Breaking the Hindenburg Line/Part 2
The Battle of Ramicourt
The victory at Ramicourt
If Bellenglise is the name which is destined to be for ever remembered by all ranks of the 46th Division in connection with the most dramatic of the victories which was placed to their credit during the glorious autumn of 1918, still the Battle of Ramicourt, fought and won on the 3rd October, will take its place in the annals of the Division as the action in which, beyond all others, superior numbers of the enemy were thoroughly beaten in stout, straightforward fighting, on the part of the rank and file of the Infantry, inspired by the gallant leading of their officers.
On this occasion there was no such providential fog as that to which in great measure was due the successful breaching of the Hindenburg Line at its strongest point. At Ramicourt the 46th Division met, on more equal terms, and defeated in a pitched battle by stark and straight fighting, the 241st, 221st, 119th, and 34th Divisions of the German Army. True, some of these Divisions had lately been withdrawn from other fronts and were still worn out with their previous great ordeal, but the 241st and 34th, at least, were fresh troops, and, after all, the 46th Division also had just passed through the strain of a most tremendous effort and, though flushed with well-merited success, the troops were to a certain extent jaded by their previous efforts.
The Battles of Bellenglise and Ramicourt may be contrasted in a single sentence: Bellenglise was a miracle; Ramicourt was a victory: therein lies the essential difference between them.
At 5.30 p.m. on the 30th September the 32nd Division passed through the 46th Division, who were resting on their final objective beyond Magny and Lehaucourt, and advanced, closely supported by British Cavalry, to what it was trusted would be the last fight the Germans should make in prepared positions this side of the Sambre-Oise Canal. The Division, however, met with more opposition than was expected, and was finally held up on the general line running between Sequehart (exclusive) and Joncourt (inclusive), while in front of them the enemy held the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line, a partially completed but strongly wired system of trenches. He had also strong forces in Sequehart and strong posts thrown out everywhere in front of his main line of resistance right across the front of the Division. On the left and right the Australians and 1st Division were also held, and the waiting Cavalry were forced to return west of the Canal and give up the attempt to break through for the present.
It was quite clear that, if the original plan of a breakthrough on a large scale was to be carried out, a further attack would be necessary in order to overrun this last organized defensive position, which, though much less strong than the Hindenburg Line itself, was an insuperable obstacle to Cavalry, and, bravely defended by stout troops, was likely to give Infantry also a good deal of trouble.
At a Corps Conference held in the afternoon of the 2nd October, the G.O.C. 46th Division was instructed to attack and capture the line Sequehart (exclusive)—Montbrehain, getting into touch with the 2nd Australian Division to the north-west of the latter village. At the same time the 32nd Division, side-slipping to the right, was to attack and capture Sequehart, thus protecting our right flank.
Readers of this account will remember that the conclusion of the Battle of Bellenglise, on the night of the 29th September, found the 46th Division relieved of pressure on their front by the 32nd Division, but with both flanks unprotected. Owing to the exposure of its flanks the Division remained in action throughout the night, and it was not until the early hours of the morning that our right flank was cleared by the occupation of Talana Hill and Thorigny by the 1st Division. Still later the 2nd Australian Division overcame the resistance of the troops opposed to them, and, advancing through Etricourt, joined up with the 32nd Division well to our left front. This squeezed the 46th Division out of the line altogether, Divisional Headquarters remaining at Small Post Wood, while the Infantry Brigades concentrated, the 138th Brigade to the west of the Canal, the 137th Brigade on the eastern bank of the Canal, with Headquarters and one battalion in the Bellenglise Tunnel, and the 139th Brigade also east of the Canal with Headquarters in a dug-out in the Canal bank. The latter Brigade acted as Divisional Reserve to the 32nd Division and was placed temporarily under the orders of the G.O.C. of that Division. Of the Artillery, five Brigades—the 16th Army Brigade R.H.A., the 14th Army Brigade R.F.A., the 23rd Army Brigade R.F.A., the 161st Army Brigade R.H.A., and the 118th Army Brigade R.F.A.—remained in action covering the advance of the 32nd Division, while the remaining four—the 5th Army Brigade R.F.A., the 231st and 230th Brigades R.F.A., and the 232nd Army Brigade R.F.A.—withdrew out of action and were placed in reserve to the west of the Canal.
The Signal Company meanwhile received instructions to establish a Forward Report Centre at La Baraque, on the site of what had formerly been a small farm at the cross-roads 500 yards north-east of Bellenglise. Here were a number of deep dug-outs and one or two strong cement shelters which had formerly been the Headquarters of one of the German formations holding the main Hindenburg Line east of the Canal. This Report Centre with the necessary signal office and local telephone lines to “G,” “Q,” and other essential offices sited in the neighbouring dug-outs, was completed during the 1st and 2nd October, and communication successfully established with Corps Headquarters; with all three Infantry Brigades in their reserve positions; and with 32nd Division Advanced Report Centre in a dug-out a few yards distant from the new signal office. At the same time three cable detachments were ordered up to La Baraque, ready for a move forward in the event of a break-through, while all the cable which could be got forward in the time was also collected here.
All possible preparations were thus completed to meet any situation which might arise, either in the event of the Division being required to pass through the 32nd Division on a route march through the enemy country, or to reinforce in the event of the battle going against our troops. Subsequent events were to demonstrate that this prevision was to have a decisive bearing on the readiness of the Division to fight the battle, the plans for which were already being conceived in the mind of the Higher Command.
At 4.30 p.m., as already stated, the Corps Commander issued orders personally at a Corps Conference to the General Officers commanding the Divisions concerned. These orders had to be considered by the Divisional Staffs and detailed instructions issued to the G.O's.C., Infantry Brigades, and the O's.C. Artillery Groups, before any movements of formations, which were much scattered, could be arranged. The attack was scheduled to commence at 6.5 a.m. the following morning, so it was clear from the beginning that no time must be lost either in formulating plans, or in carrying them out when once devised, while any hitch in the proceedings, however small, was likely to be disastrous. The scope of the operations was such as to demand every atom of the strength of the Division, applied at the right time in exactly the right place in order to achieve success. Ramicourt was, in fact, to be that type of operation most dangerous unless carried out under the orders of an extremely efficient Staff by competent subordinates—an impromptu battle. If to this is added the fact that practically all preparation and movement had to be carried out by night—and a moonless night too, as so happened—and that the situation on the front held by the 32nd Division was by no means clear, even to the Staff of that Division, it will be seen that there was every chance of the attack going wrong from the start should any one senior officer prove unequal to the task allotted him.
The country about the St. Quentin Canal had formed a slight interruption to the rolling downs to the westward, but here once again the landscape assumed the same characteristics. As far as eye could see from the tops of the low rounded ridges near the Canal there was no change. Everywhere were the same gently undulating features with occasional woods or copses, the whole seamed by the sunken roads which throughout were one of the salient characteristics of the country over which the Division had fought. These sunken roads, owing to the shelter and security from observation afforded by them and the facility with which they could be organized for defence, were of the greatest importance from the military point of view. It was along such roads as ran approximately north and south that the enemy, after having been pushed out of his last prepared line, put up his most stubborn defence while being pressed back over this open country. Other features of the country which had a certain effect on military dispositions were the little scarps which existed along the edges of most of the valleys in the district. At these points, where the ground rises to form the flat-contoured hills, the earth had usually been cut away to form a little cliff anything from two to six or even more feet in height; the resultant scarp, when facing in the right direction with regard to the enemy, affording shelter from observation. These faces were usually of soft earth, chalk, or crumbly sandstone, and were used to a great extent by both combatants, who burrowed into them and so obtained a certain measure of security from shell fire at the cost of a minimum amount of labour. The shelter thus afforded from the weather conditions was also not to be despised as the autumn crept on, the nights grew longer, and the temperature fell lower. Many hundreds of men of the 46th Division will in future days look back with pleasure to the nights spent in these little, not uncomfortable, bivouacs after a hard day's work either fighting or chasing the “Boche.” Indeed, it may not be far from true that the best days of many lives will be those of the autumn of 1918, when to be alive and well was a thing to be grateful for, and when the British Army was at last obtaining a just reward for all its dogged and patient fighting.
Little was known of the country over which the coming battle was to be fought, but, from aeroplane observation and prisoners' statements, it had been possible to plot on our maps the system of defence known as the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line where the enemy had turned at bay, and which the 46th Division was now asked to breach. On the map, this line appears as a continuous double line of trenches heavily protected by two strong barbed-wire entanglements. It was apparently stronger at the western than at the eastern end of the objective of the Division, where, however, it was supported by the organized defences of the village of Sequehart and was overlooked and enfiladed by the machine guns and artillery on the high ground to the east. Actually a close examination of the line after its capture by our troops alters the values of the photographic representation considerably. Aeroplane photographs will show a line of trenches well and will betray the chief strong-points, but the details of a carefully-prepared system such as the one under present consideration are not so easily seen. The Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line was both stronger and weaker than it appeared.
The unexpected strength of the line lay in two principal things. The first was the stout heart of the garrison which held it, properly imbued, as the men were, with a sense of its importance as the last of the German outlying lines of defence. The second source of strength was the presence at fifty-yard intervals of strong, well-constructed concrete shelters, where machine-gun crews could obtain immunity from our barrage, to reappear immediately it had passed and mow down our attacking Infantry if they lagged behind it. Never had it been more important for the success of our attack that the Infantry should keep up with the guns if casualties and perhaps repulse were to be avoided.
The weakness of the line, on the other hand, consisted in the fact that its construction had never been completed. Our success on the 29th September had been so wholly unexpected that work on the Fonsomme line had been restricted to the building of the concrete strong-points, the wiring of entanglements, and the tracing-out of the lines of trenches to a spade-depth only. “Surely”—the German Higher Command must have reflected—“the British cannot take the Hindenburg Line in their stride. They will attack, as on the Somme, after weeks of preliminary bombardment, and in the meantime we shall have plenty of time to complete the preparation of further lines behind.”
On the contrary, the whirlwind attack on the Canal proved irresistible and the assault on the Fonsomme line found the enemy to a certain extent unprepared, though the line as it was, with rifle pits three or four feet deep dug by individual defenders, was a sufficiently formidable obstacle to tender the success of an attack doubtful. One feature of the Fonsomme line as it appears at present is the small extent to which it has been damaged by artillery. Near the Canal the defences had been smashed into chaos by our heavy artillery, so that in places it was difficult to distinguish the original plan on which they were built. The Fonsomme line is, however, practically undamaged: there is not one single concrete emplacement on the whole of the Divisional front which has been damaged by artillery fire, while the trenches themselves are nearly free from direct hits. There was, in fact, very little preliminary artillery preparation for the Ramicourt Battle; what little work the “heavies” did carry out being confined chiefly to the villages and such dominant features as Doon Hill and Copse, where enemy artillery was active during the later stages of the battle.
Besides the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line, the main obstacles to be overcome in the area scheduled for attack by the 46th Division were the villages of Ramicourt and Montbrehain, lesser obstacles being the networks of sunken roads lying around Neville's Cross and Ramicourt Station, together with the Beaurevoir-Montbrehain railway-line which ran transversely across the Divisional front, forming a strong convex outer defence line to Montbrehain.
The country between these strong-points was, as already stated, open and undulating, but it was unfortunate that the dominating features—hills slightly above the average in height—were on the extreme right flank of the Divisional objective. These ridges, Mannequin Hill and Doon Hill, were to play a decisive part in the enemy's resistance, particularly in assisting his strong counter-attacks towards the end of the day. Both from Mannequin Hill and Doon Hill, artillery and machine guns could fire with direct observation on the greater part of the country attacked, so that the guns on these hills caused considerable casualties long after the Infantry resistance had been overcome. Our troops were thus forced, for the sake of shelter, to take up positions with inferior opportunities for observation, and the enemy in his counter-attacks was able to infiltrate into our positions from one direction and another without much opposition. Towards the end of the day, the position had become very obscure indeed, and had to be cleared up, on one portion of our front at any rate, by a retreat to positions well behind those held by us at the conclusion of the morning's attack.
When the orders for attack were received from the IX Corps, the situation on the front held by the 32nd Division was anything but clear, and reliable information could not be obtained as to the exact position of our own front-line troops and those of the enemy. It was decided, therefore, to attack from a line some distance behind our reported front line, in order to make certain that the forming-up of our troops should not be interfered with by contact with enemy patrols. The selection of a forming-up line which could be located and on which the troops could be disposed in the darkness of the early morning might have been a matter of extreme difficulty. The problem was in this instance solved, however, by the presence of the Joncourt-Sequehart Road, a well-marked feature running parallel to the whole front of attack and, providentially, only a few hundred yards in front of the line held by the enemy. Guides from all units were therefore selected, shown the road and the approaches to it, and sent back to lead their units to their appointed places on this line. The actual forming-up line was taped out some 200 yards in front of this road and approximately parallel to it.
To allow latitude for any possible short shooting or incorrect disposition of the attacking troops, the initial barrage line was laid down some 200 yards in advance of the forming-up line. Here it was to wait six minutes before lifting, in order to permit the Infantry to redistribute themselves under its shelter before moving forward against the first objective.
Perhaps the arm most affected by the shortness of notice before the attack was the Artillery. The C.R.A. 46th Division had under his command nine Brigades of Horse and Field Artillery, and with this force he was ordered to cover the front of attack of both the 46th and 32nd Divisions. Of these Brigades, five were already in position, and the fire from these five was arranged so as to cover the whole front of the attack, the fire from the remaining four, which had to move forward, being superimposed upon the barrage laid down by the former.
Thus, in the event of the failure of these other Brigades to come into action in time, a failure which had to be reckoned with and which might, under adverse circumstances, have been unavoidable, there would be no gaps in the barrage, and the troops, though insufficiently supported, could have advanced to time with a fair prospect of success.
Instructions were at once sent out to all Brigade Commanders to reconnoitre positions well east of the Canal within 2,000 yards of the front line, and to make the necessary arrangements to get their batteries in line and their ammunition dumped ready to open fire on the initial barrage line at zero hour if possible, or as soon afterwards as they could manage.
In this connection it may be interesting to the civilian reader to have some account of the special difficulties of the Artillery under circumstances such as those we are considering. To deal with a particular case, the officer commanding any one of the nine Artillery groups covering the Division in the Battle of Ramicourt received his orders about one hour before dark. His preparations had to be completed and his batteries ready for action by 6.5 a.m. the following day. Positions must be reconnoitred, horses must be brought up from the wagon lines, guns must be got into position position, telephone lines must be laid from Brigade Headquarters to batteries, barrage tables must be prepared, and ammunition brought up and dumped handy to the guns.
The group commander, taking his battery commanders with him, proceeds direct to the area allotted to him, and arrives with half an hour of daylight remaining in which to choose his headquarters and the battery positions.
Battery positions must of course be chosen so that they are not under direct observation of the enemy. Precautions must also be taken to ensure that the guns can clear the crest in front of them and have a clear line of fire to engage the targets assigned to them.
The exact positions of the enemy are not known with any certainty. A moment's thought will suffice to show that the difficulties of choosing in such short time suitable positions for four batteries, in unknown country, with the situation obscure and the light failing, are all but insuperable. When, in spite of circumstances, battery positions have been selected and a Brigade Headquarters chosen, officers are sent back to bring the guns into position.
The officers sent back have had little chance of studying the country, and it is by now a pitch-black night. The roads are crowded with traffic, tracks are deep in mud and broken-up every few yards by deep shell-craters. Every yard of the way there is imminent danger of gun or wagon falling headlong into a hole from which it would take hours to retrieve them. When the positions are finally reached, the guns must be manœuvred over shell-torn ground into the precise sites selected for them.
Meanwhile, the Brigade Staff, sitting in a hole in a bank, must get out their orders, and the battery commanders sitting in shell-holes must work out, by fitful candle-light, their barrage tables. A telephone exchange must be established at Brigade Headquarters and some miles of telephone lines laid to batteries.
All this must take place in absolute darkness, working every minute against time, while the enemy is scattering gas shells over the whole area. It needs little imagination, therefore, to realize the immense difficulties and the thousand chances that fate may oppose to the achievement of the result aimed at.
The fact that good positions were selected and all Brigades, except the 232nd Army Field Artillery Brigade, were able to open fire up to time reflects the greatest credit on the energy and good leadership of the commanding officers, and on the zeal with which their orders were carried out by all subordinate officers and by the rank and file of the Brigades.
The Brigade above mentioned was at a considerable distance from Divisional Headquarters and was not at the time in communication with the latter by telephone. Orders did not, therefore, reach its commander until very late, and at zero hour this Brigade was still moving, though it came into action shortly afterwards.
The barrage to be fired by the Field Artillery was naturally of a somewhat impromptu nature, as no time was available for the issue of elaborate time-tables and barrage maps. Everything possible was done, however, to ensure accurate firing, and the precaution referred to above, that of throwing the initial barrage some distance in front of the Infantry, enabled the latter to conform to any slight irregularities. The reports of all ranks who advanced under it, indeed, show that, though there was slightly more short shooting than usual, the barrage as a whole was regular and adequate, so that the Infantry were able to advance behind it with confidence.
The rôle of the Heavy Artillery during the present battle was a very subordinate one when compared with the part played by it in the attack on Bellenglise. Good work was, however, done, both by the 6-inch howitzers which fired in front of the barrage, and by the 60-pounders and heavier guns which bombarded Sequehart, Ramicourt, and Montbrehain, together with the main approaches to, and commanding features in, the area attacked.
The problem of signal communications in such a battle as that projected was no small one. Very fortunately, the establishment of an Advanced Report Centre at La Baraque provided the skeleton of a system, the details of which might be, and were, filled in at short notice under difficult circumstances. The O.C. R.A. Signals was faced with the problem of discovering from Brigade commanders the positions which they were selecting for their new Headquarters, and anticipating their requirements by connecting these Headquarters by telephone with Advanced Division. This had to be done for nine Brigades, and, in most cases, the lines to be laid were two or three miles in length. It was fortunate, indeed, that five of these Brigades were already connected to the 32nd Divisional Report Centre at La Baraque itself, so that a short strip of poled cable 200 or 300 yards in length was sufficient to connect the two arteries together and to assure temporary communication with the greater part of the Artillery. For the rest, cable detachments worked all night despite darkness and a sporadic bombardment by gas shells which was responsible for several slight casualties. On more than one occasion lines were cut as they were being laid and, in particular, the village of Joncourt proved so unpleasant that the route to the Divisional Observation Officer had finally to avoid that place. Both horses and men of the cable detachment had worked all the previous day and, during the preparations for the Battle of Bellenglise, had had a gruelling time. Nothing daunted, however, by previous work or present danger, all ranks persevered, and by morning, when six o'clock brought us to within five minutes of zero hour, the last line—that to the Australian Division on our left flank—was through, and both Flank Divisions, all the Infantry Brigades (both front and rear Headquarters), and eight Artillery Brigades were in touch with Divisional Headquarters by telephone. When the Divisional Commander and C.R.A. arrived and the battle began, they were able to control the whole situation from a central point, where they could each consult the other as Artillery support was needed or Infantry dispositions were changed. Good communication is essential in modern warfare where the opposing armies are far-flung over many miles of country, and at Ramicourt, under circumstances as adverse as they well could be, the 46th Signal Company justified itself to the last man. Day broke and showed a strong and easily-maintained cable network, with both telegraph and telephone communication to all Headquarters, this being duplicated by complete visual and wireless systems which, however, were not used to any great extent because the lines held up so well.
Cavalry, Engineers, and Artillery, all play their essential parts in modern war, and, to understand the battle, a discussion of the necessary preparations which make in so great measure for success or failure is essential. Yet, when once the description of the battle itself is reached, it is the Infantry (the P.B.I. as they delight to call themselves) who must perforce—and of right—take up the greater proportion of our interest and attention. Battles can be won—true, at tremendous cost—with little or no artillery preparation, and with little or no assistance from Cavalry or Engineers. This was proved for ever in the early days of the war on the Eastern front, where the masses of ill-armed and ill-equipped Russian soldiery were driven to their death, yes, and to victory, against the best-equipped army in Europe. Without Infantry, on the other hand, no amount of artillery or other preparation can lead to any capture of territory, or to the destruction of an opposing army. So, at Ramicourt, while the Artillery and Signals played an important part in the victory, it is to the Infantry we must turn to find the driving-force which out-fought the German Divisions opposed to us and registered another victory on the already long list to the credit of the British Armies.
The match of the Infantry to the forming-up positions was carried out in the pitch blackness of a very dark night and over unfamiliar country. Despite this, however, no hesitation or trouble occurred, and the forming-up line was reached in good time. By this time, the first glimmer of dawn made it possible for officers to locate their positions and forming-up was carried out without difficulty by means of the taped line, or on compass bearings, all front-line battalions deploying on the agreed positions 200 yards behind the barrage line. Enemy artillery was normally active during this period, paying particular attention to Lehaucourt Valley, and, while waiting for the barrage to open, the 1/6th South Staffords were unfortunate enough to lose an officer and six men by a direct hit from a shell.
The Infantry of the Division were attacking on a two-Brigade front with the 139th Infantry Brigade on the left and the 137th Infantry Brigade on the right, the 138th Infantry Brigade being in Divisional Reserve round about Magny-la-Fosse and the St. Quentin Canal. Attached to the latter Brigade were the 1/1st Monmouths, who were ordered to concentrate in and about Springbok Valley.
Dawn broke with a heavy fog as on the day of the Bellenglise Battle, but on this occasion the mist thinned rapidly, and when the barrage opened and the men sprang forward at 6.5 a.m., the fog was clearing with every prospect of a fine day to follow. Flushed with their previous success, officers and men leaped to their feet and thrust forward to conform to the barrage, which stood before them, a thundering wall of smoke and pulverized earth, interposing between them and the enemy a friendly, if highly dangerous, veil of invisibility. Before them, for six long minutes, the line of bursting shells stood still, then, with the Infantry behind it, commenced to move steadily forward, and the conquest of the last German main line of resistance was begun.
Behind the Infantry rumbled the tanks, of which one company was again attached to each fighting Brigade, and whose duties were the destruction of the barbed-wire entanglements which formed the chief physical obstacle in the path of our advance.
The tasks of the two Brigades in the front line were essentially different. The Left Brigade (139th Infantry Brigade) had a straightforward if difficult task allotted to it—the task of advancing against the Fonsomme line at its strongest point and then overrunning and mopping up in succession the villages of Ramicourt and Montbrehain. From the first, the attack met with strong resistance, the German troops in the Fonsomme line putting up a very stout fight indeed. There had been no preliminary bombardment, and paths through the wire had to be ploughed by the tanks. The Infantry, pouring through these gaps, or making their way independently through the wire belts, then rushed the trenches with the bayonet, carrying all before them, and utterly destroying the garrison, who, to do them justice, made no attempt to escape their fate by flight. It is estimated that practically the whole garrison of this line was wiped out, between 150 and 200 German bodies being found after the battle in the trenches on the front attacked by the 139th Brigade alone. Immediately in rear of the Fonsomme line, more stiff fighting was experienced. Here enemy machine-gun sections were dug in in isolated gun-pits which were very difficult indeed to deal with.
It was in the attack on such posts that Sergeant W. H. Johnson of the 1/5th Sherwoods well earned the Victoria Cross which was later bestowed upon him. This N.C.O., when his platoon was held up by such a nest of enemy machine guns, worked his way forward single-handed under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire and charged the post, bayoneting several gunners, and capturing the two machine guns which had been delaying the advance. During the attack, he was severely wounded by a bomb, but nevertheless continued to lead his men forward until, a similar situation occurring, he again rushed forward alone and attacked the post. This time, taking a leaf out of the enemy's book, he made his attack with bombs and, putting both guns out of action, captured the crews, thus again enabling the troops to advance and preventing them from falling dangerously far behind the barrage.
Having cleared the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line with comparatively few casualties to themselves, the Sherwoods then advanced on the village of Ramicourt, where, however, the two leading battalions—the 5th and 8th Sherwood Foresters—apparently lost direction slightly, spreading out through the northern and southern outskirts of the village. Observing this, the O.C. 6th Sherwood Foresters, who was in reserve, acted on his own initiative and pushed his reserve company and Battalion Headquarters through the village, and commenced to mop it up. In this task, he was later assisted by the support companies of the leading battalions. The troops in Ramicourt, however, in contrast with those encountered in the line before the village, put up comparatively little resistance, having been probably demoralized by the attention paid to the village and its surroundings by our heavy artillery. The village yielded in all some 400 prisoners. Shortly after crossing the Fonsomme line, however, during the clearing of the outlying machine-gun posts, the attacking battalions suffered severe losses, and amongst those who fell were two battalion commanders—Lieutenant-Colonel B. W. Vann, V.C., M.C., of the 1/6th Sherwoods, killed, and Lieutenant-Colonel A. Hacking, M.C., wounded. The latter, however, remained with his men until the situation had been cleared up and the attack had passed well east of Ramicourt. Mention has already been made of the extraordinary bravery and initiative shown by Colonel Vann at the Battle of Bellenglise, bravery which has since been recognized by the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a soldier, and the greatest mark of respect that can be paid to his memory should he have fallen in the execution of his duty. This officer, during the Battle of Ramicourt, showed the same fine spirit as in the previous action, and his death, while leading his men forward among the enemy machine-gun posts beyond the Fonsomme line, was a loss which was felt throughout the Division in less degree only than in the battalion he had led so well.
About this period of the action, it became evident that the Division on the left of the 46th Division was not making progress according to time-table, so, in order to protect the left flank of the Brigade, the O.C. 8th Sherwood Foresters was directed to despatch two companies through Wiancourt to form a defensive flank. This was done and a few prisoners taken. Thus, with its flank secure, the Brigade was once more in a position to more forward against the strong bodies of the enemy who had taken up their position in the sunken roads and in the railway-cutting at Ramicourt Station, and who were likely to delay the advance considerably, unless the Infantry fell upon them while their resistance was smothered by our barrage.
At about this period of the advance, the troops also came under enfilade fire from high ground to the north-west of Montbrehain and slightly to the left front of the final objective assigned to the Division. In order to avoid this galling fire, hedges and sunken roads had to be resorted to, and the advance in consequence now lost its ordered nature, the men dribbling forward as occasion served and taking advantage of every possible bit of shelter.
During the advance to Ramicourt, the tanks allotted to the Brigade played a subordinate part, but they were very useful in clearing out isolated machine-gun nests and, especially, in mopping-up the western outskirts of Ramicourt, where, however, all but one were knocked out. The remaining tank advanced with the Infantry until immediately south of Montbrehain, when, just before reaching the first objective, it advanced single-handed against a nest of no less than sixteen machine guns, killing the whole of the crews of these guns, but being itself disabled during the fight. From this stage, the Infantry advanced without further help from tanks.
In spite of strong resistance and fairly heavy casualties, the sunken roads at Ramicourt Station were cleared of the enemy without our men falling behind the barrage, and, eventually, the whole line formed up on the first objective, a line running north-west and south-east through the southern outskirts of Montbrehain. Here, the barrage halted for twenty minutes, and, while the fighting troops were reorganized, success signals were fired, and news sent back to Divisional Headquarters of the good progress made by the attack. On receipt of this news, the supporting troops under the command of the G.O.C. 138th Infantry Brigade were ordered to occupy the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line. At the same time, the C.R.A. 46th Division ordered two batteries from each group to more forward into the area west of Ramicourt ready to support any further advance or to assist the Infantry to repulse any counter-attack which might be launched after they had reached their final objective. Meanwhile, the absence of any support on our left flank had entailed the north-eastward extension of the defensive flank already pushed out in the direction of Wiancourt. The greater part of the 8th Battalion of Sherwood Foresters was therefore now fully engaged in protecting this flank, and the driving-power of the Brigade was by so much reduced.
During the attack, as in the attack on Bellenglise, and subsequent attacks in the more open warfare which was to follow, the trench mortar batteries attached to each Brigade, an arm of the Service which (as its name suggests) was developed during trench warfare, had proved of great use, but were handicapped by their comparative immobility. Sometimes, it was even found advisable to use the personnel of the sections as riflemen, and good value from the men was undoubtedly obtained in this way. There were many occasions, however, when the guns did excellent work, either in dealing with unusually stubborn machine-gun nests, or in the protection of an exposed flank by overhead fire, and, throughout this and other actions, all officers, N.C.O.s, and men of these batteries behaved superbly, whether employed as Infantry or Artillery. In the attack on Ramicourt, especially, one officer of the 139th Trench Mortar Battery—Second-Lieutenant H. Edgson of the 1/5th Sherwood Foresters—greatly distinguished himself. Being determined that his mortars should play as important a part as possible in the battle, he showed the greatest perseverance and gallantry, taking his section of guns up through the heavy enemy barrage, and succeeding on three occasions in bringing them into action against the retiring enemy, causing many casualties amongst them. Later on, when unable to keep pace with the advance, he found a company of Infantry whose officers had all become casualties, so, taking command, he reorganized the company and led it forward. During the subsequent advance, losing no chance of turning his technical knowledge to advantage, he showed marked initiative, twice turning a hostile trench mortar on the enemy—on one occasion, destroying an enemy machine-gun nest and, on another, dispersing a party of enemy who were collecting for a local counter-attack.
The attack from the first objective was resumed by the 6th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters immediately the protective barrage lifted, and, at the start, the fresh attack met with strong enemy resistance, heavy street fighting taking place in Montbrehain, particularly in the area about the cemetery which had been strongly organized for defence. This latter place was finally rushed and cleared by a series of locally-organized small attacks, but it proved impossible to consolidate and hold the position owing to the heavy machine-gun fire from the high ground to the north which was strongly held by the enemy. The village itself also was held in force and proved very difficult to clear, much sniping and machine-gun fire being encountered. Officer casualties in particular were very heavy during the street fighting at this period of the battle. For some time the battalion was, indeed, held up altogether, and the situation was not made any more easy by the presence of civilians. Of these, some seventy were found in Ramicourt and Montbrehain, some of whom rushed out to give our men greeting, as they passed to take their share in turning out the German garrison.
The attack on the village of Montbrehain was carried out under the command of Major J. A. Shedden, M.C., who had taken command of the 1/6th Sherwood Foresters after Colonel Vann had been killed in action, and it was to his personal example that the success of the attack was very largely due, as it was on his battalion, up to the present, the brunt of the fighting had fallen. Now, however, the 5th and 8th Battalions, having achieved their objectives and completed the formation of a defensive flank, sent companies inward to assist in the mopping-up of the village. The enemy then, imagining himself to be outnumbered, lost heart and surrendered freely, with the result that in a short time the whole of the village was in our hands, with over 1,000 prisoners in addition.
One of the principal features of the enemy's defence, and one which gave our troops most trouble to overcome, was a battery of field guns snugly ensconced just to the eastward of the northern outskirts of the village. These were successfully dealt with by a company of the 1/5th Sherwoods, who, under the gallant leading of Lieutenant J. W. Potter, overcame all opposition and rushed the teams, bayoneting or shooting those of the gunners who did not either take to flight or surrender, and capturing all six guns. This officer then endeavoured to lead his company eastward against heavy machine-gun fire and two batteries of field guns firing over open sights, but was unable to make progress against the overwhelming opposition encountered, and was finally obliged to dig in and consolidate his position in the eastern outskirts of the village.
The mopping-up of the village of Montbrehain was completed by 11.30 a.m., and our troops, by that time, rested practically on the objectives assigned to them in the plans for the attack. Attempts were then made to push our platoon posts to the high ground on the north, east, and south-east of the village. The strength of the Brigade had, however, been seriously depleted during the advance, and the enemy were in great strength and well supported by artillery, so that all attempts to debouch from the village proved abortive. Another thing which had, of course, led to great dispersion of strength which otherwise might have sufficed to establish our hold on the high ground beyond the village, was the insecurity of both flanks and the consequent necessity of providing troops to make them safe. The most advanced post of the Australians lay due east of the village of Wiancourt, so that the front held by the troops of the 139th Brigade was twice the length originally intended. On the left also, although the Sherwoods were on the inter-brigade boundary, contact could not be established with the Stafford Brigade, and parties pushed out to gain touch had been, up to this time, unsuccessful. The Staffords, owing to similar trouble with their right flank, had side-slipped considerably, and the reserve troops pushed in to fill the gap had not yet reached their forward positions.
Thus, twelve noon found our Left Brigade somewhat precariously established on their final objective, and, before proceeding to follow their fortunes further, it is necessary to turn and consider what had happened in the meantime to the 137th Infantry Brigade, which was entrusted with the attack on the right of our front.
While the attack of the 139th Brigade was a straight-forward assault on a frontage of some 2,000 yards, and the main difficulties consisted in the overcoming of enemy resistance in the Fonsomme line at one of its strongest points and the capture, or envelopment, of the villages of Ramicourt and Montbrehain, the task of the 137th Brigade was essentially different.
This Brigade, while attacking on a somewhat narrower frontage at first, was faced with the necessity of spreading out fanwise, in order to conform to the lack of movement of the 32nd Division on their right flank. Throughout the action their most difficult problems were:—(1) the filling-up of gaps due to this fanwise increase of their front; (2) their uncertainty about the village of Sequehart; (3) the avoidance and neutralization of machine-gun and artillery fire from the high ground of Mannequin Hill, running as it did right across their front.
At zero hour, the Brigade moved forward on a two-battalion front with the 1/5th South Staffords in support. The latter were ordered to assemble in Lehaucourt Valley, but, as the enemy barrage fell on the southern slopes of this valley, they later moved forward to the high ground above it and so avoided further casualties.
The first obstacle in the way of the advance of the 1/6th North Staffords, moving on the left of the attack, was Chataignies Wood, a small copse 300 or 400 yards square in which all the trees had been cut down and removed by the Germans, but where the brushwood afforded good concealment for enemy machine gunners and riflemen. The Staffords opened out on either side of this wood, two companies going to the right and two to the left, while a tank fired into it from the front and engaged the attention of the enemy within it. Once past it, the right and left halves of the battalion joined up again and moved forward to the attack on the Fonsomme line, while the support battalion—the 1/5th South Staffords—sent forward a platoon to mop up the wood and the farm buildings at its north-eastern corner. The latter proved to be honeycombed with dug-outs which were subsequently used by us as a Brigade Headquarters.
Meanwhile, the right battalion—the 1/6th South Staffords—had met with no opposition until they advanced against the crest of the hill immediately south of Chataignies Wood, where considerable resistance was encountered and overcome, the enemy suffering severely from our Lewis-gun fire as they retreated down the valley to the eastward. Following up the retreating enemy closely, the 1/6th South Staffords were again held up almost immediately by the defences of the southward extension of the Fonsomme line, which runs south-east towards Fontaine d'Uterte. Here, considerable trouble was experienced from machine guns hidden in concrete emplacements, and was not overcome until the guns had been rushed and the crews bayoneted. The battalion at this period of its advance suffered considerable casualties, but pushed on and reached its final objective on the slopes of Mannequin Hill by 8.10 a.m. Strong patrols were pushed forward at once over the top of Mannequin Hill; but here the enemy was holding the crest in force, and the battalion, which had been obliged to drop companies to its right flank owing to the uncertainty as regards Sequehart, was not in sufficient strength to overcome this opposition. The men therefore withdrew under orders and consolidated in the sunken road on the near slopes of the hill, where much trouble was experienced from enemy snipers and machine guns both on the crest of the hill and on the high ground east of Sequehart, which had been recaptured by the Germans from the 32nd Division.
The necessity for securing the right flank of the Division had, very naturally, caused the whole Brigade to move much further to the right than had been intended in the original plans, and this caused the formation of a gap 1,000 yards wide between the left battalion of the 137th Brigade and the right flank of the 139th Brigade. This situation was at once remedied by the O.C. 1/5th South Staffords, who threw the whole of his remaining forces into the gap, attacking and carrying the Fonsomme line on the left of the Brigade sector, and capturing a number of prisoners and machine guns. This, however, left the Brigade entirely without support, until the arrival of the 5th Leicesters from the Reserve Brigade.
The original left battalion of the Brigade, the 1/6th North Staffords, after enveloping Chataignies Wood, encountered stiff opposition in the Fonsomme line, where the bayonet was once more used with great effect. Here, the men managed to keep up with the barrage, but at the cross-roads south-east of Ramicourt they were again held up by machine-gun fire and lost touch with the Brigade on their left. Later, they gained touch beyond, only to lose it once again at Neville's Cross, where two field guns were encountered firing point-blank over open sights at our advancing line. This obstacle was finally dealt with by a party of Lewis gunners, who worked round to a flank and put the guns out of action. The battalion, with the exception of a small composite party of 1/6th North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters, now side-slipped to the right considerably and, as mentioned above, the support battalion was pushed in to fill the gap thus created.
Meanwhile, this small party of thirty-two men—twenty of the Staffords and twelve Sherwoods—pressed on towards Doon Mill, which the enemy held in force and from which he poured a galling fire on the left of the 137th Brigade and the right of the 139th Brigade. They were, however, unable to reach their objective, and, finding themselves out of touch with all other British troops, they were obliged to return to Neville's Cross and the road running south from this point. Here, they maintained their positions for two hours under enfilade machine-gun fire from Mannequin Hill, which finally forced a retirement to a line running approximately north and south, about 1,000 yards south-east of Ramicourt.
Thus, the 137th Infantry Brigade also gained its main objectives to time, but, in order to do so, had absorbed all reserve troops into the fighting line and was subsequently obliged to fall back considerably, owing to heavy enemy fire from the dominating ridges along its front. There appears to have been no organized counter-attack on this portion of the front until late in the day, but the enemy fought stoutly and isolated posts, strongly held, prevented our line being established on the crest of Mannequin Hill and at Doon Mill as was intended, those parties of our Infantry who did get forward being subjected to enfilade fire and exposed to the danger of being cut off. The open nature of the country, in fact, enabled the enemy to dominate the situation from the high ground on which he was able to maintain himself, and our troops had to be withdrawn into positions where they could be sheltered from this enfilade fire.
Enemy counter-attacks repulsed—the advance to Bohain
Once the attack on the St. Quentin Canal and the Hindenburg Line was an assured success, it became evident that the front attacked by the 46th and 32nd Divisions was a likely place for a possible through-break, in which the conditions of really open warfare might quickly be established and Cavalry might come into their own again. One of the most picturesque features behind the line, during these days, was undoubtedly this concentration of Cavalry in our immediate rear. For some days, every dry-weather track was one long line of horsemen moving up two by two; all the roads were crowded with Cavalry transport, and the whole countryside was covered with their camps and bivouacs. Cavalry Corps Headquarters was established at “the Tumulus,” and every preparation for a possible advance was made, the only flaw in the dispositions being that success would have been more probable had the foremost Brigades been camped well to the east instead of to the west of the Canal.
It was originally intended to push the Cavalry through after the attack made by the 32nd Division on the 30th September and 1st October, but, owing to the successful resistance of the enemy on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line, this idea had to be abandoned, and the advanced Brigade, which had been pushed forward in readiness, retired again to the west of the St. Quentin Canal.
Now that the Fonsomme line had been breached and it was known that no organized system of defence lay in front of our troops, it seemed that another favourable opportunity had come, and word was immediately sent back to the 5th Cavalry Brigade to advance and exploit our success. This Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General N. Haig, C.M.G., and composed of the Scots Greys, 12th Lancers, and 20th Hussars, were, however, a considerable distance behind the line, and some time elapsed before they were able to come into action, by which time the enemy had recovered from their surprise and their resistance had considerably stiffened. It was then clear that Cavalry would be unable to dislodge the machine-gun posts on the high ground beyond our front, and the Brigade was withdrawn into Divisional Reserve and later dismounted and used to reinforce the 137th Brigade, taking up position, together with the 9th Corps Cyclists, in the Fonsomme line.
At noon, the situation appears to have been as follows:—The 139th Brigade were holding Montbrehain and their final objective generally, with a long defensive flank thrown back in the direction of Wiancourt, and with their right flank in the air altogether, since touch could not be obtained with the Stafford Brigade. The latter Brigade, which had reached its objective early in the morning, had been forced to fall back and now occupied a line considerably in rear of that held by the 139th Brigade. Of the supporting Brigade—the 138th Infantry Brigade—one battalion (the 4th Leicesters) was now ordered up to strengthen the left flank of the 139th Brigade, and the 5th Lincolns moved up to take the place of this battalion in the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line. The remaining battalion—the 5th Leicesters—was held in reserve to reinforce the 137th Infantry Brigade should their presence be required.
The first counter-attack of any magnitude took place on the front held by the 139th Brigade. At 12.30 p.m., enemy scouts were observed moving through Champignons Copse, and these men were followed by troops in artillery formation. Word of this movement was at once sent back to the Artillery, but communication between battalion and brigade was intermittent only, the lines being frequently broken by enemy shells, so that the news did not reach the Artillery until the counter-attack had commenced.
Our barrage thus fell behind the Germans, who continued to advance in waves until they reached the road running due south from Neville's Cross. From here, the enemy in small bodies moved on down the sunken road running south-west from the Cross, and managed to make their way along this road for some 500 yards before coming under heavy Lewis-gun and rifle fire from our troops east of Ramicourt. Foiled in their advance in this direction, they next worked up towards Montbrehain, and, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the quarries south of that village, filtered into the south-west corner of the village, where they were lost to sight.
In view of this situation and of a report received at this time at Brigade Headquarters to the effect that the enemy was massing for a counter-attack north of Montbrehain, the G.O.C. 139th Brigade decided to withdraw his men from the village itself. Orders were therefore given for a line to be consolidated south of Montbrehain, utilizing the Beaurevoir-Montbrehain Railway from the Divisional boundary to 250 yards south of Ramicourt Station, and thence due south to the line already held by the 137th Brigade.
It was only through the energy displayed by both officers and N.C.O.s that the withdrawal from the bottle-neck of Montbrehain was carried out without loss, but the troops were finally extricated from their dangerous position and took up the line marked out for them, being reinforced by the 4th Leicesters and the Monmouths, who were sent up from the Fonsomme line for the purpose.
This line was held as strongly as possible, and all available reserves were concentrated in the sunken roads to the north and south of Ramicourt. The enemy soon reoccupied Montbrehain and placed machine guns on the western outskirts of the village, but all his attempts to debouch from the village were stopped by our fire.
During the attack, one section of our own machine guns did very good service with indirect fire against the advancing enemy. Throughout the day, the companies of the Machine-Gun Battalion attached to the attacking Brigades had been of immense help, engaging the enemy's field guns and his enfilading machine guns whenever possible and inflicting numerous casualties. Great initiative was shown on many occasions by officers commanding machine-gun sections, and Lieutenant W. H. Hoff, of the 46th Machine-Gun Battalion, particularly distinguished himself during a counter-attack, instructing his men to take up position on a vantage-point behind the retiring Infantry while himself collecting the Infantry and leading them forward to the attack. He thus gained time for his men to establish themselves in a commanding position, with the result that the counter-attack was held up.
The enemy's retaliatory fire was much heavier during the counter-attack just described and for the rest of the day. Ramicourt itself, and Montbrehain before its reoccupation were both heavily shelled and all civilians were evacuated from both villages. As Ramicourt had become a death-trap, our reserves were distributed round about it, instead of in the town itself.
The line as now held was maintained intact until the night of the 3rd/4th October, when, on the extreme left, our troops were withdrawn from the railway north of the Montbrehain-Wiancourt Road and disposed along that road facing northwards in order to deal with a possible flank attack.
No further counter-attack was made on the left Brigade, but, at 6.30 p.m., the enemy appeared to have advanced and made a gap in our line on the front held by the 137th Brigade and to be filtering through this gap. The advance, however, was not successful. Orders were sent to the C.R.A., and a barrage put down in front of our line by both field and heavy artillery. This was maintained until the situation was cleared up, our line being reorganized behind the protection afforded by the guns. Thus on the evening of the 3rd October the Division held a line extending from the north-western slopes of Mannequin Hill to where the Montbrehain-Sequehart Road crosses the German light railway between Joncourt and Montbrehain. From there the line ran to Ramicourt Station, thence along the Beaurevoir Railway to where the latter crosses the Montbrehain-Wiancourt Road, and thence along that road to the Divisional boundary, west of Wiancourt.
On the night of the 3rd/4th October that portion of the line held by the 139th Brigade was taken over in its entirety by the 138th Brigade and the Monmouths, and the former Brigade was withdrawn into Divisional Reserve.
During the whole of the 4th October the line was held by the Division under continuous pressure from the enemy, who occupied the high ground all around and made full use of the opportunities for direct observation and enfilade fire thus afforded to him.
On the night of the 4th/5th October, however, the 2nd Australian Division took over the left Brigade sector, and the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division was placed at the disposal of the G.O.C. 46th Division. This Brigade was used to relieve the 137th Brigade on the right of the sector, and thus the part played by the troops of the 46th Division in this action was completed.
The fighting throughout the action was of the heaviest nature and our casualties, particularly in the retreat from Mannequin Hill and the fighting in and around Montbrehain, were very high, especially in Officers, of whom over a hundred fell, including five battalion commanders. Against this cost, however, has to be set the breaching of the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line and the capture of Ramicourt, with, in all, over 2,000 prisoners and several guns, and machine guns too numerous to count.
The loss of Montbrehain and the slight general withdrawal towards the close of the day were certainly a setback, which cost the Division many officers and men who could ill be spared, but, considered as a whole, there can be no question of the decisive nature of the victory achieved, and this was to be clearly seen in the days which immediately followed.
As on the occasion of the Battle of Bellenglise, the most striking feature of both attack and counter-attack was undoubtedly the high level of moral shown by all the rank and file of the Division. Evidence of this moral is to be seen in all reports. The attacking troops used the cold steel even more than during the previous assault, and it is estimated that at least 25 per cent. of the men engaged in the fighting actually fleshed their bayonets. Certainly, the percentage of enemy dead to wounded was very high, and in places, as in the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line and the machine-gun nests behind it, practically the whole garrison were slain where they stood. This splendid moral was well reflected in the behaviour of our wounded, the majority of whom asked to be patched up and to be allowed to return to the firing-line.
The moral of the enemy, too, was very much better in the Battle of Ramicourt than at Bellenglise. Not only did the machine gunners and the artillerymen—who have always fought stoutly—put up a good fight, but the Infantry also showed very great determination, especially in the counter-attacks. These were pressed energetically and with considerable initiative, small parties steadily making their way along hedges and sunken roads under very heavy fire from our men. All the enemy troops must have been impressed with the importance of the line they were holding and with the dire results which would inevitably follow a break-through at this juncture. His object was to hold on here at any cost, and thus to ensure a steady retreat to the next river-line. This object, as the sequel was to show, was in great measure achieved, though he was compelled to leave behind much valuable material.
No account of the battle could be considered complete were reference not made to the fine work carried out by the R.A.M.C. in the attention to and evacuation of the wounded. An advanced dressing station was established in Magny-la-Fosse, and the wounded from the aid-posts on the greater part of the front were dealt with expeditiously at that station. The road from Levergies to Magny was, however, hopelessly blocked by a derelict tank, and cases that would normally have been brought from the left sector of the attack by this road were, instead, taken direct to the IX Corps main dressing-station at Vadencourt.
Throughout the action, there was an entire absence of confusion in the medical arrangements, and evacuation proceeded smoothly and quickly, over 1,000 men being dealt with during the fighting. The doctors and staff worked unremittingly from early in the morning until late at night. The drivers of the motor-ambulances are also entitled to a special meed of praise, many of them working continuously for twenty-four hours on end, driving at the risk of their lives through areas which were heavily shelled both with gas and high explosive.
Many casualties occurred in the R.A.M.C. during the day, and, on the early morning of the 4th October, after all patients had been evacuated, a high-explosive gas shell burst at the door of the A.D.S. at Magny and three officers and twenty other ranks were badly gassed. Major S. S. B. Harrison, in command, continued to perform his duties, though badly gassed, and visited all posts before he would permit himself to be evacuated. This very gallant officer died of his wound and gas poisoning in the casualty clearing-station on the 10th October.
During the attack on Mannequin Hill, Lance-Corporal Coltman, of the 1/6th North Staffords, being in charge of the stretcher-bearers attached to his unit, earned the Victoria Cross by conspicuous bravery in the rescue of badly wounded men. Already the proud possessor of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal, in each case with the coveted bar which indicates that the decoration has been twice won, this N.C.O. has himself contributed a brilliant page to the history of the Division. During the heavy fighting about Mannequin Hill, word was brought to him that three of our men, too severely wounded to move, had been left behind when the battalion retired on account of the overwhelming enfilade fire from the summit of the hill. On his own initiative, Lance-Corporal Coltman then went forward into the valley in which the men had been left and, under concentrated enemy artillery and machine-gun fire, succeeded in locating them, dressed their wounds, and carried each one to his stretcher squad in rear of our line, thus saving their lives. Without pause or rest, he assisted in dressing and carrying wounded for forty-eight hours, his efforts continuing until the last man had been attended to.
The forward work of the officers and stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulances was also beyond praise, many individuals distinguishing themselves by their efforts. Major H. D. Lane, M.C., of the 1/1st North Midland Field Ambulance, during the attack on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line west of Ramicourt, pushed forward through the enemy's barrage and, although wounded, continued to search for and withdraw wounded under very heavy shell fire and aimed machine-gun fire from the left flank, from which the enemy could not at that time be dislodged. Later, being informed that civilians had been released in Ramicourt, he went forward to that village and collected them together. He then placed them in safety, supplied them with food, and took the utmost care of them until they could be removed out of danger.
The presence of civilians in Ramicourt and Montbrehain was a good sign. It showed quite clearly that we were getting past the devastated area and into the back areas which formerly were occupied by the Headquarters of the German higher formations. From now on, as we penetrated farther into enemy-occupied territory, more and more of the civilian inhabitants were released. The movement of the armies began to partake more of the nature of a triumphal march, the advanced troops being everywhere received with open arms by the families released by them from a slavery which, if sometimes tempered with uncouth attempts at ingratiation, was still in the highest degree distasteful to the people of the occupied districts. One of the most dramatic sights during the advance was undoubtedly the scene when, in the midst of the fighting at Montbrehain, before even the Germans were completely driven from the town, the few remaining inhabitants, regardless of their safety in their joy at their newly regained freedom, rushed from their houses with mugs of steaming hot coffee, the only tribute an impoverished population could offer to their liberators.
Soon, the tide of battle was to sweep on beyond the ruin of their homes, and they were to be left in peace to make the best attempt they could at repairing their shell-torn houses and to eke out a slender existence on rations spared by our men, or issued by the French Mission. Of means of local subsistence there were left practically none. The German occupation and the subsequent tide of war had left the area bare of everything except a few fields of sugar-beet, and such food as isolated individuals had managed to hide away during the last few days, when the thunder of the British guns was heard approaching nearer and nearer, and the possibility of the upsetting of the German usurpers became more of a reality and less of a dream.
During the evening of October 3rd, the Division received a very large amount of attention from enemy aeroplanes. Those carried out repeated bombing attacks on the bivouacs of the troops in the field, on transport lines, on transport and columns of troops on roads, on all villages within our lines and on other places likely to be used by us as Headquarters, or as assembly-places for troops. The nights were dark, but the airmen were unusually bold and flew very low, while the use of parachute lights of extraordinary brilliance and of considerable duration annulled, in great measure, the disadvantage (from the airman's point of view) of the dark night.
Any member of the Division whose duties took him on to the main roads around La Baraque, Bellenglise, and Magny-la-Fosse during this and the succeeding nights, will vividly recall the disagreeable sensations which passed up and down his spine as he sat in his car, or on the driver's seat of his transport-wagon, or stood in the road in one of the many blocks of traffic. The steady double throb of the “Boche” twin-engined planes was sufficient advertisement of the presence of enemy aircraft in the immediate neighbourhood without the ear-splitting blasts of the warning whistles, barking out their three long blasts from every direction. These latter made many a man whose nerves were not in the best condition long to seize the whistler and screw his neck until he swore never to put lips to whistle again. Suddenly, in one direction or another, a parachute-light would flare out, illuminating the whole countryside, while every man gazed towards the spot where the light was floating slowly downwards, or, if the parachute was overhead, sat still in a state of expectancy, wondering where the fateful bomb was going to drop. There is something very devastating to the nerves about a bomb. It seems so inevitable. There are many men whose nerves are proof against shell fire of any description, though few like it or go out of their way to meet it. The man, however, who does not dislike bombs intensely has yet to be found, and there are few moments so unpleasant as those spent waiting to see who is going to get the benefit of the next one.
If the light is distant and the plane far off, the watchers hear a dull boom or series of crashes—absolutely unmistakable, and never to be confounded with shell explosions. Relief then makes itself felt in various ways, but mainly by an unloosening of tongues, which takes the form amongst the waiting Infantry of an outburst of talking and chaffing, and usually in the case of transport drivers of a torrent of objurgation, directed impartially at their mules, or horses, or (carefully modulated to avoid danger of overhearing) at the Traffic Control, to whom always the whole credit of a traffic block is given.
If, on the other hand, the plane is almost overhead, the next act in the drama is a sibilant rushing sound rapidly increasing in volume, when all in a position to do so throw themselves prone on the ground, or rush for the nearest shelter, however meagre. Then follows an ear-splitting crashing roar, and a furious tornado of air, with or without splinters of bomb, hurls to the ground everything in its immediate neighbourhood. One bomb has dropped, and every one waits anxiously for the next, which may or may not come. If the bomb has expended its force harmlessly in a clear space, men then rise and feel themselves over, surprised to find they are still “all correct” and whole. If, on the other hand, such a bomb has landed in the midst of transport or men, the scene beggars description, fragments of men, wood, iron, and animals being hurled in all directions and to an incredible distance.
Such an instance of the blind fury of war in its very worst form occurred at the Headquarters of the Division at La Baraque. “G” Office was here snugly harboured at the bottom of a large and roomy “Boche” dug-out, and on the night of October 3rd a party of seventy or eighty German prisoners from the Battle of Ramicourt were waiting outside in the dusk for their turn for examination by the Staff Intelligence officer. Suddenly, the three whistles were heard and the drone of a German plane became audible, increasing in loudness as the plane approached and swooped towards the ground. There must still have been sufficient light for the airman, who was himself plainly visible to the watchers below, to see the body of men beneath him, though it was certainly far too dark for him to have been able to distinguish the field-grey uniform.
Just before he reached the group, he must have moved the lever controlling his bomb-dropping apparatus, and two bombs dropped almost simultaneously, both of which exploded in or near the unfortunate group of prisoners.
The scene that followed was indescribable. With the explosion, there arose a wail of anguish from the victims of the bomb, and, for a few seconds afterwards, there was a soft sickening rain of blood, fragments of flesh, and limbs, over the whole of the immediate neighbourhood. Some forty or fifty of the unfortunate prisoners, with some half-dozen of our own men who were passing the spot at the time, were literally blown to pieces, while another three or four dozen were lying strewn about the mouth of the dug-out with fearful wounds, nearly all of them about the legs and lower part of the body. There was a rush of the survivors for the steps of the dug-out itself, and the staff, endeavouring to make their way out to discover what really had happened, found their egress completely blocked by cowering and moaning prisoners crouching among a débris of human bodies. The place smelt like a shambles, and the most hardened campaigners sickened before the sights which were brought to light when officers with flash-lights arrived to ascertain the extent of the damage and tender first-aid to the wounded.
A strong party was at once turned on to clearing up the mess, but La Baraque smelt of blood until the day we left it, and every one was heartily glad when, on the 6th October, the Division handed over to the 6th Division, who were taking over the sector, and Headquarters moved back into rest at Vendelles. For days afterwards, traces of the effects of the explosion were visible, and one neatly divided half of a face, found near the Visual Station many yards away, will long be indelibly fixed in the mind and imagination of the finder.
On the 6th October, the command of the sector on a general line east of Wiancourt and Ramicourt passed to the G.O.C. 6th Division, who, however, retained the 139th Infantry Brigade and the Monmouths under his command. The same day, information was received that the IX Corps would attack, with the XV French Corps, on the right and the American Corps on the left, on a date which would be notified shortly. In the IX Corps, the 6th Division were to be in the line, with the 46th Division and the 3rd Infantry Brigade in Corps Reserve, the 46th Division being held in readiness to pass through the 6th Division should the attack made by the latter be successful.
Headquarters of the Division remained at Vendelles during this time, but an advanced report centre was opened at Magny-la-Fosse on the 7th October, and a system of signal communication with a main poled cable route of three pairs was led well forward of this, in anticipation of the Division going into action during the next few days. On the 8th October, the G.O.C. Division and “G” Staff moved forward to Magny, although on that date the 6th Division was fighting and the 46th Division troops (except the Divisional Artillery, who were assisting the 6th Division) remained in reserve.
On the 7th, the 138th Infantry Brigade was instructed to move forward to its assembly position west of Preselles Farm, and the dispositions of the troops of the 46th Division on the 8th October were as follows:—137th Infantry Brigade in the Bellenglise Tunnel, 138th Infantry Brigade as above, and 139th Infantry Brigade at or around Magny-la-Fosse.
In order to keep Divisional Headquarters informed as completely as possible of the course of events, the Divisional Observation Officer, with one wireless set and with his observers, was instructed to move forward and observe the result of the attack on Beauregard, Mericourt, and Fresnoy, which was being carried out by the 6th Division. By means of news sent back by him, the G.O.C. 46th Division was kept in close touch with a situation which was at times very obscure.
Following on the attack on Ramicourt on the 3rd October, the enemy had evidently become convinced that his position, without prepared defences as it was, was untenable, and he retreated steadily, closely followed by the British troops who were in action continually with his rearguards.
The 46th Division played no great part in the fighting at this time, the General Staff in the main contenting themselves with holding a watching brief; the Infantry being kept in positions where they could reinforce the attacking Division if necessary.
The Pioneer Battalion—the Monmouths—however, were ordered on the 7th October to attack and capture two machine-gun nests on the Sequehart-Mericourt Road, and the battalion suffered very heavily in the attempt. The assault was made as part of a converging attack carried out by the 6th Division and the 126th French Division on our left and right. These Divisions were to advance inwards and so cut the 139th Brigade, to which the Monmouths were attached, and which was acting under the orders of the G.O.C. 6th Division, out of the line.
At zero, plus ten minutes, “B” Company of the Monmouths, led by Captain W. P. Abbott and supported by a heavy trench-mortar bombardment, advanced to the attack of the machine-gun posts, but was met by an annihilating fire, the two platoons that led the attack being practically wiped out. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Jenkins, M.C., commanding the battalion, personally organized another attack and led forward four more platoons to the assault, but this attempt also was beaten off with heavy loss, Colonel Jenkins and his Adjutant being both amongst the killed.
The attack was then abandoned, having cost the battalion eight officers and seventy men killed and wounded, but it had served its purpose by engaging the attention of the defenders of the trench while the men of the 6th Division worked round from the rear. The garrison of these posts was thus cut off completely from succour, and later in the day surrendered, over 250 men with twenty machine guns and two trench mortars being captured in this work alone.
On the night of the 8th October, the 138th Infantry Brigade relieved the 16th Infantry Brigade of the 6th Division, and were instructed to get into touch with the French, who were believed to be in Fontaine d'Uterte, our own line running through Beauregard Farm and Mericourt. The 6th Division, remaining in the line on a one-brigade front, were to attack Jonnecourt Farm early on the 9th October, while their artillery bombarded Fresnoy-le-Grand.
On completion of the relief by the 138th Brigade, the command of the sector passed to the G.O.C. 46th Division, the 137th Brigade being ordered to the Preselles area and the 139th Brigade to Levergies. On the morning of the 9th, when the bombardment of Fresnoy by the 6th Divisional Artillery ceased, the 138th Brigade, according to orders, sent forward patrols into Fresnoy and round the town unoccupied, our men being received with every demonstration of extreme joy by the 150 to 200 inhabitants who had remained in the town when it was evacuated by the Germans.
Some machine-gun fire was encountered from the railway-line east of the village, but, after a little local fighting, this opposition was overcome and the Brigade occupied the railway-line.
On the 10th October, Divisional Headquarters opened at Fresnoy-le-Grand, finding there the best billets the troops had occupied since leaving the Bethune area. Although the village had been damaged to some extent by our bombardment and was for some days after our occupation subjected to intermittent attention from enemy high-velocity guns, yet it was comparatively undamaged, many houses being quite untouched.
From the time of the first advance of the 46th Division into the area beyond the destroyed zone, the policy of restricting the bombardment of towns and villages to shrapnel only was carefully followed. From this time on, very little damage was done to any buildings by our artillery, unless they were known to be occupied as enemy strong-points. Every effort was made everywhere to avoid unnecessary damage; stringent regulations against pillaging and pilfering were made (although, to do the troops justice, these were to a great extent superfluous); and, whenever they were out of the line, the Divisional Engineers were so far as possible employed in carrying out temporary repairs to dilapidated houses in civilian occupation. The inhabitants who were thus helped were intensely grateful, and, generally, the population of the towns and villages were eager to welcome their deliverers into their houses and to do the little that lay in their power to make them comfortable. The relations between French civilians and British soldiers remained excellent throughout, and the progress of the troops through the country was hailed with rejoicings everywhere.
The German retreat, thanks to the stand made by his rearguard on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line and the villages on which this line was pivoted, was at this period comparatively unhurried. He had managed to remove most of his munitions of war and the booty captured by the advancing British troops consisted mainly of ammunition, both S.A.A. and shells, with occasional small dumps of signal stores, and salvaged material he had collected, but had not managed to get away. Characteristic features of the evacuated country, however—and this was even more the case in the days which followed—were the small heaps of brass, copper, and iron utensils of all descriptions. These “spoil-heaps” from French homes were a most eloquent witness to the systematic way in which the country had been plundered to help towards the production of the very guns and projectiles which were laying waste huge districts of France and taking the lives of thousands of her best men. Nothing had been too small or insignificant to escape the plunderers. In these heaps, children's toys lay side by side with old machine guns and rifles, machinery with kitchen utensils, the iron heads of tools with old shell cases salved from former battlefields; the whole mixed up in inextricable tangle with copper and galvanized iron wire from the old French telegraph routes and fences. Never before, since civilization became more than a name, can a captured country have been robbed so systematically and so thoroughly by a ruthless conqueror.
The enemy's comparatively unmolested retreat was secured principally by the efficient manner in which his Engineers had performed their task of demolition. As he retired, he blew up both the roads and railways behind him, and our advancing transport was again and again held up by yawning craters across their path. In the open country around Fresnoy and Bohain, the consequent delay was not, however, as serious as he must have anticipated. Dry-weather tracks existed nearly everywhere, and even these could be ignored by horsed transport on fine days when the surface of the ground was fairly hard. From time to time, therefore, our troops could press forward close on his heels, sure of the necessary supplies of rations and ammunition, while on occasion he was hustled very unpleasantly indeed. The rapid advance of a modern army, however, is not possible without the aid of railways, or at least of mechanical transport, and the system of delay-action mines used by the Germans was well calculated to hold up our progress. At every cross-roads mines had been buried—some of them timed to explode a few hours after the enemy had left, others a few days, some even after a delay of several weeks.
No rule of modern war is more true than that which limits the speed of advance of an army by the rate at which the railhead on which it is based can be moved forward. Throughout the whole of the present advance and the greater one which was to follow, the movement of our railhead proved to be the decisive factor. So thoroughly had the German Engineers done their work, that the position of railhead was never certain for two or three days together. Our own Railway Engineers would work night and day repairing the permanent way, the rails of which had been blown up with small gun-cotton charges at intervals of ten or twenty yards, and would successfully get the line completed as far as Bohain or Vaux Andigny. A delay-action mine would then go up between Fresnoy and Bohain or between Bohain and Vaux Andigny, and back would go the railhead again for some days, while the gap was being filled by gangs of Chinese coolies, or German prisoners. Once more the line would be put through and trains would arrive with rations and supplies for a few days, when again a mine would throw the railhead back several miles. Thus, the question of supplies was a very difficult one indeed, and one which definitely limited the progress made by the Division.
In its broader aspect, therefore, from the view of the pursuing troops, the chief disadvantage of the delay-action mine was undoubtedly its effect on the transport of the Army. The Divisional troops, however, pressing on in the van after the retreating Germans, were more intimately concerned with the mines placed at the cross-roads, or at irregular intervals along main roads, and timed to explode within a few hours of the German retreat. A party of our men would be scouting carefully along the road when, without warning, several of these mines would explode with a roar, throwing a column of débris and smoke some hundreds of feet into the air. Discretion came with experience, however; main roads and cross-roads were usually given a wide berth by the troops of the advanced guard, and, if mines there were, these had either been blown or their positions betrayed by the evidences of fresh-turned earth, before the arrival of the main body of the leading Brigade. Casualties were therefore few, though progress was considerably delayed.
Three or four miles to the north-west of Fresnoy lay the town of Bohain, which was entered by our troops on the 10th October. Here, over 2,000 French civilians had been left behind by the retreating Germans, and wild scenes of enthusiasm greeted the advancing troops. The officers and men first into the town were mobbed by an hysterical crowd of men, women, and children, almost delirious in their joy at being once more free to live their normal lives. Here for the first time, signs of business life were seen. Shops were fairly numerous though ill-stocked, and many of the inhabitants were still working in their houses at the silk-looms for which the town was famous before the war.
The town had been evacuated after the issue of the famous manifesto instructing officers and men to pay all consideration possible to the civilian inhabitants of the occupied districts and to avoid wanton damage, and latterly this instruction had been liberally interpreted by the enemy. Little wilful destruction had been done, though here, above all other places, the genius of the German Engineers had been given full play. At every cross-roads, the road had been blown away so thoroughly that only a deep crater remained, stretching right across from side to side of the street, while the houses on either side had collapsed as though built of cards, in hopeless ruin. With these exceptions, however, the town was little damaged, our own bombardment having been restricted mainly to shrapnel which, while it had shattered tiles and slates in every direction, had done little structural damage. After our occupation of the town, the Germans shelled it intermittently for two or three weeks with a high-velocity gun firing 11-inch armour-piercing shell, but surprisingly little damage was done and few people were injured.
Of all the enthusiastic scenes which the Division was privileged to see during the last weeks of the War, there were few which equalled the reception given by the inhabitants of Bohain to the first troops which passed through the town. The official entry was made later by the 32nd Division, and those who were at the Thanksgiving Service held in Bohain Church on that day will not forget the simple grandeur of the service and the heart-felt joy of the congregation assembled to thank God for their regained freedom. In years to come, not the least striking tribute to the work of the British Armies in France will be the Masses which will be sung in Bohain Church at the hours when the advanced guard and the main body of our troops entered that town, and the pilgrimage to Lourdes which the Vicar of Bohain has vowed to make each year, on the anniversary of the day of the town's release from bondage.