RICHEBOURG L'AVOUE. (9th-18th May 1915.) Based on extracts from the Regimental Chronicles of The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Vol 24 1914-1915
NARRATIVE Towards the end of April was fought the Second Battle of Ypres, in which the Germans for the first time made use of gas in their attacks, with the result that the Allies were compelled to withdraw and take up a new line. The fighting in this area continued almost without intermission for a month, and gradually spread south, where, in order to assist the French offensive developing to the north of Arras, the British were ordered to advance to the attack, the task allotted to the 2nd Division and the Indian Division being the capture of the enemy's trenches opposite Richebourg L'Avoue and to the south-west in the direction of Givenchy. The Operation Orders, quoted below, give full details of what was intended, and the descriptions which follow show how the Regiment bore itself in endeavouring to fight its way through, between the 15th and 18th May.
Sir John French, in his Dispatch of the 15th June 1915, sums up the general result of the battle : "In the battle of Festubert above described the enemy was driven from a position which was strongly entrenched and fortified, and ground was won on a front of four miles to an average depth of 600 yards. The enemy is known to have suffered very heavy losses, and in the course of the battle 785 prisoners and 10 machine-guns were captured. A number of machine-guns were also destroyed by our fire."
COMMANDING OFFICERS (Major Eden's) Diary
May 9th.—At 1.30 a.m., as part of the 2nd Division, we moved out from Bethune to the vicinity of Gorre, where we remained behind a line of breastworks, as reserve to the 1st Division, who (in conjunction with the IVth Army Corps and the Indian Corps) had delivered an early morning attack on the enemy's lines near Richebourg St. Vaast. Unfortunately, both this attack and a second one later in the day failed in their object.
At 8 p.m. the Brigade was ordered to march through Le Touret, La Couture, and Richebourg St. Vaast to the relief of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. During the afternoon I, with the Company Commanders, had reconnoitred the line which we were to occupy, but it was not until 1 a.m. (10th May) that we got final orders to relieve the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in breastworks south of the Rue du Bois, near Richebourg l'Avoue. There were only two hours remaining before daylight, so the relief required quick work to carry through. Narrow communication trenches and some unburied dead impeded matters considerably, but the relief was successfully accomplished before daylight.
May 10th.—A busy day in the trenches organizing the line. Two companies in the front line breastworks; the other two companies in other lines, both north and south of the road. A good deal of shelling, from the effects of which the Regiment suffered considerably less than the other regiments of the Brigade, having only 1 man killed and 3 wounded.
May 11th.—Shelled again during the day. 2nd Lieut. C. B. Baker and 3 men were wounded; 2nd Lieut. J. L. Johnston missing and believed wounded. He went out in front of the line to recover wounded men.
May 12th.—Plenty of shelling again today, both on breastworks and communication trenches. Our officers and men have worked most splendidly in bringing in wounded from between the lines. In most cases the men were marked down by day and brought in at night; but both Fowke and Private Jones did exceptionally gallant work in rescuing wounded men in broad daylight.
In the evening we were relieved by the Inniskillings, and returned to billets at Richebourg St. Vaast. We had 4 men wounded today.
May 13th.—(Riehebourg St. Vaast. In Brigade Reserve.) A very large number of guns around this village keep up a deafening roar all day, which is very distracting. The enemy replied by shelling the village today.
May 14th.—Another Divisional Conference this morning, at which it was decided that an attack by night should be made from our present line.
May 15th.—The guns were more deafening and distracting than ever today, and all the German trenches opposite our line have been accurately and slowly shelled for three days preparatory to our attack.
The following were the Orders for the attack, issued by the 5th Brigade :--
Secret. COPY No. 3. OPERATION ORDER No. 29. By Brigadier-General A. A. Chichester, D.S.O., Commanding 5th Infantry Brigade.
1. (a) The 1st Army is resuming its offensive tonight, with the object of pressing forward to Violaines and Beau Puits.
(b) The Indian Corps will assault simultaneously with 2nd Division, being on their immediate left, and establish a flank through V. 6 to our present line.
(c) The 7th Division is to assault at 3.15 a.m. tomorrow morning, on the front N. 1-P. 5.
(d) The 1st Corps have orders to secure the line of the road Festubert-La Tourelle, from points M. 3 to R. 13.
2. (a) The 2nd Division is to assault the German front trenches between R. 1 and the right of the Indian Corps at 11.30 p.m tonight, and secure the line R. 1-R. 2-R. 5-R. 7-V. 4 under cover of darkness; at 3.15 a.m. tomorrow it is to press its attack simultaneously with the 7th Division to secure the Ferme Cour d'Avoue and the line of the Festubert-La Tourele road from points P. 14 to R. 13, both inclusive.
(b) The 6th Brigade are attacking on the front R. 1 to the bend in the German line between R. 6 and V. 1 inclusive.
3. The 5th Brigade will assault :- (a) The German first line trenches from the bend in the German line between R. 6 and V. 1 (exclusive) to the N.W. corner of the salient between V. 3 and V. 6.
(b) The German second line from R. 7 (inclusive) to a point N W. of V. 5, and get into touch with the Meerut Division at that point.
(c) At 3.15 a.m. the advance will be continued, with the object of capturing Ferme du Bois, establishing itself on the line Q. 12 (exclusive) to R. 13 (inclusive), maintaining touch with the Indian Corps. The communication trench running S.E. to N.W. through Q. 15 will be included in the 6th Brigade front
4. (a) The 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Worcester Regiment will carry out the assault, as laid down in Special Instructions already sent out.
(b) The 2nd Oxfordshire and Bucks Light Infantry and the Glasgow Highlanders will support the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment respectively.
(c) The 2nd Highland Light Infantry will be in Reserve at S. 9. a. 58.
(d) The 5th Field Company R.E. will be in Reserve at S.9.a.91
(e) No. 3 Trench Mortar Battery will advance toV.1 in support, as soon as the German front line has been captured.
(f) Centre Section, No. 7 Mountain Battery, will remain in Richebourg ready to move.
5. The position when gained must be immediately consolidated. The work of consolidation, except (as regards communication trenches, will be continued after daylight. The special working parties detailed for this will therefore not be withdrawn by the battalions.
6. In the event of a partial success. Officers commanding attacking battalions must hold on to and support any portion of the German line gained, organizing further attacks towards the flanks before daylight.
7. The 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment will be closed up on the front line breastworks and the two new cover trenches behind by 9 p.m.
The Glasgow Highlanders will pass house S. 9. a. 91 at 9 p.m. and move to their places of assembly.
The 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry will pass house S. 9. a. 91 at 9.45 p in.
The 5th Field Company R.E. will arrive at S. 9. a. 91 at 10.15p.m.
The 2nd Highland Light Infantry will arrive at S. 9. a. 58 at 10.30p.m.
8. Advance Dressing Station at Crossroads S. 3. c.
9. Brigade Ammunition Reserve and 1st Line Transport will remain in their present position.
10. Units will each send a representative with at least two watches to get the correct time at Brigade Headquarters about 7 p.m.
11 Brigade Headquarters will be at house S. 9. a. 91 from 10.30 p.m.
G. Thorpe, Captain, Brigade-Major 5th Infantry Brigade. Issued at 4.30 p.m.
Major Eden's Diary continued.
At 6 p.m. I issued the following orders :-- "The Regiment will parade tonight at 8.45 p.m., and will pass the starting point Auberge de la Mairie at 9 p.m. in order of Companies—Headquarters (less those detailed to follow)—A-C-D-B Companies, and then the rest of Headquarters as detailed.
"Machine-gun sections parade as ordered by their officers.
"Care is to be taken that water-bottles are full.
The official time will be given out at Orderly Room at 7.15 p.m.; one N.C.O. per company and all signallers issued with watches will attend."
After mess, and before parading (at 8.45 p.m) to take up our final positions in the breastwork lines, I spoke a few words to all the officers. This was the last opportunity that I ever had of even seeing so many of these excellent fellows.
The troops detailed for the attack were disposed as follows :
The 6th Infantry Brigade on the right, then the 5th Infantry Brigade, and then, prolonging the line northwards, 1 or 2 Divisions of the Indian Corps. The frontage was approximately from R. 1, through V. 1, to V. 6 (Allies Map 1/10,000)
The 5th Brigade had on the right the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, supported by ourselves; on the left the 2nd Worcestershire, supported by the Glasgow Highlanders ; and the 2nd Highland Light Infantry in reserve.
We and the other supporting battalion had to supply, as working parties, 3 platoons each for the two leading battalions, the men carrying sand-bags and shovels The attack was timed to commence at 11.30 p.m., by which hour the two first lines of the leading battalions were to be outside our front line, lying down ready. There was no preliminary artillery bombardment, and our immediate objectives were the enemy's first line of trenches, and then, if these were successfully carried, the Ferme de Biez.
At 11.28 p.m. the enemy opened rifle and machine-gun fire. The night was quite fine, but there was no moon. The Regiment moved out over the breastworks, when companies were so ordered, in 4 lines, each company in 2 lines. On the right C Company supported by B, on the left A Company supported by D.
After the Inniskillings had launched all their men, the Regiment was called on to reinforce them. The opposition was considerable and it was very difficult to ascertain the results of the Inniskillings' onslaught.
At 11.55p.m. I sent the following message to 5th Brigade Headquarters : ''Commanding officer and last line Inniskillings just leaving now. German infantry fire apparently from their second line"; and at 12 midnight I reported : "I believe first line taken."
May 16th.--My next four messages to Brigade Headquarter were :-- 12.20 a.m. : "Orderly reports V. 1 taken." 12.45 a.m. : " Half this Battalion is now in first line." 1.8 a.m. : "We are being shelled by field, guns from La Tourelle direction. May Heavies be turned on? Have only two companies left in breastwork.'' 1.15a.m.: "Worcester have just reported that they have retired to their breastwork."
At 1.18 a.m. I communicated with the Worcestershire Regiment : "Are you attacking again at 1.30 a.m.? Please .reply."
A message was then received from the 5th Brigade Headquarters : "B.M. 11, 1.15 a.m. Can you report further on situation? Do vyou know where left of Inniskillings rests? Have you sent forward Grenadiers (subsequently called“Bombers” ?" '
To which I replied, at 1.22 a.m. : "Your B.M. 11. Cannot say for certain where left of Inniskillings rests, My grenadiers have gone forward. Shelling of this breastwork now less. Am holding back my last company to co-operate with Worcesters' next attack at 1.30 a.m."
Shortly after this I received the Worcesters' reply, which was "No"; and at 1.49 a.m. 1 reported to the Brigade : ''Worcesters inform me they are not attacking at 1.30 a.m. I have only one company left. Have no further information from our left front. Please instruct."
Two messages from 5th Brigade Headquarters followed, the first having crossed my message to them :-- ''B.M. 16, 1.30 a.m. Worcesters will not attack again till 3.15 am., after bombardment from 2.45 a.m. Find out definitely where Inniskillings left rests, so that artillery fire can be arranged. Working party of H.L.I, has gone forward to try to make defensive flanks up ditch leading to V. 2."
"B.M. 19, 2 a.m. It is essential that ample protection be given to left flank of front line in German front line before daylight, as after that fire may be expected from left rear. Warn working party in front about this."
At 2.10 a.m. I sent the following to Brigade Headquarters : "I now feel pretty certain we have not got front of German line from V. 1 eastwards. Shall R.E. therefore dig forward from Cinder Track ?"
And at 2.20 a.m. the following : " Inniskilling officer just returned reports we are in occupation of German second line trench about R. 7. Am sending two platoons to reinforce them."
A little later I received the first authentic information as to how the attack had been going in a message from 5th Brigade Headquarters, dispatched at 2.30 a.m. : "Sixth Brigade attack has been successful. Inniskillings have captured front line. Glasgows will carry our assault on the line V. 2 to north-west corner of salient east of V. 3. Gharwal Brigade are assaulting at same time. At 2.45 a.m. artillery will bombard German first and second line trenches. The assault will be delivered at 3.15 a.m. Glasgows must have two lines out in front by that time. Arrangements for attack as for Worcesters today." This was followed by the message : "B.M. 22, 2.50 a.m. H.L.I, are moving up behind you."
At 3.5 a.m. I reported to Brigade Headquarters ; "Have deftnitely found out that V. 1 is our left. I believe Maxims still untouched between V. 1 and V. 2. We are still in possession of about R. 7."
The Brigade's next message was "B.M. 23, 3.10 a.m. Are you in touch with the front line? Do they require further support? If so, send forward your remaining troops and call on H.L.I., who are coming up behind you."
To this I replied at 3.21 a.m. : "Your B.M. 23. Not yet in touch by wire with front. H.L.I, must be used if further advance from here is required. I have only two platoons. Heavy shellfire by enemy now proceeding."
I then communicated with the O.C. 2nd H.L.I. : ''3.25 a.m. I have no troops left. Are you ordered to support me in attack? If so, can you come here yourself?"
During the next two hours the following messages passed between me and Brigade Headquarters :--
To 5th Brigade, 4.15 a.m.: ''Your B.M. 23. Wire broken since 3.20 a.m. Yellow flags are being waved at V. 1. Not much sign of life east of V. 1. Possibly Maxim still hidden. Good line of approach for supporting troops is west of Cinder Track. Considerable shelling still continues.''
From 5th Brigade, 4.45 a.m. : ''Am out of touch with Glasgow's. Please report their situation. Send orderly to find out. Did they attack?"
To 5th Brigade, 4.50 a.m. : "Have handed over breastwork to 2nd H.L.I., and am moving my headquarters forward. Glasgows occupying Worcesters' breastwork. They have not attacked. Am taking with me one company 2nd H.L.I.''
To 5th Brigade, 6 a.m. : "Am reading messages of King's Royal Rifles, who appear well consolidated. Am trying to cross west of Cinder Track, but am annoyed by fire from near V. 2."
At 6 a.m. the Brigade sent the following message to the 2nd H.L.I.: "Are there any bombs left in store? if so, try to get them up to left of forward line.'
We now knew that the attack by the 6th Brigade had succeeded,' as had that on about two-thirds of the 5th Brigade front, but on the left of the Regiment no ground had been gained, and no second attack had been attempted.
It was not until about 7 a.m. that I moved Regimental Headquarters to the captured German lines. We were rather fortunate in crossing the intervening 200 yards when we did, as when we were half-way across the enemy opened with shrapnel, which effectually prevented our Machine-gun Section from crossing, although Southey got over in some lucky way. Crosse and I lost Colvile en route, and it was not until some 20 minutes after our safe arrival that he appeared.
Not until now were we really able to ascertain how much line we had captured, or how great our losses had been. The distance which our people had to traverse was considerable—between 200 and 300 yards; the night was very dark, which made it extremely difficult to keep direction, and I fear that this resulted in many platoons, or more probably sections, losing their way. From the reports which I now received from those holding the captured line, it was easy to realize how great had been their difficulties.
During the attack Whitfeld and a party of men, by good work, succeeded in capturing a German machine-gun and 3 prisoners, after killing 7 or 8 of the gun detachment, and established a strong post, which marked the extreme left of our success. This point was then most ably held by Kite and a scratch party of bombers throughout the day.
Shortly after I had reached the new line I came across Beaufort, and gave him some orders about the consolidation of the line. The poor fellow had not gone two paces from me when a bullet, fired by a German sniper, passed through his head, and killed him stone dead on the spot.
One of the first things that occurred to me was the vital necessity of everyone setting to work to clean his rifle, as by now they had become choked with dirt. The men, however, were not entirely dependent on their own weapons, as we found a good many German rifles, as well as plenty of ammunition and bombs. The Regiment occupied about 120 yards of front, and the men were very crowded in the trench, there being a far greater number in it than were necessary; but, as long as daylight lasted, there was no possibility of thinning them out. It was only at considerable risk that our runners, who, as always, did admirable service, were able to carry reports to and from the breastwork line. The congestion was presently relieved to a certain extent by making a trench on our side of the original German parapet, and, most mercifully, the enemy, though he plastered our old lines with shells, left us alone throughout the day.
At 8.45 a.m. the 5th Brigade sent the following message to the Highland Light Infantry :-- ''B.M. 40. Brigade will form a defensive flank through V. 1 to our present breastworks. Inniskillings and Oxfords will consolidate their present position. H.L.I. will endeavour to join up with V. 1 by digging out the trench begun during the night. If R.E. assistance is wanted it should be asked for. Please pass this to Oxfords and Inniskillings."
The morning passed in consolidating our position, and at 2 p.m. I reported to 5th Brigade Headquarters : "We are in a good position in German front line, but rather too crowded. 6th Infantry Brigade is on our right and in German second line. Bombs, Very pistols, and ammunition very essential. If a pair of machine-guns could reach here it would greatly strengthen our left flank. No wire between first and second lines, or in gap north-east of R. 7. Have been trying to get visual signalling with H.L.I. and Z.E. Station, but failed. My signaller at transmitting station was wounded.''
At 3.30 p.m. I received a message which had been sent, by 5th Brigade Headquarters, to the Glasgows at 12.35 p.m., as follows :-- "It is intended to attack the German lines from R. 7 northwards. Oxfords to carry out attack from German first line V. 1 southwards after bombardment. When will Oxfords be ready, and have troops organized for the attack? Pass this message to H.L.I., and for report to Oxfords, so that the bombardment can be arranged. The actual hour of assault will be fixed when I have the information. H.L.I, and Glasgows will support from our trenches and get battalions in depth. H.L.I, and Glasgows will at once send someone to repair telegraph wire."
I acknowledge this at 3.35 p.m. : "Your message to Glasgows, timed 12.35 p.m., just received. Will be ready at 4.45 p.m. There is still considerable shelling. We are very crowded in these trenches. Casualties so far:--
Missing and at present unaccounted for : Major Kirkpatrick, Lieut. Warner, Lieut. Rendel, 2nd Lieut. Riddle, 2nd Lieut. Dean, 2nd Lieut. Dashwood.
Other ranks cannot now say, but probably 50 per cent, and Inniskillings very similar.
Shortly afterwards I received in succession two notes from the Officer Commanding the 2nd H.L.I.; the first was as follows : -- "I sent you a message received from Brigade through Glasgows. It is not clear if I support by attack or only by fire. Thorpe thinks the latter. I will forward you bombs, ammunition, etc., but do you still want machine-guns, as you will be having an offensive flank, and not defensive? They could get up during the bombardment. If you still require them please semaphore 'Yes.'"
Second Note from O.C. 2nd H.L.I, to O.C. Oxfordshire. "Last instructions changed again. Now we are to consolidate and hold our position. The Brigade wants to know from you the following :-- 1. Can you hold your position with your own battalion alone (allowing the Inniskillings to withdraw) ? 2. The exact position you occupy, and the Inniskillings, and which side of the parapet. 3. Have you or they any men in the German 2nd line at R. 7 ? 4. Do you want any help in the way of working parties, sandbags, tools, etc.? 5. He wishes you to get all your men together and reorganize. "If you will send it to me I will 'phone it on. I take it you will now want your machine-guns? "
At 4.55 p.m. I answered the above questions :-- "We can hold our position alone, allowing Inniskillings to withdraw, provided our two Maxims, and plenty of bombs, tools, Very pistols and ammunition, and S.A. ammunition, are sent us. We and Inniskillings occupy from V. 1 to communication trench 100 yards south, occupying both sides of the parados. Only the Sixth Infantry Brigade occupy R. 7. A communication trench to our original first line is very necessary, as is also telephone communication, or failing that, signalling. I have now no operators or instruments available."
Nothing further happened until night, when we were relieved by two companies of the 2nd H.L.I., and returned to our original breastwork line in reserve. Crosse and I went back by a somewhat lengthy route, and made some most unwelcome and cruel discoveries about our unfortunate casualties; at the same time we solved the fate of many poor fellows, who until then had been reported missing.
Our stretcher-bearers did yeoman service throughout the night; but, had there been more available, we could have employed three times the number. Scott, our Medical Officer, was a most indefatigable worker
May 17th.—The night passed without anyone obtaining much rest, and at 6 a.m. orders were received to the effect that the 2nd H.L.I, would prepare, in conjunction with the (6th Brigade, to attack the Ferme de Biez, whilst the Regiment was to support them.'
In the course of the morning Crosse and I, with Field and about 20 men went forward to reconnoitre the best line for our advance. Some Indian Pioneers had dug a new communication trench for three parts only of the way. We eventually reached the headquarters of the H.L.I., having had one of the most difficult and trying journeys I have ever experienced. Things were not going well with the projected attack, and the enemy shelled our line everywhere very vigorously.
The bulk of the Regiment remained for the day in the breastwork line, on which the German fire was both accurate and destructive. In spite of the energy displayed by Colvile in disposing of the men in what appeared to be the safest places, we had a considerable number of casualties.
As it grew dark I went down to Brigade Headquarters to make a personal report. The stretcher-bearers continued their good work of bringing in the wounded, and shortly after midnight the Regiment was relieved by the 15th Sikhs, when we returned to temporary billets at Richebourg St. Vaast.
Casualties, 15th to 18th May" :--
KILLED. Captain F. H. Beaufort. Lieut. R, E. B. Bull. Lieut. D. H. W. Humfrey. 2nd Lieut. L. A. Dashwood. 2nd Lieut. F. E. L. Riddle. And 42 other ranks. Total Killed. 47.
WOUNDED. Captain H. M. Dillon. Captain G. Blewitt. Captain S. F. Hammick. Lieut, (temp Captain) W. G. Tolson. Lieut. C. S. Baines, D.S.O. Lieut. G. W. Titherington. Lieut. D. A. D. Sewell. Lieut. J. W. G. Wyld. Lieut. E. H. Whitfeld. 2nd Lieut. W.J. Eighteen. 2nd Lieut. C. Dean. 2nd Lieut. W. L. Barnard. And 270 other ranks, and 2 men of R.A.M.C. attached. Total Wounded,284.
MISSING. Captain and Brevet-Major E. H. Kirkpatrick. Lieut. C. J. Warner. Lieut. R. D. Rendel. And 61 other ranks. Total Missing, 64.
Grand Total, killed, wounded, and missing, 395 all ranks.
Most probably the missing are either killed or wounded, as some of the area fought over was not won, and it was almost impossible to search it even after dark.
All the area also between our original front line and the German line was so shell-swept that it is very probable that many bodies were entirely destroyed by this fire. NARRATIVE The 52nd came out of action with a total loss of close on four hundred of all ranks. Never before in its history had the Regiment suffered so heavily, except at the storming of Badajoz, when its casualties numbered twenty more. Other regiments of the Division had suffered equally, and it was taken out of the line for a period of rest, reorganization, and training.
Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.
139 Officers and men of the battalion are commemorated here who lost their lives between 10th-19th May 1915 and have No known Grave.
Bethune Town Cemetery. 6 men of the battalion lie here from 10th-19th May 1915.
Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy. 2 men of the battalion from 16th May 1915 lie here.