FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES
August 16th 1917
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
It was not until the 13th that the battalion got definite orders. From these, it transpired that the attack was to be carried on along the whole front of the Second and Fifth Armies, and that the XVIIIth Corps was to employ the 11th and 48th Divisions.
The objective, so far as the 145th Infantry Brigade was concerned, was the high ground overlooking the valley of the Stroombeek; the order of battle of this Brigade was the 1/5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the right, the 1st Bucks Battalion in the centre, the 1/4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry on the left, with the 1/4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment in Brigade reserve.
The British front line on the Brigade front lay immediately west of the Steenbeek, whilst the Germans were holding a line consisting of organised shell-holes and reinforced houses, along the ridge 200 yards east of the stream.
The Battalion was to form up for the attack west of the Steenbeek, on a front of 500 yards immediately north of the St. Julien bridge.
The formation was to be: two companies in front, A on the left and B on the right, each in two waves of two platoons, with C and D in artillery formation behind right and left respectively.
Tanks were to have co-operated, but, owing to the waterlogged state of the ground, were counter-ordered at the last moment.
On the morning of August 15, the Battalion marched from Dambre Camp to the canal bank. Here the afternoon was spent, and at 9.30 p.m. began to move to the forming-up positions. It proved a most trying march, the greater part of the route being over ground a mass of shell-holes full of water, the night pitch-dark and enemy shelling heavy. There was, or had been, a trench-board track to guide us part of the way, but this did not help much, as in many places it had been completely blown away by shells. With nothing else to aid them in keeping direction, it was no real wonder that three platoons of C Company lost their way and failed to turn up in time to take part in the initial assault. The remainder of the Battalion reached the forming-up positions and were ready twenty minutes before zero, which was fixed for 4.45 a.m. on August 16, 1917.
At zero minus seven minutes, the two leading companies moved forward to cross the Steenbeek.
At zero, the artillery barrage was put down 200 yards east of the stream and timed to creep forward at the rate of 100 yards every five minutes. The “going" was very bad indeed, as the ground was a mass of shell-craters and there were but few signs of dawn breaking. The result was that the barrage lifted off the enemy forward position before our leading wave could get up to it. A very heavy machine-gun fire was opened by the enemy from his concrete emplacements, and this was quickly reinforced by considerable rifle fire from his shell-hole positions. The fire almost entirely annihilated the leading wave of the right company, who instantly lost two out of their three officers. The second wave closed up and engaged the enemy with fire, while parties worked round the flanks, but the enemy kept up a very strong resistance, and until the leading platoons of D Company closed up and charged with the bayonet they showed no signs of giving in. This charge by the third wave was followed by a bout of hand-to-hand fighting around the blockhouses on the Hillock Farm-St. Julien road, until the garrison of one blockhouse put up their hands. After this the other garrisons soon followed suit. This was the situation on the right about 6 a.m.
The remains of B and D Companies were then quickly reorganised and pushed on in an attempt to overtake our barrage, which had by this time got well ahead of them. They could only succeed in advancing some 300 yards north-east of the outskirts of St. Julien, where they were confronted by a large sheet of water, with a blockhouse and two gunpits on the far side held by machine guns and riflemen. Every attempt made by these companies to get forward was stopped by a heavy cross-fire from these positions and others on the left.
The left leading company (A) met with less resistance at first, but on topping the slight ridge above the Steenbeek they came under a heavy cross-fire from Hillock Farm and two old gunpits west of it, as well as from positions away to their left, in front of the left Battalion, who had been held up close to the Steenbeek. The leading wave reached the gunpits with only sixteen men left. The second wave closed up, but its left platoon was completely stopped by fire from the direction of Maison du Hibou and Triangle Farm. The right platoon, carrying out their orders, continued the attack with the remains of the leading wave and succeeded in reaching their objective at Springfield at about 6.45 a.m. Many, however, were seen to fall as they passed Hillock Farm, and very few could actually have reached Springfield. After the first rush by this gallant party, every effort was made to reach the place and afford them assistance, but each attempt met with failure and many casualties, and at 9 a.m. the enemy were seen to rush the house, three or four of our men being afterwards led away.
At 7 a.m. Battalion Headquarters was established in a blockhouse on the west side of the Hillock Farm - St. Julien road, and made itself responsible for that road, whilst the other troops that remained were sent to reinforce the more forward position on the right. In the meantime the 5th Gloucesters on the right had got about 300 yards west of the Steenbeek, where they too were finally held up.
Soon after 8 a.m. the enemy were seen coming over the ridge north of Springfield in considerable numbers and collecting in a trench below it. As by this time the battalion had no communication with the artillery, this massing by the enemy continued, whilst the companies were hastily reorganised for defence, and three Vickers guns brought into suitable positions. One platoon of the 1/4th Royal Berks was also brought up and placed to protect the left flank, which was in the air.
At 9 a.m. three thick waves of the enemy were seen to move down towards Triangle Farm, where they got under cover. At 10 a.m. the enemy counter-attacked heavily from this farm and from each side of it. The fire from our machine guns, Lewis guns and rifles was, however, too much for them, for after a short time they commenced to retire over the ridge by which they had come.
Sniping and machine-gun fire were brisk throughout the day, and the battalion had several casualties, mostly in the neighbourhood of Hillock Farm, where the men had little cover and the slightest movement was visible to the enemy.
At 7.30 p.m., as it was getting dusk, about a hundred Germans attempted to rush the gunpits on the left, but they were stopped and suffered heavily. No further counter-attack occurred until 9.30 p.m., when the enemy again launched a surprise attack from the direction of Triangle Farm, and succeeded on this occasion in driving in our posts very slightly round Hillock Farm.
Reconnoitring patrols, sent out during the night, reported the enemy to be holding the line of the Springfield road.
Owing to enemy sniping, it had been found quite impossible to collect the wounded during the day and a great amount of searching and clearing had to be done that night. Enemy dead lay along the Hillock Farm road in large numbers, the majority having been bayoneted.
The captures by the Battalion were: 80 prisoners (mostly 7th Bavarian Infantry Regiment). 1 field gun. 8 machine guns. Large quantities of equipment and medical stores were also taken.
The attack proved that our barrage had no effect whatever on the garrisons of concrete blockhouses, and that for future operations it was essential that these houses should be dealt with by the“heavies’s prior to any assault.
For such a comparatively small advance, it had been a costly attack, but, as our flanks even now were largely in the air, it is difficult to see how we could have maintained positions farther forward, had we been able to reach them.
Casualties were: Officers Killed. 2 Wounded. 7
Other Ranks. Killed. 54. Wounded. 193. Missing. 35 (14 afterwards reported prisoners of war).
The Battalion was relieved the following evening by the 6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and as a result of this action the following congratulatory messages were received: “To the General Officer Commanding 145th Infantry Brigade. August 19, 1917. “In case the exigencies of the service prevent me visiting your battalions to-day, please tell them that I appreciate very much the stubborn and determined fighting spirit shown by you, and your officers and men, in the battle on the 16th. Although the fortunes of war, in the form of concrete shelters and an unexpectedly strong preliminary position, prevented us from gaining more than a portion of the objectives we want, we made a very valuable improvement to our position for future progress. Besides the capture of over 100 prisoners, very severe loss was inflicted on the Germans, one small field gun and several machine guns were captured. “It is not the mere capture of positions which is going to bring us the final victory, but the determined fighting, in spite of all difficulties, like that of the Bucks Battalion, which shows the enemy that he is beaten and cannot hope to beat us and must give in. “I have the fullest confidence in your Brigade, and know that they will continue to fight with the same spirit with which they have always done, in spite of difficulties.-- (Signed) R. FANSHAWE, Major-General.”
Looking across the ground assaulted by 1Bucks on 16th August 1917 from the area of “Springfield”.
The memorial in the foreground is to the memory of Pte Stephen Henshaw who was wounded by shrapnel during the attack of the 16th August. He lay out in the field behind his memorial for six days until recovered and sent to the Casualty Clearing Station on the 22nd August, he died the following day and is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery.
The First Buckinghamshire Battalion 1914-1919
P. L, Wright. Hazell Watson & Viney. 1920
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