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2/4th Battalion in France — German Retirement from the Somme

4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919

2/4th Battalion in France — German Retirement from the Somme

The 58th Division, of which the 2/4th Londons formed a part, after remaining at Ipswich for about a month, was transferred to the Southern Command in hutted camps at Sutton Veny, near Warminster, on the 10th July 1916.

Here the Division, being concentrated in an area which provided excellent training facilities, had a chance to become thoroughly welded together and to show the material of which it was made in a manner which had hitherto been impossible, for the influence of scattered billets is invariably and inevitably unfavourable to strict discipline. The fullest advantage was taken of this golden opportunity, and the resultant tightening of discipline and advancement of all ranks in technical efficiency rapidly justified the change of station. A very great amount of work still lay before the whole Division before it would be fit to take its place in the line overseas, and much reorganisation in various directions was effected with entirely beneficial results soon after its arrival at Warminster.

Amidst all this work, which was carried out at fever-heat, the amusement of the men was not overlooked. An excellent Divisional band was formed, and their good services were added to early in December by the creation of a Divisional concert troop "The Goods." Not to be left behind in these achievements the 2/4th Londons formed their own concert party, called for some not too obvious reason " The Tanks," which afforded excellent entertainments under the able direction of 2/Lieuts. T. J. Bell and C. J. Graham, who were assisted by Pipe-Major Ling, Corpl. Wilkinson, L./Corpls. Smith, Ringrose and Hardy, and Pte. Rosenbloom.

The 2/4th Londons had already attained a position which is beheved to be unique in the annals of the British Army inasmuch as they, a Battalion affiliated to an English line regiment, had become the possessors of a pipe band. This band had originally been formed for recruiting purposes, but with the initiation of the " Derby Scheme " its services were no longer necessary for the enticement of recruits, and it had been secured for the Battalion. The pipers wore the Glengarry cap and the Royal Stuart tartan. They were without doubt an exceedingly good band and lightened many a weary mile of road both in England and France with their stirring music.

An attempt, which originated in the 2/4th Londons, was also made to produce a Divisional magazine, and this appeared in September under the title of The Direct Hit. It was well received and attained the age of three months, but was then discontinued.

Shortly after arrival at Sutton Veny the Division came under the command of Major-Gen. H. D. Fanshawe, C.B., who ultimately took it to France where he remained in command for some months.

Various changes took place in the 2/4th Londons, and in November 1916 command of the Battalion was assumed by Lieut. -Col. W. R. H. Dann (Bedfordshire Regiment), Capt. W. A. Nunneley becoming second in command with the temporary rank of Major. The personnel was also strengthened by the arrival of a large officer reinforcement from the 4th (Reserve) Battalion, the majority of whom had already seen service in France in the ranks of various London Battalions.

In the latter part of January 1917 the long awaited order arrived for the 58th Division to proceed overseas. On the 23rd of that month the 2/4th Battalion left Sutton Veny with a strength of 32 officers and 976 other ranks and proceeded to Southampton, where it embarked on the Viper, and crossed to Havre, arriving the following morning at daybreak. Disembarkation took place at once and the Battalion, preceded by its pipe band, marched to the Reinforcement Camp at Sanvic. The following officers accompanied the Battalion overseas :

Lieut-Col. W. R. H. Dann, in command.
Major W. A. Nunneley, second in command.
Capt. E. E. Spicer, Adjutant.
,, E. N. Cotton, cmdg. A Co.
,, E.W.Bottomley, ,, B ,,
,, G. E. A. Leake, ,, C ,,
,, S. H. Stedman, ,, D ,,
„ H. A. T. Hewlett.
,, H. C. Long.
,, W. H. Parker.
Lieut. B. Rivers Smith (Bde. L.G.O.).
:2/Lieut. R. K. Caparn.
,, E. A. Monkman.
,, L. J. Bassett (attd. L.T.M. Battery).
,, T. Stoaling.
,, A. M. Duthie (Bombing Officer).
S. G. Askham.

2/Lieut. A. R. Muddell (attd. L.T.M. Battery).
W. J. Stickney.
A. G. Croll (Intelligence Officer).
F. Stickney.
H. W. Hallett (Signalling Officer).
G. G. Hunt.
T. J. Bell.
R. McDowell.
H. E. English.
D. S. Boorman.
H. S. Daw (Transport Officer).
C. J. Graham.
E. C. Pratt.
S. P. Ferdinando.

Hon. Lt. & Qm. C. W. Cragg, (Quartermaster),
Capt. P. H. Burton, R.A.M.C, Medical Officer,
,, Rev. O'Brien, Chaplain attached.

The next day the Battalion entrained for Abbeville, but on arrival found its orders to stay there counter-manded and the journey was therefore continued to Fortel, a small village about six miles south-west of Frevent.

The unusually hard frost which was general throughout northern France in the winter of 1916/17 still held the country in its grip, and the conditions for a raw battalion even in billets were far from comfortable, but a ten days' stay at Fortel, which was devoted to training and generally acclimatising the Battalion to its new surroundings, prepared it at least in a small degree for the rigours of a winter campaign.

By the 5th February the concentration of the 58th Division was complete, and the 173rd Brigade under Brig. -Gen. Hurst began to move by easy stages to the line.

the 2/4th Londons lying at Le Souich on the 6th, and at Sus-St Leger on the 7th and 8th.

The following day the Brigade moved forward and became attached to the 146th Brigade of the West Riding {Territorial) Division, for instruction in trench warfare, the 2/4th Londons being divided up between the battalions of the 146th Brigade for this purpose, with two companies in reserve at Bailleulmont and Humbercamp. The 146th Brigade was at this time holding a sector south-west of Arras facing Ransart. Ransart lies at the base of a small spur between two watercourses, both of which are usually dry, and the German trenches in front of the village were dominated at an average distance of about 600 yards by our own on the western side of the valley.

This part of the front had the reputation of being exceedingly quiet (and therefore suitable for the first tour of duty of inexperienced troops), and was the defensive position taken up by the French in October 1914 when, after the Battle of the Aisne, the battle front had become stabilised by the continued extension of the flanks of the opposing forces until they reached the sea. The British Army had taken over the area from the French in July 1915,

After five uneventful days in this sector the Battalion was relieved on the 14th by the 2/1 2th Londons, and having rendezvoused at La Cauchie, about three miles in rear of the line, embussed to Sus-St Leger where it went into billets for a week's rest.

The important changes which were to take place in this area during the next six weeks are so material to the development of the Campaign of 1917 that it is necessary to review briefly the operations which w^ere being conducted further south. The termination of the battles of the Somme in November 1916 had left the enemy in possession of the whole of the Ancre Valley from Le Transloy to Grandcourt and of excellent positions on the high ground immediately north of Beaumont-Hamel ; while in rear of this position he had made great progress in the construction of two more lines of defence running in a direction from north-west to south-east about Bapaume.

The advance of our troops over the Thiepval-Morval Ridge had, however, left him confined in a marked salient, of which the apex was Gommecourt Wood, between the Ancre on the south and the Scarpe where it passes Arras on the north ; and conditions appeared very favourable for improving our situation in the neighbourhood of Beaumont-Hamel before the conditions of winter should render active operations on a large scale impossible. Accordingly operations which met with immediate success were reopened on the 18th November on the left bank of the Ancre between Grandcourt and Pys. These were renewed in January in the Beaucourt valley on the opposite side of the river with such marked success that the enemy was compelled to relinquish his hold on the high ground north of Beaumont-Hamel while his position in Grandcourt became precarious in the extreme.

On the night of the 5th/6th February 1917 Grandcourt was evacuated and the enemy fell back to the line Serre-Miraumont-Pys. Attacks with which these initial successes were followed up on the 17th and 18th February secured to the British complete command over the enemy's defences of the upper Ancre and Miraumont village, while they accentuated his salient west of Serre. The loss of this would lay open for us a further advance on Puisieux-au-Mont and render the defence of the Gommecourt Salient exceedingly hazardous. It was therefore to be expected that any further withdrawal on the part of the enemy from in front of Miraumont would entail a withdrawal on a large scale, and this actually occurred.

By the 24th February British troops had occupied Serre and all the enemy's defences on a line from that village to Gueudecourt, a frontage of some nine miles. On the 27th February patrols entered Gommecourt park and village, the prize so desperately fought for and withheld from the l/4th Battalion six months earlier, and the following morning the whole of Puisieux fell into our hands. On the right the enemy's resistance was more stubborn, but an assault on Irles on the 10th March, which proved entirely successful, brought us face to face with the first of the two lines of defence about Bapaume to which reference has already been made. But even here the enemy made no determined stand, and by the 13th our pursuing columns were making preparations to assault the rear line.

The situation, therefore, when the 2/4th Battalion returned to the line after its rest, the last two days of which were spent at Gaudiempre, was that Corps and Divisional staffs were eagerly seeking information as to any indication of the enemy's expected retirement between Arras and Monchy-au-Bois, this being the only sector between Arras and the Somme now left in his possession, which he had held at the end of the Somme operations. This entailed a heavily increased burden of night patrolling duties on all troops in the line.

On the 24th February the 2/4th Battalion moved into Bellacourt, relieving the l/5th K.O. Y.L.I, in Brigade reserve, taking over the front line from the l/4th K.O.Y.L.I. on the following day. The sector lay between Ransart and Blairville to the left of that previously occupied, and was held with three companies in front trenches and one in support. Battalion Headquarters were in Grosville.

The German lines opposite this sector possessed two features of particular interest in the Blockhouse, a strongly defended salient, and the Talus, a machine-gun post pushed some 200 yards forward of their main line in a hillside embankment. Two sunken roads and a watercourse in No Man's Land added to the interest of life and provided our patrols with some useful work.

The advancing British troops in the south this day were beginning to threaten Puisieux, the possession of which would lay open to attack the Bucquoy Ridge to its north. It was clear that with British forces on the Bucquoy Ridge the German reserve lines of defence and gun positions about Adinfer Wood (which supported the lines now opposite the 173rd Brigade) must either retreat precipitately or run a serious risk of being cut off. Requests for information from Brigade consequently became more and more insistent, and information was passed to the Battalion that the lines opposite had actually been evacuated. Officers' patrols under 2/Lieuts. A. G. Croll, A. M. Duthie, T. J. Bell and D. S. Boorman, which covered No Man's Land, especially in the vicinity of the Blockhouse and the Talus on the nights of the 24th and 28th, however, elicited unmistakable signs of occupation of the German defences. But the desultory nature of the enemy's machine-gun fire, and of his shell fire from the direction of Adinfer Wood, the marked decrease in the number of Very lights put up by him at night and the constant sounds of transport moving on the roads in rear of his lines all provided indications that his retirement could not long be delayed. The patrols frequently heard working parties hard at work in rear of the enemy's lines, and it afterwards transpired that these were busily engaged in mining the roads over which our advancing troops must pursue the German retreat.

It had long been known that the enemy was hard at work on a highly fortified defensive line which left his front defences at Arras and ran in a south-easterly direction in front of Cambrai to near St Quentin. This line, the famous " Hindenburg " line, was rouglily parallel to that now occupied by our advancing trooj)S in the south and some eight miles distant from it. Reports from British airmen showed that the Hindenburg line was now the scene of feverish activity on the part of the enemy, and this information seemed to confirm the probability indicated by the results of our patrolling that the relinquishment of the Monchy- Arras line was imminent.

A most unfortunate incident occurred on the night of the 28th February, when a strong patrol under 2/Lieut. R. K. Caparn returning to our lines was fired upon by the sentries who apparently had failed to grasp the pre-arranged signal, with the regrettable result that 2/Lieut. Caparn was very seriously wounded and L./Corpl. Warren, Ptes. Anderson and Vickery were killed.

On the morning of the 2nd March the Battalion was relieved by the 2/2nd Londons and withdrew to Divisional reserve in billets at Basseux and Bailleulval. Three days' training ensued, followed by a move on the 6th to Humbercamp.

The 173rd Brigade had now " side-stepped " to the Tight, and on the 7th March the 2/4th Londons once more entered the front line, relieving the l/6th North Staffords in a sector known as Zl immediately opposite Monchy-au-Bois. Battalion Headquarters opened in Bienvillers-au-Bois.

This sector was about three miles south of that previously occupied, and similar conditions prevailed both as regards ground and the German retirement. No Man's Land, which was here about 300 yards wide, fell gently from our lines to the village of Monchy-au-Bois, which had been made a network of defences by the enemy, his first line passing immediately in front of the village. In rear of the village the ground again rose gently to the Adinfer Ridge.

Bienvillers was almost daily given an unpleasantly copious allowance of gas shells which caused numerous casualties, principally to carrying parties from Battalion Headquarters. Among these was Major Nunneley, who was gassed on the 10th ; his duties of second in command were assumed by Capt. Spicer, the Adjutancy being filled by Capt. A. Grover (1st Bedfordshire Regiment), who had just been transferred to the 2/4th Battalion at the request of Lieut. -Col. Dann.

The long frost had now been succeeded by a remarkably sudden thaw which created conditions of marked discomfort in the trenches. The water pent up in the soil for so long filled all the trenches to a depth of about two feet, and the trench walls everywhere began to fall in, throwing an enormous amount of work on the occupying battalions in keeping them in a defensible condition.

By night our patrols continued their activities, but each night on approaching the enemy's lines were met with brisk machine-gun fire, which showed increasing activity each day. The Battalion observers also reported daily columns of smoke in rear of the enemy's lines, arising, as was found subsequently, from the systematic orgy of destruction in which the Germans indulged prior to their retirement. There was, moreover, during these few days a very marked increase of shelling in our back areas, the villages of Pommier, Berles, Bretencourt and Bailleulmont all receiving an unusually large amount of heavy fire.

The 11th proved to be the most disturbed day of this tour of duty, the enemy being exceedingly active in machine-gun and trench mortar fire. About 100 light shells, of which many were gas, fell in Bienvillers, fortunately without inflicting loss on the Battalion. On the 12th the 2/4th Londons were relieved by the 2/lst Londons and moved in Brigade reserve to Pommier, where they continued training. The XVIII Corps Commander inspected the Battalion on the 16th.

The Battalion Orderly Room now began to be inundated by the Brigade Intelligence Staff with plans, maps and all kinds of collated information as to the villages which would lie in the line of the Division's expected advance. All preparations were made for an immediate move. Units in reserve were held in instant readiness to advance, their first line transport wagons standing ready packed.

The night of the 16th/17th March was unusually quiet, and patrols pushed out by the 2/lst Londons about day-break on the 17th returned with the information that the German trenches about Monchy were deserted. A patrol sent forward from the 2/4th Battalion under Capt. Bottomley was able to penetrate into Monchy itself and returned about midday with the definite assurance that the village was evacuated.

The same day the order was given for a general advance of the whole of the British forces from Arras to Roye.

That afternoon the 173rd Brigade moved forward, the 2/lst Londons occupying the German front line at Monchy and some high ground south of the village, while the 2/4th Battalion was brought forward from Brigade reserve, " leap-frogging " through the leading Battalion to the German trenches east of the village. A Company pushed ahead and reached a point about 300 yards west of Adinfer Wood. Here the Battalion was in touch with the 6th South Staff ords on the right. North of Monchy village the 2/2nd Londons continued the line with the 174th Brigade on their left.

The withdrawal of the Germans from the Monchy Salient involved a continual shortening of our lines as the salient became straightened out, and in order to effect this the 2/lst Londons were withdrawn on the night of the 17th to Pommier, w'hile the 2/4th Battalion continued its advance, " squeezing-out " the 2 /2nd Londons as it pushed forward. By 5 p.m. the following day it had reached a position near Rabbit Wood, a small copse on the North side of Adinfer Wood, its left being now in touch with the 175th Brigade while the 46th Division kept pace with its advance on the right.

At midnight on the 18th/19th March the 2/4th Londons were w^ithdrawn in Brigade reserve to Ransart, which village was now occupied by Brigade Headquarters. A few hours later, at 4.30 a.m. on the 19th, the 2/lst Londons once more took up the advance towards Boiry-Becquerelle.

The advance of the 19th March covered a depth of nearly 10,000 yards, and as it was achieved with very little fighting it seems evident that the Germans' preparations for withdrawal had been conducted with great skill. From the time when they had left their original line at Monchy they had almost entirely eluded close touch with our pursuing columns, which were never able to harass their retirement to any useful extent. Very little war material fell into our hands, and it seems possible that valuable hours were lost on the 17th before the order to follow up the retirement reached battalions in the line.

The pursuit of the Germans was rendered exceedingly slow and arduous by the unspeakable destruction which met our advancing columns at every step. Cross roads had been mined and vast craters forced all wheeled traffic to deviate on to the sodden fields adjoining. Trees had been felled across the roads and added to the impediments to the advance of our artillery. Everywhere the Germans had committed wanton destruction — young fruit trees were ringed, corps were burnt wholesale, and every sort of live stock had been driven before them in their retreat. The aspect of the villages was most peculiar. At a distance they appeared to be untouched, and the red roofs -of the cottages showed nothing unusual. On a closer approach, however, they were found to be ruined and the walls knocked down so that the roofs had subsided intact to the ground. Furniture, too heavy to be moved, had shared in this destruction, and its debris was lying shattered among the heaps of brick and stone. Yet further abominations had been invented, and a series of ingenious " booby-traps " were discovered in the shape of common articles such as shovels and helmets. These were left lying about in places where they were likely to be picked up by our troops, and being connected with bombs and even large mines caused explosions when they were touched.

By noon on the 19th March the 2/lst Londons had established themselves after some opposition from machine-gun fire on the line between Boiry-Becquerelle and Boyelles, in touch with the 46th Division in Hamelincourt ; but further efforts to advance from this position towards St Leger, which was the objective for the day, were effectually stopped by heavy enemy shell and machine-gun fire.

Meanwhile the 2 /4th Londons were once more moved forward, leaving Ransart at about 3 p.m., and by 5.30 had advanced to the line of the Boyelles-St Leger Railway on the right of the 2/lst Londons.

The 173rd Brigade now occupied the whole of the 58th Divisional front, being in touch with the Division on its right and its left joining the 30th Division who were facing Henin-sur-Cojeul. The line occupied by the 2/4th and 2/lst Londons formed a marked re-entrant in the British line, overlooking a valley which runs in a northerly direction from St Leger to Henin-sur-Cojeul. The enemy had apparently deployed on the further side of this valley and was holding the line of the Henin-Croisilles Road. Opposite the right flank of the 2/4th Londons he had for the moment considerable advantage of ground over us, as our line was dominated by a hill which protected Croisilles from observation. The following day the Brigade consolidated itself in this position. Brigade Headquarters moving forward to Boiry-St Rictrude, which was also occupied by the 2 /3rd Londons in Brigade reserve, while the 2 /2nd Londons moved into close support in Boisleux-au-Mont.

The line held by the Brigade extended from Judas Farm near St Leger, where it was in close touch with the Division on the right, in front of Boyelles and Boiry-Becquerelle to the north branch of the Cojeul River. North of the river the line was continued by the 30th Division, who were endeavouring to force the villages of St Martin and Henin.

The Battalion had pushed outposts beyond its main line on the railway to the Boiry-St Leger Road, but all attempts to continue the general advance beyond this line were frustrated by the heavy machine-gun and shell fire with which the enemy sprayed the forward slopes of the ridge down which the advance was to be made. At the same time signs were not wanting that his withdrawal had not reached its limit, for fires were observed in Henin and Croisilles which indicated that the systematic destruction which hitherto had been the prelude to his retirement was proceeding with unabated vigour.

On the 21st the 2/4th Londons were relieved by the 2/3rd in the right subsector and withdrew to Boiry-St Martin in reserve. For three days the Battalion remained here under conditions of extreme discomfort. The weather was exceptionally severe and the ground was covered with snow, while the open and bare hillsides were swept by biting winds. Billets were non-existent owing to the total destruction of the village, so that the change from the front line to reserve brought very little of rest or easier conditions. Indeed throughout this period of the advance the terrible exposure proved a far more serious enemy than the Germans themselves, and the casualties caused through it were five times more numerous than those caused by wounds.

The Hindenburg line was now within measurable distance, and the salient previously held by the enemy being almost entirely flattened out it was found possible to withdraw several divisions now in action. This was the more desirable not only for the provision of as many reserve divisions as possible for the impending offensive against the Vimy Ridge, but also for the tasks of rendering the devastated region covered by the advance habitable to our forces, of repairing the ruined roads, and of bringing forward the supplies of material necessary for further operations. One of the important gains of the advance was the reopening of direct lateral communication between Arras and Albert. With their usual thoroughness the Germans had completely destroyed the railway connecting these two towns, the track being torn up and the bridges demolished ; and the complete reconstruction of it presented one of the most pressing necessities in the organisation of the new defences.

The 58th Division, in accordance with this programme, was now withdrawn, and on the 25th March the 173rd Brigade handed over its sector to the 174th and withdrew to Pommier, the 2/4th Londons being billeted at Monchy and put to work on repairing the roads.

Each Brigade of the Division now became split up and battalions and companies were scattered far afield on one or other of the necessary works, of which a few have been enumerated above.

On the 28th the 2/4th Londons moved further back from the line toGrenas(on the Doullens-Arras Road) leaving behind it two companies, A and C, which were attached to VII Corps troops (C Company joining the 56th Division) for road repairing at Wailly and Arras respectively.

At the end of the month the Division, now attached to XIX Corps, was concentrated, with the exception of the detachments referred to, in the area of Frohen-le-Grand, between Doullens and Auxi-le-Chateau, and on the 1st April the 2/4th Battalion, less A and C Companies, marched to fresh billets in Bonnieres, continuing their route the following day to Vitz Villeroy, some four miles west of Auxi-le-Chateau.

From the beginning of March the Battalion had experienced continual rough handling, not only from enemy machine-gun and shell fire, but also from the remarkable amount of marching and counter-marching and exposure to the elements which the pursuit of the Germans had entailed. It must also be borne in mind that they had a month previously been raw troops of whom practically none had been under fire. The writer is, therefore, with all the more pleasure able to testify to the excellent bearing and strict march discipline of the Battalion as it swung through Auxi-le-Chateau on the 2nd April. But if the 2/4th Battalion expected rest after its labours it was soon to learn how illusive rest can be in modern war, for the next day it returned to Auxi and embussed to Beaumetz-les-Loges in the Arras area, when it once more took the road and marched to Boiry-St Martin. Accommodation here was provided for Headquarters and B Company in old German dugouts, while D Company contented itself with temporary and hastily constructed shelters in the village.

A week of hard work in laying new track on the Arras-Albert Railway followed, and on the 12th the Battalion, having been rejoined by A and C Companies, moved to Pommier and thence to Achiet-le-Grand, where the remainder of the 173rd, now under command of Brig. -Gen. Freyberg, V.C., D.S.O., was concentrated.

The Division was now in the Fifth Army area (Gough) and attached to the V Corps.

The remainder of April, with the exception of short spells of training, was entirely devoted to working parties, the principal tasks entrusted to the 2/4th Londons being the formation of a large R.E. dump at Achiet-le-Grand, the construction of a light railway at Ervillers and the repair of the Ervillers-St Leger Road.

During the period under review the Battalion received one or two small reinforcements of N.C.O.'s and men, and also the following officers :

18th March— 2/Lieuts. G. H. Hetley, C. A. Clarke, S. M. Williams and G. E. Lester, and 2/Lieut. Acason (18th Londons).
27th April— 2/Lieut. S. A. Seys (15th Londons).

Casualties included Major W. A. Nunneley, gassed ; 2/Lieut. R. K. Caparn, wounded ; 2/Lieuts. A. M. Duthie and S. P. Ferdinando, accidentally wounded ; 2/Lieuts. H. W. Hallett and G. G. Hunt, sick ; and in N.C.O.'s and men 10 killed, 25 wounded, and about 170 sick, chiefly from exposure.

The duties of signalling officer were taken by 2/Lieut. E. C. Pratt.

In February the Battalion was unfortunate in losing 2/Lieut. C. J. Graham, who joined Brigade Headquarters as Intelligence Officer. He filled this appointment with great success until March 1918, when he was appointed Brigade Major in the 47th Division. He was decorated with the D.S.O. and the M.C. with Bar.