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1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Bellenglise

 History of the 1/8th Battalion


Sept. 26th, 1918.— Sept. 29th, 1918.

A great effort was to be made to break the Hindenburg Line. Preliminary orders received on September 26th were to the effect that the 46th Division, as part of a major operation (simultaneous attacks by the British and French taking place at several other points), would at an early date cross the St. Quentin Canal between Bellenglise and Riquerval Bridge, and capture the Hindenburg Line. The general scheme was that the 137th Brigade were to capture the canal and hold the crossings, advancing as far as the "Brown Line" shown on the map, whilst the 139th Brigade on the right and 138th Brigade on the left, were to pass through them and consolidate up to and including the "Green Line." If all went well the 32nd Division were to pass through and make further progress. The 1st Division were to protect our right flank, where the enemy were still occupying a large area of ground which might be decidedly dangerous to us, and in the event of the enemy withdrawing, they were to follow up and, if possible, capture Thorigny and the high ground round about it. On our left the 30th American Division, attached to the Australian Corps, were to seize the Bellicourt Tunnel (where the canal ran underground) and continue the attack in that direction. Tanks were to cross the canal by passing over the tunnel and come down to operate with the 138th and 139th Brigades and help them to reach their objectives.

In order to improve our position the 138th Brigade, who were holding the line running along the high ground just East of "Victoria Cross Roads," carried out an attack on September 27th against the German trenches on the high ground North-East of "Chopper Ravine." This was successful and the trenches were handed over to the 137th Brigade. Unfortunately, the following morning the enemy delivered a heavy counter-attack against the Staffords, and recovered so much ground that at night the latter had to withdraw from the portions still held and come back to our original line. This set-back, however, had no ill result.

Our preparations had to be made on the assumption that the attack would take place on the early morning of Sunday, September 29th, as it did.

From the line held by the Division it was possible to get a good view of the canal and the ground beyond for some distance, and such reconnaissance as could be carried out in the time at our disposal was made by observation from this line.

Running diagonally across the front, through No Man's Land, down the slope to the Riquerval Bridge, on the left, was a narrow road known as "Watling Street." Immediately in front of our trenches was the ridge which we had had to evacuate, and from there the land again sloped down to the canal. Immediately the other side of the canal was the village of Bellenglise, about three-quarters-of-a-mile from our present front line, but looking much closer. The canal ran in a cutting, into which it was not possible to see, but from descriptions obtained from various sources it appeared that it had steep banks twelve to eighteen yards deep, and we were told that where there was water we might expect it to be seven to eight feet deep. As a matter of fact the canal in some parts was quite dry, and in other parts the water was held up by big dams of concrete. When we did properly see it, it appeared to be more or less derelict. On the right towards Bellenglise it was mostly dry. Rising from the canal on the other side was a fairly gradual, but none the less decided, slope for some distance, fortified with lines of trenches, barbed wire and concrete machine gun emplacements, apparently a most unpromising position to attack—indeed, we thought it impregnable, and no doubt the Boche did so, too. It was an ideal spot for concealed dug-outs all along the canal banks. Many were found there, and Bellenglise itself contained a wonderfully constructed tunnel, estimated to be capable of holding at least a thousand men.

The problem of dealing with any water that might be found in the canal was a difficult but important one, as every preparation had to be made for getting across on the assumption that all the bridges would be destroyed. Accordingly the 137th Brigade were equipped with a number of collapsible boats and rafts, also mats for getting across any soft mud they might encounter, whilst almost at the last moment, numbers of lifebelts were sent up for their use, taken from the leave boats.

As it was doubtless realised that this great stronghold would require pounding almost to atoms, arrangements were made for getting together what must have been the largest array of guns that ever was collected, at any rate in such a short space of time. Battery after battery of every known calibre took up positions in one or other of the ravines and valleys behind the line. Indeed, there seemed no room for them all and many of them were practically in the open.

Behind the line an immense amount of railway and road work was being carried out in order to maintain supplies. Probably the most interesting piece of work was the relaying of the railway line from Roizel to Vermand, preparatory to its being continued into St. Quentin as soon as the latter should be liberated. We enjoyed watching the Canadian Engineers at work rebuilding bridges and bringing up and relaying fresh sleepers and metals, all the old ones having been removed by the enemy for several miles. The rapid reconstruction of the line was of vital importance, as it would form the main source of transport for all our supplies.

On the night of September 27/28th, we moved from bivouacs near Vendelles, and marched to our preliminary assembly position in some trenches near "Red Wood," about half-a-mile North-West of that well-known landmark "The Tumulus," a high chalk mound from which an excellent view could be obtained, but where it was not wise to pause to admire the scenery. Battalion Headquarters was in a dug-out at "Hudson's Post," between Red Wood and the "Twin Craters." This move was carried out without casualty, but the very dark night, coupled with a certain amount of gas shelling, and the absence of good guiding marks, made going somewhat difficult. A section from the 139th Trench Mortar Battery, which was to be attached to us for the battle, joined us just before the move.

The attack was to be carried out under a creeping barrage, and the objective allotted to us was the "Yellow Line" East of Bellenglise. The frontage allotted to the Battalion was about 1,200 yards, and the advance in its final stages was to be carried out with two Companies in the front line and two in support. In each case there were to be three Platoons leading, with one in support, each front Platoon thus having a frontage of about 200 yards. The distance between front and support Companies was to be 200 to 250 yards. The Artillery barrage was to move at the rate of 100 yards in four minutes, making long pauses after each objective had been gained in order to allow time for the rear troops to continue the advance. A machine gun barrage also was to be fired during the opening stages of the attack, and for this purpose our Divisional Battalion was strengthened by the addition of the 2nd Life Guards Machine Gun Battalion and the 100th Machine Gun Battalion. By a happy coincidence some South Notts. Yeomanry were included amongst these Machine Gunners. The Royal Engineers and Monmouth Pioneers, detailed to put emergency bridges on cork piers across the canal for foot traffic and artillery, were to follow in rear of the 137th Brigade, and immediately in front of us. Second Lieut. Davis with ten men was to keep touch with the last Battalion of the 137th Brigade, whilst 2nd Lieut. Plant was detailed to act as Liaison Officer with the 137th Brigade Headquarters. Second Lieut. Bradish was to do similar duty with the 139th Brigade, and 2nd Lieut. Winter with the 6th Battalion, who were to follow immediately behind us, the 5th Battalion bringing up the rear. Guides from each Company were detailed to follow the 137th Brigade and direct their Companies to the canal crossings. Flags were to be carried to mark Battalion and Company Headquarters. In addition to red flares for notifying the position of the advanced troops to our 'contact aeroplanes,' a number of tin discs were issued, which were to be waved by the men carrying them so as to catch the eye of the Observers. "Success Signals"—rifle grenades bursting into "white over white over white"—were to be fired by the leading Companies as soon as they reached their objective. Pack transport was arranged in readiness for taking forward ammunition, water and other supplies, if required, as soon as it was possible to get them across the canal.

Enough and more than enough work was entailed in all these details to keep us busy during the short time available before the attack. Nevertheless all was ready by the appointed time, and about 3 a.m. on the morning of September 29th, after a most welcome issue of rum, which fortunately arrived just in time, we began to move into our final assembly position on the Eastern side of "Ascension Valley." The valley never had been a place to linger in, as most nights and early mornings the Hun was in the habit of treating it liberally with high explosive and gas shells, and this occasion was no exception, a combination of the two making things very unpleasant. Further, it was a dark night, and, worse than all, a dense fog came down over everything, so that movement over these more or less open spaces with little or nothing to guide us was extremely difficult. However, in the end everyone got into position in good time and without accident. Fortunately most of the shells were then passing over us into the valley behind. Companies were drawn up as follows: Right Front (A Company), Capt. Thomas; Left Front (B Company), 2nd Lieut. Bloor; Right Support (C Company), Lieut. Cairns, in the absence of Capt. Miners on leave; Left Support (D Company), Capt. White. Capt. C. P. Elliott was acting as Second-in-Command, Major Andrews being away on leave.

Zero was fixed for 5.50 a.m., at which time the 137th Brigade were to advance from our front line. At the same time the 1st Division were to advance so as to protect our right flank up to a point near Bellenglise Bridge.

Promptly at Zero an uncanny stillness was broken by an inferno of noise. With a din and roar that can never be forgotten by those who heard it, one of the greatest concentrations of artillery the World had ever seen came into action. The crash and rattle were appalling. Sandwiched as we were, with machine guns blazing away just in front, and 18-pounders belching out fire just behind, it was perfect pandemonium. Speech was impossible. Though it was now practically daylight the fog was so intense that you could not see a yard in front of you. All over the battlefield it was the same. We could only imagine the difficulty with which the Staffords were going, if they were going at all, and we could see nothing. Our right Company, A, had been detailed to assist that Brigade to mop up the enemy trenches West of the canal, and on completion re-form in the old German front line, and await the arrival of the other Companies. This Company advanced in Artillery formation as soon as the machine guns ceased firing, about 15 minutes after Zero, and reached these trenches without accident. Little was found to be done there, and having distributed themselves in the trenches, they awaited the time for the general advance to begin. The rest of the Battalion moved forward at the same time in a similar formation to "Nib" and "Quill" trenches on "Hélène Ridge." Even for this short move direction could only be maintained by means of compasses. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible there, as we knew that we should have some time to wait before advancing further. In any case we were not to move without orders from Brigade Headquarters, and it was not intended that we should be involved in the actual fighting until the 137th Brigade were East of the canal, and then probably not for some time unless they were in difficulties. The Boche had put down a counter-barrage directly after our attack began, and a certain number of shells and some machine gun bullets fell about the ridge where we were, but caused us little inconvenience.

In spite of the fog wounded men were finding their way back, and odd lots of German prisoners were being brought back by escorts of Staffords. How they did it we never quite knew, but it was reported that in one case the escort of a party of prisoners having been lost in the fog, got a captured German Officer to act as guide by marching due West on a compass bearing! For over three hours we were unable to get any definite news as to the progress of the battle. The first official message which reached our Brigade Headquarters to the effect that the 137th Brigade were across the canal, arrived at 8.30 a.m., and orders were at once sent to the three Battalions to get on the move and keep in close touch. Unfortunately our telephone line to Brigade Headquarters was broken, and the message had to be sent by runners, who after experiencing the greatest difficulty owing to the fog, eventually reached us at 9.37 a.m. Orders were sent to Companies as quickly as possible, and we moved off again in artillery formation, keeping direction with our compasses. Progress, of course, was extremely slow. By the time we reached the canal, which seemed much further away than we had imagined, the fog began to clear and caused us no more trouble. The canal was crossed by plank foot bridges, which, fortunately, were still more or less intact, and Companies pushed on in a direction practically half-right towards the villages of Bellenglise on the right and La Baraque on the left.

Here our first real fighting began, considerable opposition being met with from isolated snipers and machine gun posts, particularly on the right, where A Company had a very rough time. Two Platoons of that Company, under 2nd Lieuts. Bradwell and Shackleton, worked their way along the bend of the canal sheltered by a large ditch, and rushed several "pill-boxes" from the rear. At one large concrete dug-out a Boche was discovered just emerging with his machine gun ready to fire. Bradwell stopped him with a revolver bullet through the chest. The bullet went through the next man behind him as well, and finished by lodging in the throat of a third—a very useful shot! A little later the same Officer got a sniper, who was obstinately holding up the advance with a small group of men, by a rifle bullet neatly placed between the eyes at 300 yards. The left of A Company also met with opposition from machine gun nests in the ruins of the houses. Thomas himself, in rushing one machine gun, had no time to draw his revolver, but put one Boche out of action by a kick under the jaw. C Company reinforced A and shared with them the clearing of Bellenglise, but in doing so they also had a bad time. Stanley Cairns led them with great dash, only to be killed in an attack on a group of Boches who were holding up the left of A Company. They were, however, eventually rushed and all bayoneted. On the left some of B Company lost direction and strayed over to the 138th Brigade. Though the resistance on this flank was not so great it was not altogether easy going, and there was considerable shelling and machine gun fire. Bloor, in command, got badly wounded, and Rawding, his very gallant Comp. Sergt.-Major also fell, dying the next day. Mobilised with the Battalion he went out with it as a Private and won promotion by sheer merit. All ranks of the Battalion had the greatest regard for him and his loss was very keenly felt. D Company, under Capt. White, ably assisted by 2nd Lieut. Smith, acting as Second-in-Command, also gave a hand in the mopping up. Casualties were, of course, mounting, as there was heavy shelling going on most of the time, particularly on the Eastern edge of Bellenglise. Eventually, however, the village was cleared and we got to our next starting-point, the "Brown Line," with our right on the canal, at 11.30 a.m. This was only ten minutes after our scheduled time which, considering the almost insuperable difficulties caused by the fog, must be considered excellent. It meant, of course, that our barrage, which advanced again at 11.20 a.m. (five-and-a-half hours after Zero) was slightly ahead of us, but that was now too late to be altered and we had to make the best of it.

At this point we were to have been joined by a Company of five Tanks, but they had not turned up. They arrived, however, a little later and were going forward to help the attack of the 6th Battalion, who followed us, when they were put out of action by enemy field guns firing from South of the canal and at point blank range. Our final advance, therefore, had to be continued without their help. We moved off this time in extended order and met with little opposition, though there was considerable machine gun fire from the South side of the canal, which was not particularly accurate and did little damage. We reached our final objective about 12.15 p.m., only a few minutes after scheduled time, and the 6th Battalion immediately pushed on through us.

Our right flank was somewhat exposed, as the enemy were still holding the ground South of the canal, and one or two feeble attempts at counter-attacks were made from that direction, but were easily broken up. The 1st Division had been unable to advance to connect across with us at Bellenglise, but by their demonstration they doubtless prevented the enemy from concentrating for a counter-attack in that quarter, which was a decidedly weak spot.

Our advance had been extremely rapid and to a certain extent our success was due to that fact. The enemy in many cases were taken before they had time to get to their battle positions. At the same time every member of the Battalion was determined to "get there." Particularly good work was done by Sergt. Peach, who was acting Comp. Sergt.-Major of C Company, and himself accounted for three of the enemy at one post, by Sergt. Oldham, Lance-Sergts. Field and Illger, and Corpl. Slater, when in temporary command of Platoons, also by Sergt. Claxton, Corpls. Gadsby, Skelton and W. Foster, L.-Corpl. R. Harvey. and Pvtes. Cook, Titmus, Welbourne and Stapleton. Communication throughout the day was almost entirely by runners, who had an exceptionally strenuous time, but in spite of all their difficulties they never failed to get their messages through. Specially valuable work was done in this respect by Pvtes. B. Smithurst, Feighery, Sully, Colton and Parker. The Signallers had a thankless task in trying to keep their lines repaired. A special word of praise is due to L.-Corpl. J. North for his work in this connection. The Medical Officer, Capt. Homan, had a difficult task in attending to the wounded in open trenches and often under heavy shell fire. He got great help from Padre Sturt, who was always rendering faithful service, and from a willing band of Stretcher Bearers, who worked unceasingly throughout the battle, notably Corpl. Wrigglesworth and Pvtes. Westnidge and Green. Comp. Sergt.-Major Stokes, who was acting as Regt.-Sergt.-Major, was also of the greatest service in looking after ammunition and other stores.

The sight presented by the enemy defences East of the canal gave no room for doubt that our guns had done most deadly work. The ground was literally torn to pieces, trenches and wire being blown to atoms in all directions, and there seemed to be scarcely a spot that had not been touched.

The prisoners taken by us numbered something like 300. There is no doubt that our bombardment had caused many of them to become more or less senseless. In many cases all they did was to retire to their dug-outs and await the end. Full dug-outs emptied themselves at the first word, and poured out their garrisons, which were as quickly marshalled by our men and led off to the prisoner cages in batches, 50 or more in a batch, and very often not more than one of our men in charge. In addition to prisoners we captured over 40 machine guns and 10 trench mortars. Guns did not come within our province, as they were all beyond our objective.

Our casualties, considering all things, were small, and this was doubtless due to the great rapidity with which the advance had been carried out. In addition to the two Officer casualties, our losses during the day were 14 other ranks killed and 80 wounded.

The battlefield after the fog lifted presented a sight never to be forgotten. On the left, Tanks could be seen working their way along the German trenches, followed by groups of Infantry, who at once took possession of the ground gained. Behind, guns were limbering up and being got forward to fresh positions; pack ponies and limbers were being taken up with ammunition; parties of Boche prisoners were wending their way back from the front areas in batches of 10's, 20's, up to 200 or more, presenting a very bedraggled appearance. Many of them had been requisitioned for duty at the forward aid posts and were carrying back our wounded. Add to the whole, shells bursting here and there—one knew not when or where the next was coming and didn't care—and some idea may be formed of what the battlefield of Bellenglise looked like. It was like an enormous circus.

The 138th Brigade on the left met with equal success, but North of them the attack did not go so well, and at the end of the day the Australians and Americans, though in a satisfactory position for continuing the attack, were considerably behind their objective.

During the afternoon the 32nd Division came moving over the back areas by Companies in artillery formation and pushed on through us, but there was no time that day for them to make any fresh attacks, and they had to be content with putting out outposts. There is no doubt that could their attack have been pushed on at once the fighting of the next few days would not have been necessary. As it was our line did not get further than the final objective of the 5th Battalion, and further preparation was required to push the Boche from the few remaining points that he still held in the Hindenburg Line. By the victory of the 46th Division on September 29th the main portion of that line had been absolutely smashed and the last great turning-point in the war passed, and from now onwards the final defeat of the enemy was but a matter of days. It must be confessed that the fog, which lasted practically the whole morning, largely accounted for our success. Without it it is very difficult to conceive how we could have managed to get possession of the canal and the high ground on the East of it. A naturally strong defensive line itself, it formed with the addition of the artificial defences made by the enemy, an almost impregnable position. General Headquarters thought it was impregnable.

It has since transpired that our fears that our attack was only in the nature of a "demonstration" were only too well founded, as it appears to be a fact that we were not expected to cross the canal at all. Lieut.-General Sir John Monash, who commanded the Australian Corps on our left, referring in his book, "The Australian Victories in France in 1918,"[1] to the action of September 29th, says:—

"Quite early in the day news came in that the IX Corps on my right hand had achieved an astonishing success, that Bellenglise had been captured, and that the deep canal had been successfully crossed in several places. It was the 46th Imperial Division to which this great success was chiefly due.——There can be no doubt that this success, conceived at first as a demonstration to distract attention from the Australian Corps' front, materially assisted me in the situation in which I was placed later on the same day."

For once General Headquarters' arrangements for the 46th Division miscarried.

Sappers got the Riquerval Bridge fit for transport early in the afternoon, and by 3.0 p.m. guns and other horse transport were passing over it. Later in the evening, after the 32nd Division had got clear, some of our Transport and cookers came up, and our hardworking Quarter-Master-Sergts. brought us very welcome and much-needed refreshment after a most strenuous day.