BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
THE Battalion entrained, at Savi on the 23rd and 24th November in two trains each carrying two Companies and a proportion of Battalion Headquarters and Transport.
The journey took six days. The first train was unloaded at Bevilacqua on the evening of the 29th, the second at Este on the morning of the 30th, the two half battalions meeting at Agugliaro on the 2nd December.
The 48th Division now formed part of the XIX Corps (Lieut.-General Sir H. Haking, K.G.B., K.C.M.G.), and was marching in a north-easterly direction towards the Montello, where the XIV Corps had already arrived. After a week’s halt at Villa del Conte the Battalion reached S.Croce Bigolina on the 14th December, the rest of the Division concentrated in this area, and the XIX Corps became the reserve to the Italian Army holding the line astride the Brenta Valley in front of Vaistagna, where an attack was expected.
Here the Battalion remained for five weeks, much of the time being spent in reconnoitring the Reserve lines about Conco, Rubbio, and Campolino in the mountains, a cold job well above the snow line at that time of year.
On the 24th January a move was made eastwards to the Treviso area, where the Battalion remained in reserve till the Division relieved the 7th Division on the eastern end of the Montello at the end of February. Here sixteen days were spent, a short and uneventful tour, as the Piave was in flood, and little could be done in the way of patrols. One patrol did succeed in getting across, but it was a feat of endurance rather than a military accomplishment. The men were so cold when they reached the other side that it is very doubtful whether they could have used their arms effectively if occasion had arisen.
The westward march was begun on the 15th March, and S. Urbano was reached on the 3rd April. Here the Battalion was chiefly employed in providing working parties over a large area, whilst parties of officers reconnoitred the lines on the Asiago Plateau.
On the 18th April the Division moved up to the Asiago Plateau, relieving the 23rd Division in the right Divisional Sector of the British front with the French Corps on the right and the 7th Division on the left.
The Battalion reached Granezza Camp on the mountains on the 23rd, after four and a half-hours’ climbing up mountain tracks.
This was their first experience of mountain climbing, and the ease with which it was accomplished showed the fitness of all ranks. The system adopted was twenty minutes’ climbing followed by ten minutes’ halt, the men being in “fighting order.” The transport section proceeded by road, the only accident being to “A” Company’s cooker, which, in passing a motor-lorry, went over the side and fell about 150 feet. The cooker was badly damaged, but the two drivers and the four horses had a marvellous escape, and were little the worse for their experience.
On arriving at the top, the mountains were found to be covered with snow and a heavy snowstorm raging—a sudden change from the hot sunny weather in the Plains below.
This tour in the line lasted only for a month, during which nothing of importance happened. The broad “No Man’s Land” gave ample scope for patrols, but the enemy evinced little enterprise: on the few occasions that they met our patrols the Austrians showed an almost precipitate courtesy in making way.
After a fortnight out of the line the Division relieved the 7th Division in the left sector of the British front. Preparations were nearly completed for an offensive to be launched on the 18th June when the enemy took the initiative.
On the morning of the 15th June, when the Austrian attack started, the 48th Division was holding a front of 4 kilometres between Roncalto and Schulazzon, having the 23rd Division on their right and the 12th Italian Division on their left.
The Division had two Brigades in line, the 143rd in depth on a one-Battalion front on the left, the 145th on a two-Battalion front on the right, the inter-Brigade boundary being the west side of Hill 972, which was inclusive to the Right Brigade. The 144th Brigade was in Divisional Reserve, with three Battalions in camps on the edge of the Plateau and one down on the Plain.
The 145th Brigade area corresponded exactly to the limits of the Cesuna Wood, the front line trench being sited well back inside the irregular northern edge of the wood. In front ran a series of rocky hillocks mostly covered with trees, in advance of which lay the line of pickets.
Along the front of the left Battalion was the dry bed of the Ghelpac Stream. Here the trench line was irregular in trace, with acute salients and re-entrants, which made it impossible for the front line posts either to see what was occurring on either side of them or to render mutual assistance. The area behind the front line was broken and rocky, and for the most part thickly wooded. The Main Line ran along the N. slope of Mt. Lemerle.
The 143rd Brigade area was open, irregular country to the west of Cesuna Wood, the Ghelpac Stream lay in front of the line, the western half lying in a deep gorge.
It was between this gorge and Cesuna Wood that the maximum weight of the Austrian attack came so far as the Division was concerned.
The 145th was holding the outpost system, with the 1/4th Oxfords on the right, 1/5th Gloucesters on the left. The Bucks Battalion were holding the main line, the 1/4th R. Berks were in Brigade reserve, 3 kilometres south of Mt. Lemerle, where Brigade Headquarters were located. An epidemic of influenza had much reduced the strength of all the Battalions, especially of the Gloucesters, who were only able to parade three weak platoons in their Companies.
Information received on the evening of the 14th pointed to an Austrian attack on the Piave, but it did not appear likely that the attack would extend to the Plateau, though the bombardment by the Artillery might. Soon after midnight, however, it was elicited from a prisoner, taken by the Oxfords in a raid on an advanced post, that an attack was imminent on the Plateau.
At 3 a.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment, including a large amount of gas shell on all the lines of defence except the picket line. At 3.40 a.m. the pickets were withdrawn to the front line, the outpost line of resistance, observation-posts being left out in front of the wire. Our Artillery counter-preparations commenced at 4.40 a.m.
About 7 a.m. the enemy infantry attack developed after a concentrated bombardment of the front line.
Owing to the trees, and the irregular features of the ground, it was impossible to observe the advance, or bring fire to bear until the attacking infantry were actually on our wire. A thick ground-mist also hampered the work of the observation-posts, and it was difficult to ascertain when the enemy first succeeded in entering the line, but the first entry in force into the Brigade sector occurred about 7.50 a.m., when the enemy were seen advancing in great force from the high ground about Perghele. They swept down into the valley that ran from the left Battalion Headquarters to the front line, thus taking the garrison of this line in reverse and severing their connection with their Battalion Headquarters. The Support Company of the left Battalion took up a position astride the valley, but were soon enveloped on their left, and compelled to retire on to the Cesuna-Canove road. Here they held their ground for a time, till a heavy attack on their right forced them back astride the railway, and severed their connection with the Oxfords on their right.
In the meantime the Oxfords were putting up a fine resistance in a very awkward position. Early in the attack the enemy had driven a wedge in between them and the Northumberland Fusiliers on the left of the 23rd Division s line, and the Fusiliers had been compelled to fall back on their switch line. This had left the right of the Oxfords open, and the enemy had attempted to work round behind them, but were prevented by the Bucks Battalion in the Lemerle Switch.
By the aid of Bangalore torpedoes and Flammenwerfers the enemy also succeeded in piercing the centre of the Oxfords’ line and effecting an entry in considerable force, gaining complete possession of the front line, the Oxfords holding them on a line about 150 yards from the trench.
At 10.30 a.m. the reserve Company counter-attacked, and the Oxfords regained and for a time held a considerable portion of the front line, but were again forced back on to Hill 1021, their left holding on at the Railway Arch over Princes Road.
At 2.15 p.m. the left Company was forced back from the Railway Arch, as their left was threatened with envelopment by the enemy, who had forced their way in between them and the Glosters. Accordingly they fell back gradually to just north of Pelly Cross, where they linked up with the Berks, two Companies of which had been sent up to close the gap between the Oxfords and the Glosters.
At 3 p.m. the enemy received fresh reinforcements from the direction of Canove, but made little progress.
At 6 p.m. the Brigade line ran from the top of Hill 1021 to Pelly Cross, thence along Pine Avenue to the Cesuna Switch, where the 143rd Brigade line commenced.
At 6.30 p.m. two Battalions of the 144th Brigade commenced a counter-attack from the Cesuna Switch in a N.E. direction in an attempt to clear the pocket in which the enemy was held. Owing to the large number of machine guns disposed amongst the rocks no great headway could be made, but the size of the pocket was reduced, and the enemy was convinced that he was firmly contained, and that his attack had failed.
Next morning at 4.30 a.m. a general counter-attack was made, and the original front reoccupied, little resistance being encountered. It was evident that the enemy had realised failure, and had ordered a general withdrawal, which had already begun when the counter-attack started.
Although the Battalion did not play a leading part in this battle, as the main line which they were holding was never attacked in any part, still it carried out a good deal of important work. “C” Company on the right frustrated the attempted envelopment of the right of the Oxfords. Several large officers patrols were out keeping touch with the two forward Battalions, and on several occasions were able to stop the enemy advancing though the gaps they had made in the front line. The Battalion also kept up a supply of ammunition to the forward Battalions, which never failed them throughout the progress of the fight.
A large number of prisoners were taken by the Brigade, including representatives of every unit of two Divisions and of several units of two others. The enemy casualties had been very severe and a large number of dead were left behind on his retirement.
The casualties in the Battalion were OFFICERS Wounded: 6
OTHER RANKS Killed : 8. Wounded: 42.
On the 20th June Major-General Sir Robert Fanshawe, K.C.B., gave up the command of the Division after commanding it for three years, during which time he had won the confidence and affection of all ranks.
This command was filled by the appointment of Major-General H. B. Walker, K.C.B., D.S.O.
At the end of June the Battalion went down to the Plains, where a very hot fortnight was spent, before they returned to Granezza on the 19th July, when the Division relieved the 23rd Division in the Right Sector.
This tour in the line was marked by great activity. Artillery action was constant on both sides, and the Austrians gave continual proof of their skill as gunners by their accurate shooting. Raids were of almost nightly occurrence along the British and French Fronts, and were usually carried out by one or more Battalions.
On the night of the 26th/27th August the Battalion, in conjunction with the 4th Royal Berks, raided the Austrian trenches in the vicinity of Sec and Ave. Each Battalion had the assistance of four 18-pounder batteries; 45-inch and 6-inch howitzers, and French 75 mm. guns also engaged selected targets.
At 10.40 p.m. the 18-pounders put down a barrage on the enemy front line. At 10.45 p.m. the two right batteries lifted on to the sunken road for nine minutes, the two left batteries on to the dug-outs N.E. of Lone Tree House for four minutes, and then for five minutes on to the dug-outs about S.M. Maddelena, at 10.54 p.m. lifting off to form a protective barrage beyond. At the same time the right batteries lifted on to the part of the trench facing S.E., and eight minutes later joined in the protective barrage, which continued till 12.10 a.m.
The Battalion formed up behind the Midway House Ridge, and was ready in position at 10.30 p.m.
Three platoons of “A” Company were responsible for the front line from Sec to the inter-Battalion boundary, the fourth platoon for the dugouts N.E. of Lone Tree House. “D” Company passed through “A” Company, two platoons dealing with the remainder of the dug-outs N.E. of Lone Tree House, the other two with those about S.M. Maddelena.
It was not advisable for “B” and “C” Companies to make their attack direct, as the right batteries were firing at extreme range, and there might be considerable risk of “shorts.” “C” Company therefore and two platoons of “ B” passed through “A,” and moving along the west side of a communicating trench running N. from Sec, formed up in two lines opposite their objectives. The first line took the dugouts in the sunken road, the second passing through took the front line facing S.E.
The other two platoons of “B” Company remained outside the front line and to the left of the line of fire of the guns, in turn taking the left and right of the sunken road as the barrage lifted clear.
The wire in front of the enemy position was a distinct obstacle, and the leading platoons suffered many casualties whilst getting through. The front line was fairly strongly held, and the enemy put up a good fight with rifle fire, grenades, and machine-gun fire, but as soon as the leading platoons got in with the bayonet they mostly surrendered.
All platoons remained on their objectives till at 12.30 a.m. the signal was given to withdraw. They then retired in succession from the farthest objectives first.
The Battalion was full of praise for the excellence of the barrage which had enabled them to score a great success at a comparatively small cost in casualties.
The total captures were 210 prisoners and five machine guns, and the enemy’s losses in killed by artillery fire and the bayonet were very heavy.
Our casualties were: OFFICERS Wounded: 6
OTHER RANKS Killed: 4. Wounded: 75. Missing: 5 (1 later reported wounded and a prisoner).
At the end of September the British and French Corps were withdrawn to prepare for an offensive on the Piave, leaving only the 48th Division and the 24th French Division on the Plateau to engage the attention of the enemy.
On the night 28th/29th October, the Austrians vacated their front-line system on the Asiago Plateau, and retired to a prepared position 3,000 yards in rear at the foot of the mountains that rose on the northern edge of the Plateau. For three months they had been working on this line in anticipation of the coming winter, and had given it the name of Winter Stellung.
The front line thus vacated was at once occupied by the Allied troops, the 48th Division being in the centre, with the 24th French Division on the right, and 20th Italian Division on the left.
On the night 31st October/1st November a general attack by the three Divisions was ordered, with the object of capturing the line Croce di S. Antonio—Mt. Mosciagh, the first objective being the Winter Stellung position. The Infantry attack was timed to start at a.m.
The 48th Division attacked with the 145th Brigade on the right, -the 144th Brigade on the left, and the 143rd Brigade in Reserve. The Bucks Battalion was on the right of the 145th Brigade, with the 4th Royal Berks on the left, and the 4th Oxfords in Reserve. (The 5th Gloucesters had gone to France, all the Brigades in Italy having been reduced to three Battalions.)
The Battalion formed up on the Asiago—Gallio Road on a frontage of 8oo yards with its left resting on Rendella. “A” Company on the left, “B” on the right, each on a two-platoon frontage; “C” and “D” Companies in Battalion reserve in depth in artillery formation. The enemy were shelling the Ghelpac and the high ground between it and Laiten fairly vigorously, but just clearing the forming-up position.
Soon after the advance began the enemy opened with machine-gun and rifle fire from Reutte, Costa, Straite, and Mt. Catz, and some rifle fire from trenches W. of Gallio Wood.
The leading wave had little difficulty in occupying the Winter Stellung from Villa Rossi to Reutte, but further advance was checked by heavy enfilade fire from Costa, Mt. Catz, and Straite.
There were no signs of our attack developing in that area, and it was imperative to silence Mt. Catz before continuing the advance.“A” Company therefore attacked Costa, and the two Reserve Companies assaulted Straite and Rigoni di Sotto, capturing four machine guns. “A” Company was held up by two machine guns on the S. slope of Mt. Catz, until a Lewis gun put one out of action, and the second was outflanked and its crew killed. In the meantime “C” and “D” Companies had worked up the eastern side of Mt. Catz, gained the crest, and captured four more machine guns. By 7 a.m. the whole garrison of Mt. Catz had surrendered.
“B” Company on the right was now held up by fire from the trenches on the edge of Gallio Wood and from Roccolo. “C” Company was therefore sent on to Roccolo, and “D” up the spur N. of Rigoni di Sopra. “B“Company was then able to continue the advance.
At 7.30 a.m. a Company of the Berkshires had come up to the trenches on the southern slope of Mt. Catz. Leaving therefore two platoons at Roccolo to keep touch with the Berks, the Bucks Battalion collected their Companies on to their own line. Little further resistance was encountered after this, but two machine guns and a 4~2-inch howitzer were captured in the vicinity of the quarry, and at 10.30 a.m. the Battalion was able to reorganise the Companies, and take up a position on their objective whilst patrols were sent out to the flanks and forward. No sign of the enemy was found, though a few stragglers were brought in. The French left was discovered on the east side of the Valle di Nos, and a liaison post arranged on the N. of C. Giardini. A Company of the Berkshires came up on the left at 1.30 p.m., and these dispositions remained till the next day without incident.
The Battalion captured a large quantity of material, including 21 guns of various calibres, 12 machine guns, and 3 motor-lorries, in addition to many wagons.
On the left little advance had been made. The 144th Brigade was held up in front of Camporovere, and the 20th Italian Division had not been able to make any progress.
The casualties in the Battalion, in proportion to the ground gained in the face of the determined resistance of the enemy, especially in the earlier stages of the engagement, were not heavy. One officer was wounded, and of other ranks 6 were killed, 30 wounded, and 1 missing.
During the night the 1/7th Worcesters had been sent from the 144th Brigade to concentrate at Roccolo, N.E., and at dawn on the 2nd November they attacked and captured Mt. Mosciagh from the east, whilst the 4th Oxfords moved on to Mt. Meatta, where they disposed of the enemy garrison without much difficulty.
The success of this turning movement caused the enemy to retreat from the positions they were holding at the entrances of the Val d’Assa and on Mt. Interrotto; when therefore at 10 a.m. the 143rd Brigade attacked through Camporovere they encountered little resistance and advanced rapidly up the Val d’Assa until, at dusk, they came in touch with the enemy occupying a position Bosson Vezzine, Marcia di Sotto, in considerable strength.
At 7 a.m. on the 2nd the Bucks Battalion had moved to Mt. Mosciagh to relieve the Worcesters, and at 3 p.m. they advanced down into the Val di Portule, where the whole Brigade, less one Company of the Oxfords left on Mt. Meatta, remained for the night in bivouac.
In the meantime the 20th Italian Division on the left had succeeded in crossing the Assa, and by dusk had reached the area Rosco di Poselaro—Valle del Trughele. On the right the 14th Italian Division had taken over from the 24th French Division, and had arrived at Bochetta di Portule.
At 3 a.m. on the 3rd November the whole Division‘resumed the advance. At 4.30 a.m. the advanced guard (143rd Brigade) commenced the attack on the Vezzina position, where the Austrians offered but a feeble resistance, and by 8 a.m. a large force, estimated at about 14 Battalions, with a Corps Commander and three Divisional Generals, was surrounded and captured. After this little further opposition was encountered, the enemy surrendering freely in large numbers, caught by the rapidity of our advance.
The Division proceeded down the precipitous slopes of M. Rovere into the Val Sugana and occupied Caldonazzo, the advanced guard taking up a position about Levico. The G.O.C. despatched his G.S.O. to the headquarters of the Third Austro-Hungarian Army at Trent to demand the surrender of Trent and Pergine with all hostile troops in the area. Faced by a hopeless situation, the Austrian Commander agreed.
The 144th and 145th Brigades were billeted for the night at Caldonazzo, the Battalion finding two Companies to guard prisoners, of whom about 10,000 had been collected there.
On the morning of the 4th the advance was resumed, and at 3 p.m., when the Armistice came into force, the Division was on the line Cima—Brada—Baselgadi Pine— Dosse di Brusadi—Mt. Calisio, the Battalion being billeted in Madrano.
The captures by the Division amounted to about 22,000 prisoners, 165 howitzers, 63 guns, a large park of guns of all calibres, including one 17-inch howitzer, a train-load of field guns at rail-head, approximately 200, and small arms, machine guns, and material practically uncountable.
After two days spent at Madrano the Battalion left on the 7th November for the plains. Six days’ marching brought them to Maglio, a village about 12 miles N.W. of Vicenza, on the 13th and there they remained till the completion of demobilisation.
The Campaign in Italy was over. The setback of Caporetto had been retrieved and more. The Austrian Army had ceased to be a factor in the War, and the Italians readily recognised the extent to which the presence of the Allied troops had contributed to this result.
Eighteen months later twelve facsimiles in bronze of the gold Commemorative medal offered to the King of Italy by the National Committee were sent to England to the Foreign Office for distribution to selected units. Four were allotted to the Navy, one to the Air Force, and seven to the Army.
The Army Council, after consulting Lieut.-General the Earl of Cavan, selected the following Corps to receive these seven medals as representatives of the British Military Forces which had been engaged on the Italian Front: Northamptonshire Yeomanry. Bucks Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire L.I. 1st Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Royal Artillery Mess, Woolwich. Royal Engineers Mess, Chatham. Honourable Artillery Company. Royal Army Medical Corps Mess, Millbank Hospital.
The choice of the Bucks Battalion to represent the Territorial Infantry was a fitting recognition of the prominent part played by the 48th Division, and a tribute to the leadership of the Battalion, which on more than one occasion had by prompt and daring initiative contributed largely to the success of the operations of the Division.
On November 6, came orders to march back to Caldonazzo on the following morning. This proved to be the first of a six days’ march, covering in all some eighty miles. Other nights were spent at the old haunts of Vezzena, Val Portule, Granezza, Thiene, and on November 13 we reached the rest-billets allotted to the Battalion in the villages of Maglio and Novale.
“Spit and polish” at once became the order of the day. Discipline, so far from being relaxed, became stricter. On the other hand, the hours of training were considerably reduced, and sports and games organised and encouraged to fill the hours of leisure.
Demobilisation, which at first proceeded slowly, quickened up about the middle of January, and gradually increased throughout February.
Those men who had enlisted during and after 1916, and who were consequently retained in the Service, were given the choice of two battalions to which they could transfer, the 1/5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 1/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, these being the two which had been detailed to represent the Division in the Army of Occupation. The Royal Warwicks were to remain in Italy, while the Gloucesters were to be moved to Scutari.
The large majority of the men voted for the 5th Royal Warwicks, partly on account of their destination, but chiefly because they were now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel P. A. Hall, D.S.O., M.C., a Bucks officer.
To those who were left with the Battalion, this form of demobilisation became a most melancholy proceeding. To watch the Battalion, of which all were so proud, being gradually reduced to nothing, was depressing in the extreme.
By the middle of March we were reduced to a cadre of five officers and fifty other ranks, which was the most that any infantry unit was allowed to retain in order to bring home the Regimental stores.
On March 23 the cadre left Novale, reaching Aylesbury on the 31st. Here these remnants, under Lieutenant-Colonel L. L. C. Reynolds, D.S.O., paraded once again on that Square in front of the Town Hall where, more than four and a half years ago, the whole Battalion had paraded on mobilisation.
In many a Midland home, for generations to come, names shall be held in honour, and question shall be asked, “What did they do?”
Let the answer be: “In the Great War they served with The First Bucks Battalion"
The Regimental Chapel in St Mary's Church Aylesbury