of Rose and Walter Wade of Wells Road in Fakenham.

The battalion would now go into a period of rest and would not go back into action until 10th August 1917.

Note…

I refuse to call this battle ‘Passchendaele’, although it is generally termed as such. The 1st Battle of Passchendaele did not start until 12th October 1917 and went on to end at the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele on 10th November 1917. So what came before was a series of other battles fought prior to that.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oppy Wood

The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment

28th June 1917

mericourt-vendin_line

Oppy Wood and Oppy seen on a trench map.

 

After the Arras Offensive had ended the Germans still held Oppy Wood, situated to the west of Oppy village and to the south west of Fresnoy. The wood was approximately 1-acre square and was heavily fortified. Attempts were made to capture it on 27th April and 3rd May 1917 (The 3rd Battle of the Scarpe) and both of these attacks had failed during terrible bouts of heavy fighting with the Germans counter attacking and pushing the British out of the wood on each occasion.

During this period Lance Corporal 8763 James Welch of “B” Company, the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment, won the Victoria Cross on 27th April and Lieutenant John Harrison of the 11th (Service) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross during the fighting on 3rd May. On this day, the 31st Division lost 1,900 casualties and the 2nd Division’s composite brigade lost 517 officers and men.

The next attack was planned for 28th June would be carried out by the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division and the 94th Brigade of the 31st Division. Their line would extend from Gavrelle in the south to the north of Oppy Wood.

By this time the Army was operating under a new training pamphlet entitled ‘SS143-Instructions for Training of Platoons for Offensive Action 1917’. This booklet would pave the way for the way the infantry would fight until the end of the war. In this book the infantry was expected to be able to fight its way forward independently of artillery support as a battle developed. It;s doctrine taught that there were advantages for different weapon types being brought to bear on the enemy as and when needed. 

In the place of a single line of riflemen, SS143 promoted the self-contained platoon comprising a small HQ and four sections of specialists. In simple terms, the attack was to be led forward by bomb and rifle sections, with the rifle grenade and Lewis gun sections following close behind.  Upon contact with the enemy, the rifles and the bombers were to seek out the enemy flank and attack with fire, bayonet and bomb.  The rifle grenadiers and Lewis gun team were to attempt to suppress the enemy, allowing the other sections to press home their attack.

This flexible use of arms also passed a degree of initiative to the junior officers down the chain of command and was used to promote an Esprit de Corps.

SS143 taught a platoon to lead by its sections of riflemen and bombers with the platoon sergeant between, it is followed by the platoon commander then the Lewis gun and rifle grenade sections. The platoon has a prepared and hopefully rehearsed drill for reaction to coming under fire. In this moment of chaos, having a pre-programmed reaction is critical to overcoming the perfectly human reaction to hide. It would be too easy for the platoon to fragment into cover and the attack to lose its momentum. From SS 143 all members of the platoon would know what would be happening around them. On being engaged the Lewis gun section should find the first available cover and engage the point of resistance, this is accompanied by a barrage of rifle grenades. Under the cover of this direct and indirect fire the rifle and bombing sections are to deploy to a flank and pursue the attack.

This was how the battle for Oppy Wood would be fought.

Benjamin Thorpe KIA June 1917

Private 43381 Benjamin Thorpe who was killed in action in the assault on Oppy Wood. He was 21 and was the son of A. F. and Emily Thorpe of 32 Morley Street in Norwich. Benjaimin is laid to rest in grave II. C. 16. in Rolincourt Military Cemetery.

At 5:30 p.m., German artillery bombarded the British jumping-off trenches for ten minutes and caused c. 200 casualties in the two attacking brigades. At 7:00 p.m., a British hurricane bombardment began from Gavrelle to Hulluch, along the 14-mile (23 km) front of the XIII Corps and I Corps, as part of a feint against Lens. Howitzers fired smoke-shell to create a screen, to the north of the 5th Division attack and then a thunderstorm began, the infantry advancing at 7:10 a.m. amidst lightning and torrential rain.

In the XIII Corps area, the 94th Brigade of the 31st Division advanced north of Gavrelle and the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division attacked Oppy on a 2,300-yard (2,100 m) front. Despite the German bombardment on the jumping-off trenches, the British troops advanced swiftly across no man’s land behind a creeping barrage, before the German counter-barrage fell three minutes later.

IWM-Oppy-Q-37358

Oppy under fire in WW1

On the 5th Division front, the 15th Brigade had the task of advancing on Oppy Wood to the north of the 31st Division. The 1/Norfolks would advance centrally with the 1/Cheshires on their right and the 1/Befordshires on their left.

All three battalions went over at 7.10 p.m. moving out of Maquis Trench in two waves advancing within 25-30 yards of the creeping barrage and took some casualties from this.

They got into the first German line with opposition from a group of Germans that numbered around 30 in a concrete pillbox. This defensive position was dealt with by Mills Bombs. The Brigade got into Oppy Wood with little opposition and a line was established 80 yards into it with outposts placed further onward. By 9 p.m. this line was being consolidated and the battalion had captured 1 officer and 70 other ranks and two machine guns.

NR TM 28 Jun 17

A trench map from the 1st Battalion’s war diary. The green line to the east is the line that was consolidated in Oppy Wood.

Losses, for WW1 standards, were light and the battalion lost 2 officers wounded and 61 other ranks killed or wounded. 

Fighting patrols put out the next day were repulsed as they entered Oppy village.

Burning oil was also used in the attack to draw the enemy away from Oppy and toward Fresnoy. This is thought to have helped and was used as a deterrent against the German flame-thrower.

Edward Bream KIA 28 June 1917

Private 16803 Edward Bream who died of wounds on 29th June 1917 after Oppy Wood. He was 25 and is laid to rest in grave III. H. 54. in Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension and was the son of J. and M. A. E. Bream of Saham Toney near Thetford.

The 15th Brigade took 143 prisoners, several machine-guns and trench mortars and the 94th Brigade took a similar amount; 280 German dead were counted on the battlefield. Gavrelle Mill and the other objectives were captured easily but the rain interfered with consolidation, which had begun by 9:00 p.m.

In the attack of 28 June the 31st Division lost 100 men and the 5th Division casualties were 352 men.

From this total 17 men died serving with the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment.

Nash-Oppy_Wood


Oppy Wood, Evening, 1917 by John Nash

 

 

Aubers Ridge

Private, 6/348, Joseph Unwin, 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade

Aubers OH

The order of battle for the 7th Division on 9th May 1915

Today is the 102nd Anniversary of the the Battle of Aubers Ridge and this is the story of a man from Worsead who was killed in action in the battle.

 

Joseph Unwin was born in Enfield, Middlesex in 1891 and was the youngest son of Henry and Caroline Unwin who had two other sons, Henry and Alfred and two daughters, Martha and Edith. He married Emma Louisa Woodhouse in 1912 and at the start of the Great War both were residing at Meeting Hill, which is a small hamlet to the North West of Worstead. His trade is listed as being a chauffeur. Joseph is not recorded on the war memorial in the church but he is listed as being a Worstead man in the Norfolk Roll of Honour.

The 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade had landed in France on 6th November 1914, along with the rest of the 25th Brigade, which was part of the 8th Division. They had been a much needed re-enforcement for 1st Ypres. They would then learn their newfound craft in the trenches over the winter of 1915/15, a time, which would become known as the ‘Winter Operations’. During this phase men were lost to snipers and mining activity. They had to rapidly adapt to trench warfare where one mistake could mean instant death and their conditions were terrible They were constantly low on drafts of replacements and supplies and would be forced to carry out a number of initial battles which would not be able to break the German lines due to them being without support and because they would be fought as small engagements and it is in one of these that Joseph would lose his life.

While the BEF were engaged in learning their craft in the winter of 1914/15, the Central Powers had turned their attention to the Russian Front and a series of battles had been fought there. This led the Allied Powers to believe that the Germans were planning the same for the spring of 1915 and with that in mind they believed that the Germans were to make reductions of their forces on the Western Front.

The Allies felt that an attack there whilst their foe was weak in reserves would also serve the purpose of supporting the Russians because if they capitulated it would mean the Germans would be able to direct all their forces against the Western Front.
In early March 1915, Sir John French agreed to commit troops to a plan put forward by General Joseph Joffre. This would be a joint British and French offensive to capture the heights of Aubers Ridge, which stretched for 6 miles behind the small towns of Aubers and Fromelles. The first of these offensives occurred on 10th March when French ordered General Sir Douglas Haig, the then commander of the British 1st Army, to attack the Germans along a 2 mile front opposite the French town of Neuve Chapelle. Haig used 4 divisions to break through a line held by a division of the German 6th Army. But the total gain, for three days of terrible fighting, amounted to a piece of French soil 2,000 yards wide and 1,200 yards deep. All this at the cost of 11,000 British and Indian troops.
The Germans quickly counter-attacked, and although Neuve Chapelle was held, Haig had to abandon plans to advance towards Aubers Ridge. At the end of the offensive, the British Expeditionary Force had only gained 1.5 square miles of land at a cost of 13,000 casualties. The Allies went back to the planning table and Joffre asked French whether he could commit troops to a joint attack where it was planned to capture the Douai and Aubers Ridges, John French agreed. The plan can be summarised by a communiqué from Joffre to French.

‘In the last days of April the French Tenth Army, will undertake an important attack north of Arras with a view to piercing the enemy’s line. In order to carry out this attack the Tenth Army will be strongly reinforced, it will consist of fourteen infantry divisions (exclusive of Territorial divisions) and about 220 heavy guns and more than 720 field guns and howitzers.’

From: France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos. OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR.

The French 10th Army would attack to the right of the British who held a frontage of four miles with the II Cavalry Corps to be held in reserve. They would attack Vimy Ridge between Farbus and Souchez. If successful the French would be able to capture the dominating heights of Vimy and allow them to sweep into the Cambrai-Douai Plain. Three diversionary attacks would also be implemented.

French informed Joffre on the 9th April that the British 1st Army would have the task of attacking the Germans the day after the main attack had gone in. This would be in conjunction with the final French diversionary attack. The British would centre on the area towards Aubers Ridge and La Bassée. French committed the 1st British and the Indian Corps to attack the Festubert/Neuve Chapelle line and the British IV Corps would have the job of attacking the Aubers-Fromelles line. They would have the job of consolidating the French gains and would prevent the Germans pouring in reserves.
However, the Germans struck first at Ypres on the 22nd April, utilising gas, which was the first time it was ever used in any offensive. In this battle the Germans very nearly overran the Allies, but the Canadian troops managed to hold the line, the first time a Colonial power had ever done this. Amazingly this German strike did not faze Joffre who continued his plans for the joint British and French offensive. Joffre was of a mind that a carefully planned offensive would help to relieve the pressure from the German attacks in the north.

On 4th May 1915 John French issued this order to the 1st Army:

‘The First Army will take the offensive on 8th May. Its mission is to break through the enemy’s line on its front and gain the La Bassée-Lille road between La Bassée and Fournes. Its further advance will be directed on the line Bauvin-Don. The Cavalry Corps, Indian Cavalry Corps, Canadian Division, Highland (51st) Division (less one brigade R.F.A.) and Northumbrian (50th) Division will be in general reserve at the disposal of the Field Marshall, Commanding in Chief, and will be ready to move at two hours notice.’

From: OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR, France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos.

With this in mind, the respective units took over the line in preparation for the forthcoming attack with the 8th Division being given a frontage of 1,500 yards opposite the Sailly-Fromelles Road and would face the German 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. The plan for Aubers Ridge was for the 1st Army to make a two-pronged attack on the German line that ran from just south of Neuve Chapelle to Bois Grenier.
The southern sector consisted of the Indian and 1st Corps who had the job of capturing Aubers Ridge itself. IV Corps, 6,000 yards to the north, had the task of capturing Fromelles.

aubersbunkers-image022

The left hand aspect of the area for 9th May 1915

But the biggest problem at this time was the shortage of artillery and shells. The French intended to adopt a slow and methodical bombardment of the German trenches in their sectors, the British could not hope to match this and decided on a 40-minute intense bombardment like the one used at Neuve Chapelle. This had been quite successful and had led to the Germans being unable to hold their own lines due to insufficient defences. But the Germans had learnt from their mistakes and had worked tirelessly to strengthen their defences. This would prove to be a major point of fact as to how the battle would progress.

The 8th Division would attack with the 24th Brigade on the right and the 25th to the left; both brigades totalled around 7,000 officers and men. The Official History of WWI estimates that around ten German companies would be facing them, a total of around 1,600 men. The plan was for both brigades to rush the German front-line before pushing on to enlarge the front and protect the area. The 7th Division would advance close behind the 8th and then capture Aubers and Leclercq Farm. It was then hoped that both divisions would be able to further advance capturing Aubers Ridge and protecting the left flank in order that the 7th Division could eventually meet up with the Indian Corps at La Cliqueterie Farm.

We now turn to the 2/Rifle Brigade’s war diary for May 1915. They had been in and out of the line around Laventie since the beginning of May. There is no mention of any training being carried out for this forthcoming action and the first mention of their participation comes on 6th May when company officers were sent up to the line to reconnoitre the area and orders were passed for operations.

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The right hand aspect of the battle area for 9th May 1915

What is strange is that there is no build up to this battle for the 2/Rifle Brigade. They rested in their billets on the 7th and 8th May and were only paraded for the forthcoming attack at 11.00 p.m. and then marched off to their assembly positions. This movement went without incident with the war diary stating,

‘Instructions and orders for assault & the first advance were issued & were accurately carried out.’

The weather on this day is recorded as being fine, clear and fresh with sunrise at 04:06hrs This was shattered at 05:00hrs by the start of the 40 minute bombardment from 102 guns that had the task of either cutting the German wire or destroying the German positions. Unfortunately some of this fell short and the artillery began to shell their own lines, of which the 2/Rifle Brigade took the brunt of this fire and men were either killed or wounded before even getting out of their trenches, or were forced to retire from their start points. This retirement was stopped and at 05:40hrs the first waves of men climbed out of their trenches and moved towards the German lines.

The 25th Infantry Brigade’s frontage stretched from the main Sailly/Fromelles Road across fields towards La Cordonnerie Farm. The 2/Rifle Brigade faced Rouge Bancs. B & D Companies had been given the task of advancing in the first wave, with C & D Companies, the Machine Guns and RHQ following behind. B & D took the first German trench and continued their advance.

However, the follow up waves took heavy casualties from German fire and could not advance any further than the German front-line, with many of the units being dispersed, including the bombing parties who were to be used to widen the advance. B & D Companies managed to capture a number Germans and pushed on a further 250 yards.
Here they managed to make a line and at this point consolidated the position and they organised bombing parties, where bombs and bombers could be found, and defended 50 yards to the Sailly-Fromelles Road to the 250 yards of German line already mentioned. This places them just in front of where the Australian Memorial is situated today. At this point in time, every officer in the most forward position was either dead or wounded. At around 8.00 a.m. the men who still held this position began to trickle back to the original German line and reported the forward elements were taking fire from the flank and from the rear.

IMG_2310

Looking out towards where the 2/Rifle Brigade advanced on 9th May 1915

The German front line was then strengthened and an attempt to bomb the 2/Rifle Brigade out of this position was repelled. At 12 noon Lt GRAY led a party of 50 men from the British front-line to the German line. By now the whole area was being swept with German machine gun fire and only 20 men reached the German line.

At this point in time, only 3 other battalions had successfully reached the German lines. These were the 2/Northamptonshire Regiment, the 1/Royal Irish Rifles and the 1/13th London Regiment. All had advanced with the 2/Rifle Brigade. The 1/13th London’s had been assisted by two mines which had been fired at 05.40 a.m. and they had occupied the craters. But all other movement either by the 24th Brigade or the 23rd Brigade who were to follow up was stopped after the 24th Brigade found the German wire uncut and took heavy casualties there.

This initial success, followed by failure in other areas prompted the brigade commander, Brigadier General Lowry Cole to go to the front-line. He found all movement stopped and no man’s land being swept with machine gun fire. He ordered two companies of the 2/Lincolns to use the mine craters to get to the 2/Rifle Brigade and shortly after this a large number of Rifle Brigade and Irish Rifles men were seen to be streaming back to the British lines bringing with them the two companies of 2/Lincolns. To add to the confusion, large numbers of German prisoners came too leading the British to believe a counter attack was taking place. Lowry Cole stood on the parapet in an attempt to stem this tide and fell mortally wounded. This goes to show that not every senior officer in France spent his time well away from the front; in fact during the course of WWI well over 60 senior officers were killed in action.

This fact was noted in the 2/Rifle Brigade’s war diary noting that their C.O., Lieutenant Colonel R B Stephens, had become the acting brigade commander. It was also at this point in time that the forward units became cut off.

‘The British front and communication trenches, converted almost into obstacles by the remains of broken ladders and light bridges, were blocked with dead, wounded and leaderless men, the congestion being constantly increased by the endeavours of the rearmost waves to reach the front. Movement forward, rearward or lateral became impossible, except over the open, and the Germans in the unattacked portions of the front were able to prevent not only substantial support, but even individuals from crossing no man’s land. It was clear that the men who had formed the lodgements were cut off.’

From: OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR, France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos.

The men of the 2/Rifle Brigade, along with all the other battalions who now held a small piece of German line could have had no idea that any of this was going on. They put up obstacles to repel any German attacks and consolidated what little they had captured. At this point in time it became very apparent to the commanders on the ground that no further movement could be made.

Haig was told of this fact and in light of the fact that the 1st and Indian Corps attack had failed and the need to assist the French who were attacking he ordered the 8th Division to renew the attacks. A fresh bombardment was ordered and what was left of the 23rd and 24th Brigades was readied for a new attack.

The attack went in a 1.30 p.m. and failed almost immediately when the leading waves were hit with furious fire. In fact, it is noted by the Official History of the Great War that the attack was stopped even before it got under way. Haig ordered fresh attacks and put other brigades at the disposal of the 8th Division, but by 8.00 p.m. these new attacks were cancelled and Haig ordered his commanders to the Indian Corps H.Q.

After the battle it was noted,

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The memorial to Paul Adrian Kennedy and his friends which now stands on the battlefield where the 2/Rifle Brigade fought at Aubers Ridge.

‘Throughout the 9th and 10th repeated efforts were made to make further progress. Not only was this found to be impossible, but the violence of the enemy’s machine-gun fire from his posts on the flanks rendered the captured trenches so difficult to hold that all the units of the 4th Corps had to retire to their original position by the morning of the 10th.’

From Sir John French’s 8th Despatch printed in the Second Supplement to the London Gazette of 10th July 1915.

Between 07:50hrs and 15:00hrs the 2/Rifle Brigade fought off two determined German counter attacks. Their war diary notes that their machine gun detachment acted gallantly and caused heavy losses to the Germans. They, along with all the other units, managed to hold onto their gains all through the night and some reinforcements managed to get to them during that period. However, at 2.30 p.m. on 10th May 1915, the Germans launched a strong counter attack and all survivors of the advance were withdrawn. By now this only totalled some two hundred men. The last battalion to stay in the German lines, the 1/13th London’s, were reinforced by the 2/Royal Berkshires and the 2/Lincolnshires, but they were insufficient in numbers to hold onto the German lines and by 15:00hrs all British units were back in their trenches.

‘About 5 a.m. the battalion, consisting of 3 officers and about 195 men marched back to billets near SAILLY.’

From the war diary of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade.

In total the 8th Division lost 192 Officers and 4,490 Other Ranks, the highest number that any division lost in this ill-fated offensive. The 2/Rifle Brigade lost 21 Officers and 632 Other Ranks. Of this total 18 Officers and 244 Other Ranks were either killed in action or died of wounds soon after. Joseph Unwin was one of the men who were killed in action and he has no known grave, as do many of the others who fell on the 9th May 1915.

There is a memorial that stands in memory of Captain Paul Adrian Kennedy who was attached to the battalion. He was killed in action in the attack and the memorial commemorates his sacrifice and remembers his 3 comrades in arms. They are Lieutenants Talbot Stanhope and Edward Leigh, and Second Lieutenant the Honourable Henry Hardinge. None of them have no known graves and along with Joseph Unwin are commemorated on Panel 10 of the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium.

Image 7

The Ploegsteert Memorial

 

Rifle Trench

The 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment

The Battle of Arleux

28th April 1917

Rifle Trench No 1

A map showing Rifle and Bayonet Trenches situated to the south of Roeux. Both of these positions were given to the 7/Norfolks as objectives.

After a ten days out of the line the 12th (Eastern) Division went into forward positions between the north east of Monchy and the River Scarpe. 

On the 27th April 1917 the 35th Brigade were given orders to capture Bayonet Trench and Rifle Trench situated to the south Roeux. The 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, along with the 5th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, were given the task of leading the attack. After the first objectives were taken the 7th Suffolks would pass through to the second objective and the 9th Battalion Essex Regiment were placed in reserve. 

Zero Hour was at 0425 a.m. began with a two minute intense artillery bombardment to which the Germans made a furious response and the 5/R.Berks advanced close behind the barrage and captured their objectives in Bayonet and Rifle Trenches without difficulty and began consolidation.

The 7th Norfolks were less successful. They had “A” and “B” leading with “C” and “D” attempting to gain contact with the lead companies. This failed and the Norfolks came under heavy machine gun fire from their flanks.

Frank Herbert Smith KIA 28 Apr 17

Sergeant 43037 Frank Herbert Smith who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. He was the son of Herbert William and Alice Mary Smith of The Chalet in Brundall Gardens.

The 7th Suffolks also found themselves unable to proceed against heavy machine gun fire when they attempted to pass through the 5/R.Berks lines at 0505. At this point the Berkshires still held Bayonet Trench and 150 yards of Rifle trench but the Germans still held Rifle Trench as far as Harness Lane.

Due to the heavy fire both the 7/Norfolks and the 7/Suffolks were still in their original positions. One company of the Essex was sent to help the Berks hold on to their gains. Attempts to capture the rest of Rifle trench with bombing from both flanks failed.

Rifle Trench No 2

The field where Rifle and Bayonet Trench once used to be.

An SNCO in the 5/R. Berks noted,

‘As we had lost all our officers in my company except one I was detailed with my platoon to take up bombs, ammunition, rifle grenades etc to another company of ours (C Company) Having collected all my men together and issued to them these different stores we left our trench at about 3 am under very heavy shell fire. I had been given orders by my company officer to get there at all costs as they had run short of nearly everything. I succeeded in reaching them after a very hard struggle as the Boche were giving us hell with his shells and machine guns. C Company were greatly relieved when they heard that I had arrived with a fresh supply of trench stores, which were quickly issued out. I discovered on my way that there were a lot of bombs, shovels and picks lying spare in a trench that I passed. I succeeded in collecting them and was waiting to get through again  to C Company when the Germans succeeded in blowing part of the trench in, cutting us off from C Company. We had to remain in this trench, where I had got my men, when the Germans started to shell us unmercifully, and continued at it all day long without a break, causing a good many casualties. I told my men to stick it and that as soon as it became dark we would chance it and make another attempt to reach C Company. I had succeeded in dodging these shells all day and was just on the point of starting to C Company when a big shell burst about six yards in front of me, which wounded me and also buried me.’

Harold Brighton KIA 28 Apr 17

Private 29714 Harold Brighton from Thorpe St Andrew who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. Harold was the son of Robert and Sarah Brighton of Southend Cottage in Thorpe.

“D” Company from 7/Norfolks had come up against uncut wire and “A” and “B” Companies had to take cover in shell holes. The war diary noting,

‘The remainder of the day our men lay out in shell holes being sniped by the enemy. As soon as it was dark all those that could returned to our lines and stretcher squads went to try and bring in the wounded. During the whole of their work they were continually under enemy M. Gun and rifle fire which was done with the aid of extremely bright Verey Lights. The fire was so heavy and accurate that it was impossible to bring in many of our men who were badly wounded and close to the enemy’s trench.’

Bernard Dix KIA 28 Apr 17

Private 202793 Bernard Dix who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. He was born in Leicester on 7th January 1887 and was the son of William and Edna Dix of 128 Waterloo Road in Norwich

The war diary noted that casualties were especially heavy in “C” and “D” Companies.

Another attack was ordered on 29th April and the 9/Essex advanced and took Rifle Trench supported by flanking fire but were driven out by two German counter attacks.

In this attack 12 officers 223 other ranks were lost. In total the CWGC records the loss of 92 men killed on 28th April 1917. Like the 1st Battalion at La Coulotte many of them have no known grave and are commemorated on the Arras Memorial.