The following account of the fighting in which the 52nd took part between the 30th November and 8th December 1917 was compiled shortly afterwards by Captain C. T. Chevallier, Intelligence Officer of the Regiment:
HERMIES—BOURLON AREA. The terrain in which the Regiment operated was rolling country gradually sloping northward, but limited by the Bourlon Crest, just short of which the Divisional front line lay, at the beginning of the period under review; the Hindenburg Front and Hindenburg Support Systems, running south from this ridge, may be described as the western and eastern limits of the area in which the Regiment operated. These are at a distance varying from a thousand yards to a mile apart. Between the two there runs parallel to both, but nearer to the Front System, the Canal du Nord, still under construction. As it descends gradually past the Bourlon west to the Agache valley it has many locks, of which three affect the operations of the Division: Lock 5, which the 6th Brigade held on the morning of the 30th November; Lock 6, which the Regiment held during the December retirement; and Lock 7, which became the Headquarters of the 5th Brigade on the 30th November.
The Hindenburg Front and Support Systems are linked in this area by Hughes Switch running a quarter of a mile north of Lock 7, Kangaroo Alley eastward of Lock 6, and the front line in the Bourlon Crest, 400 yards farther north. Between the two last the main Bapaume-Cambrai Road crosses the Hindenburg Systems. The roads from Graincourt to Demicourt and Hermies, both in part sunken, cross the area just north of Hughes Switch. At their junction just east of the Support System was the 90th Infantry Brigade Headquarters. Cutting these roads at right angles the road northward from Havrincourt to Sains runs roughly parallel to the east bank of the canal. As far as its crossing with Kangaroo Alley this road was in good condition and little shelled, and was used by the regimental transport.
South of Lock 7 the unfinished Canal du Nord was the main route for transport. Passing between Hermies and Havrincourt through a cutting 65 ft. deep, it was exposed to enfilade fire, and was something of a shell-trap: but after the original advance on 20th November it had been cleared, and its brick bed provided an excellent highway. The disposition of the 2nd Division was as follows on the morning of the 30th November : 6th Brigade in the line south of Moeuvres and astride the Canal du Nord, Lock 5 of which they held; 99th Brigade holding the ridge between the Canal and Bourlon Wood (exclusive).
On the left the 51st (Highland) Division (T.F.) held the Hindenburg Front System as far as Tadpole Copse, from which they overlooked Moeuvres from the left; on the right the 47th (London) Division (T.F.) was holding the bulk of Bourlon Wood, including the crest line in it. Beyond them the line was refused, the 59th Division facing the height of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
The 5th Brigade was in support, having been brought on the 27th to the area of Hermies, where Brigade Headquarters were situated. That night the 17th Royal Fusiliers were lent to the 99th Brigade, whose situation was somewhat anxious owing to the loss of Bourlon Village, to our right, the previous day. The rest of the Brigade remained in a state of readiness, and only on the afternoon of the 29th was it possible for the Regiment to revert from fighting order to normal. The Regiment was then situated in the old British front line astride the Hermies-Havrincourt Road, with one company in the recently captured Spoil Heap in K.20. From the commanding ground by the Havrincourt Road where Headquarters was situated it was possible to view the whole front from Prouville to Fontaine-Notre-Dame, with only local exceptions, and much of the Agache valley as well. Its opportunities for observation were, in short, unusually extensive.
The early morning of the 30th November was quiet, except for a considerable bombardment apparently W. of Moeuvres, while to the S.E. flashes could be seen in increasing frequency. These preluded the successful enemy attacks in the Gouzeaucourt area, but of them the Regiment knew nothing throughout the day.
About 9a.m. the bombardment on the Divisional Front, which had been desultory, became intense and continued so until dark. Before 10a.m. it was possible to distinguish considerable movement near Quarry Wood in Squares E.4. and 10, and a mass of field-guns ready to follow up a success was seen by officer observers. It was now clear that an attack was in progress, as the supporting troops of the 99th Brigade were seen advancing over the open to the front.
At this point orders were received (10.10a.m.) from 5th Brigade to stack surplus kits. Brigade Headquarters was to be notified when the Regiment was ready to move. It was possible to send this report shortly before noon.
At 11.30 a.m. the Intelligence Officer was sent forward to reconnoitre accommodation in Lock 7, to which the Regiment proceeded shortly after noon. By 130p.m. the Regiment had occupied quarters in the eastern side of the Lock. The western side was allotted to the 24th Royal Fusiliers, who began to arrive shortly afterwards.
A long message was then received (1.40p.m.), apparently originating from Corps Headquarters, as it affected three divisions. It ordered the 59th and 47th Divisions to fall back to the Hindenburg Support System between Flesquieres and Hughes Switch, where the 2nd Division was to conform westwards along Hughes Switch and across the Canal. To this was added an order by G.O.C. 5th Brigade for the Regiment and the 24th Royal Fusiliers to retake the Sugar Factory in E.29, and presumably to cover the retirement of the 47th Division from Bourlon Wood : "Should the enemy not be met with, touch was to be re-established with G.O.C. 99th Brigade at E.28.d.3.5. (which location was inaccurate), and a line to be taken up in support of his troops.
The loss of the Graincourt Sugar Factory was news unexpected by the Regiment, who had last seen the battle in progress on the Bourlon Crest. But no one was unable to deny its accuracy until simultaneously the Brigadier-General (5th Brigade) and one of his Staff Officers arrived from opposite directions; the latter from the forward area, where the 99th Brigade were at least still in their Headquarters on the Graincourt Road, the former in the Canal bed along which he had ridden with his Brigade-Major. With them had started the Staff Captain, but his horse had fallen upon him and pinned him to the ground. The origin of the report that Graincourt Sugar Factory had fallen, when, in fact, our line four hundred yards in front had never given way, is obscure. Current rumour ascribes it to a mistaken observation by a Royal Artillery observer. It is not known whether the higher authority received any other report confirming this one upon which they acted. Probably they were expecting to have to order a retirement in view of the situation south of Masnieres, and the arrival of this rumour clinched their decision. Fortunately the necessity of covering the retirement of the 47th Division necessitated the temporary recapture of the Sugar Factory, and consequently the mistake was realized in time.
It has not, however, been realized by the Press correspondents or Military critics of the London newspapers, and while their reports add unearned laurels to those credited with retaking the lost ground, the rest of the Division, who are popularly supposed to have lost it, suffer in their reputation proportionately.
LOCK 7. At 1.50 p.m. the Intelligence Officer was sent forward with a copy of these orders to 99th Brigade Headquarters, which he found in their original position. The Hermies-Graincourt Road which he took was at the time not being shelled. Later on the Regiment followed this route as far as Hughes Switch, D Company (Captain Barnes, D.S.O.), which was in rear, suffering several casualties. One corporal who was wounded was picked up by a passing ambulance, and quite possibly spent the night in the train for England.
Lieut.-Colonel Crosse left the Regiment (3 p.m.) in Hughes Switch and proceeded to 99th Brigade Headquarters for instructions. He found Brig.-General Kellett seated at a table in a small chamber of a deep dugout with his Brigade Major. Nearer the entrance was one vacant chair for the officer being interviewed at the moment, while in the outer corridor waited a medley of Brigade and Battalion Intelligence Officers, Artillery Liaison Officers, Signal Officers, and others with more or less pressing demands on the General's time The cool and orderly working of the Brigadier and his staff could not but excite the admiration of those who witnessed it.
WEST OF GRAINCOURT. It was at this time that the Brigade Commander sent the 24th Royal Fusiliers, who had come up with the Regiment, to relieve the 17th Royal Fusiliers, whose heroic defence of the Hindenburg Support System on the Bourlon Crest is well known. He kept the Regiment in Hughes Switch in support until 3 a.m., by which time his battalions had become somewhat intermingled in the confusion of the battle. It was then possible to move the Regiment forward to close support in the Hindenburg Support System just south of Cambrai-Bapaume Road. Here Headquarters and two companies were in the Hindenburg Trench; and the other two in Kangaroo Alley. Headquarters shared a fairly spacious dugout with the 1/60thRifles
FRONT LINE S.W. OF BOURLON. December 1st was uneventful from the Regiment's point of view, although the Brigades on either flank were both attacked. On the right in Bourlon Wood the 47th Division held their own. On the left the 6th Brigade repelled the enemy with more difficulty. That night the Regiment relieved the 1/60th in the front line with two companies, their strength being but half ours. The night was fairly quiet and was spent in consolidation of strong posts destined to be linked up as a support line 150 yards behind our front. The position handed over by the 60th Rifles was an excellent one for defence.
According to the map our line was just over the Bourlon Crest, in reality it was a hundred yards short of it, except on the extreme left.
The German lines were three hundred yards beyond, and the position, though hidden from the enemy, afforded an excellent field of fire. Its chief defect, the lack of good observation, was wiped out the following night. Opposite our right Company (C, or Captain Bobby's) was a mound from which the 60th had believed there came machine-gun and snipers' fire. They had sent out two men to reconnoitre the place just prior to being relieved; but cries had been heard and the patrol had not returned. Lieut. Vigars and Sergeant Flower accordingly reconnoitred at dawn of the 2nd December, and an old trench leading to it, along which the 24th Royal Fusiliers on our right had established a bombing block, was opened up by the Regiment. Vigars' Post, as it was named, was an old enemy O.P. and machine-gun post facing west over Moeuvres and the area south of it. It was situated exactly on the Crest and was capable of alterations allowing of a view of the Agache valley and the country as far east as Quarry Wood. The immediate field of fire was good except to the north west. Round this flank General Kellett and the Colonel decided (8.10 p.m.) to push forward an advanced trench. Throughout the night of the 2nd/3rd December consolidation proceeded on the Regimental front. The five strong points which formed the support line were linked up with each other, and the front line by working parties from the companies concerned and the 10th (Pioneer) Battalion D.C.L.I.
Meantime on the right of the Division's front the 23rd Royal Fusiliers recaptured on the night of the 2nd/3rd, with slight loss, the posts lost there on the 30th November. The Regiment was not affected by this, but the 5th Brigade, hearing and believing rumours that it was heavily engaged, stopped the ration party for more than four hours. Seldom had the moral of the whole Division been higher than at this time. The elation felt by those who drove back the main attack and those which followed it near Moeuvres on the first two days of December had infected those units whose fortune it had not been to be holding the line during the attack. The Regiment in particular was confident of its power to repel all further attacks and successfully to consolidate the line. The Very lights of Gonnelieu, though seen to the direct rear of our front line, were optimistically regarded with a perspective warped by the consciousness of success, and were accordingly ignored. The withdrawal that was to come was therefore as disappointing as it was unexpected. But there was so great a reserve of moral to be drawn upon that the demand upon it was borne without any strain. The retirement from the Bourlon salient, so far as the 2nd Division was concerned, was entrusted to the 5th Infantry Brigade. By the night of 3rd December three of its units, the 24th Royal Fusiliers, the Regiment, and the 2nd H.L.I., were in the front line under the orders of other Brigades ; by two of these Battalions the retirement was to be covered. The line to be taken up was in the main the Hindenburg Support System on our right. The Division's role was to form a defensive flank facing north and linking up the main line of resistance with the old British front line north of Demicourt.
Units of Brigades other than the 5th were to be clear of the area to be evacuated by 2 a.m. on 5th December; the 2nd H.L.I, on the left and the 17th Royal Fusiliers (from rest, in reserve) on the right were to occupy the old German trenches astride the canal and running west from Hughes Switch, and to prolong them to the old British front line. East of the Havrincourt-Sains Road, Hughes Switch was to be occupied by a regiment of the 47th (London) Division. This was to be the ultimate main line of resistance. In front of this line Kangaroo Alley, Lock 6. and some Observation Posts, five hundred yards west of it (K.26.5.4.), were to be held as a covering line by the 24th Royal Fusiliers on the right, the 51st Division on the left; and the 47th in Graincourt on the right continued this position
BOURLON AREA. The Colonel received an intimation of this on the afternoon of the 4th December. At 4 p.m. he met the officers of C and D Companies (the latter had relieved B Company the previous night on the left front) at the former's Headquarters. Here the arrangements for covering the retirement were made. The early part of the night was spent in removing such stores of ammunition and bombs as could be got away. Under Brigade orders the 483rd Field Company R.E. took over the destruction of the most important dugouts, and the spoiling of those which could not be blown up. Each regiment drew fifty smoke bombs. In the front line the Royal Engineers blew up D Company's Headquarters and the excellent dugout in Vigars' Post; in the rear the Headquarters of the Regiment and those of A Company received particular attention. At the former the atmosphere of discomfort was increased by an amusing circumstance, On the night of the 3rd/4th the 24th Royal Fusiliers had sent pack mules up to the line; the leader of one of them, wishing to cross the Hindenburg second line at Regimental Headquarters, mistook for a plank bridge the sheet of corrugated iron stretched across the trench as an awning.
The animal fell through this into the trench, and being frightened by his fall and a brazier in the trench, turned down the dugout stairs, where he became a fixture. As it was not possible to remove him, Lieut.-Colonel Watson, of the 60th, shot the beast on the stairs, and it was intended to make more elaborate efforts to evacuate him under cover of darkness the following night, by means of a rope operated from the top of the trench. In view of the withdrawal, however, it was decided to leave the animal, it promising to be an obstacle both bulky and odoriferous.
At 2 a.m. (5th December) the Regiment began to withdraw—less rearguards. These consisted of a platoon from both D and C Companies under Lieutenants Blackwell and Vigars. Their role was to remain behind in the front line and by the firing of Lewis Guns and Very lights to deny the enemy all knowledge and suspicion of the withdrawal. This they successfully did. Meanwhile the Regiment wras taking up its positions in the covering line. B Company held Kangaroo Alley west of the Sains Road and kept touch with the 24th Royal Fusiliers. A Company held Lock 6, and the trenches of the Hindenburg Front System immediately west of it. D Company were in support west of the bridge by which the Demicourt-Graincourt Road crosses the canal.
LOCK 6. Regimental Headquarters were in the old German close support line on that road, and C Company in the same trench southwards, towards the main resistance line. These positions were duly taken up before dawn, but on our left the 51st Division's covering line could not be discovered near the Observation Posts, though it should have reached to K.2.6. The absence of troops on our left necessitated the refusal of our left and the occupation by D Company (from support) of the old German Front Line running south by west from the neighbourhood of Lock 6. In front of them was a rise of ground blocking their view so that the Lock was exposed to a turning movement carried out from dead ground had the enemy realized his opportunity; as it was, he was feeling his way forward so cautiously that when we had completed our dispositions by the afternoon of the 5th he had only just begun to appear in any strength before them. It was not until 10 a.m. on the morning of the 5th that any of the enemy were seen crossing the ridge, and then only singly before noon. Later parties moved south of Moeuvres and others were seen to take the Cambrai-Bapaume Road Bridge across the Canal. A hundred yards south-west of this bridge stands a ruined house (E.28-d-9.1). Here A Company reported the enemy to be massing, apparently with a view to a southerly advance to outflank the Lock. At the same time D Company was ordered to move forward as already described, and it occupied the old German Front Line by 6.30 p.m. Meanwhile it had detached a platoon under orders to support B Company, who were being severely shelled east of the Canal. The casualties there suffered were few, but included Captain Barnard, wounded in the knee. Lieut. Neville took over the command, and as he expected an attack asked for two Stokes Mortars to break up the enemy's deployment. This did not, however, materialize; and the night of the 5th passed quietly. At dawn the enemy were seen to be working west of Lock 6, and A Company's Lewis gunners, assisted by riflemen, claim to have annihilated a party of sixty men, forty dead being visible when the mist lifted. The enemy was also busy on our old support line on the Bourlon Ridge, which he clearly intended to be his line of resistance. Before 9 a.m., however, he began to display more hostility, especially about the house in E.20, opposite the Lock.
Captain Fullbrook-Leggatt asked for two Stokes guns to be sent there, and this request was at once put forward urgently to the Brigade.
Owing to bad guidance these Mortars did not arrive until late in the afternoon, when their opportunity was gone. As in Lock 7, so in Lock 6, long tunnels ran along the low level of the water on either side ; presumably these were of German origin. The eastern or right-hand side of the Lock was securely in our hands. Owing to the unavoidable refusing of our line on the left, the west side of the Lock was exposed to direct if not to enveloping attacks. Along the Lock side on the upper level ran a trench, which was for us both a defensive flank facing west and a sap pointing north. From this sap at a point eighty yards past the Lock there was a trench sloping back obliquely down into the Lock on the lower level. Where this trench left the tow-path trench our forward block (B) was established to deny the enemy the approach to the low-level dug-out. Eighty yards back, where the Lock side trench passed the north end of the Lock, was established our second block (A). A few yards behind this a staircase led down direct to the Lock dugout. It only remains to observe that block A overlooked the trench running from block B down into the Canal. That trench was therefore useless to the enemy until block B had fallen. The bed of the Canal was also covered from the eastern side, which we held securely.
The dispositions of A Company (Captain Fullbrook-Leggatt) holding the Lock and its western vicinity were : No. 4 platoon holding the Lock on both sides and including both A and B Blocks, under 2nd Lieut. Warren, M.C. Nos. 3, 1, and 2 platoons, in that order, holding the trench running south from the south-west corner of the Lock. Shortly after 9 a.m. on the 6th the enemy commenced to bomb their way towards the Lock. They captured Block B and reached Block A, but were driven back by a co-operation of snipers and two rifle bombers acting under Lance-Corporal Easden. As the enemy retired and Lance-Corporal Easden got on the parapet and pursued them with bombs to Block A, 2nd Lieut. Warren followed up with two men and reestablished the Block which No. 3 platoon's bombing section then garrisoned. Meanwhile, anticipating a larger attack, the Colonel sent two platoons of C Company to reinforce A Company, but during the morning the enemy made no further effort.
It was generally believed on the morning of the 6th that the withdrawal to the line of resistance would not be made before the evening of the 7th. On our right, however, the village of Graincourt was entered by the enemy earlier than the programme intended, and consequently an order was issued for the covering party to be withdrawn, starting from the right of the Brigade front. The right Company of the 24th Royal Fusiliers was to withdraw at 5.30 p.m., and the retirement was to be continued in succession from the right at five-minute intervals. The reforming point for the Regiment was the old British Front Line where it crosses the Graincour-Hermies Road. Only C Company was to remain behind in close support to the main line of resistance under the command of O.C. 17th Royal Fusiliers. When the 24th Royal Fusiliers were clear of the covering line B Company was to retire down the Canal and in Lock 7.
A Company was then to evacuate the Lock and, followed by B Company, to proceed along the trenches west of the Canal until striking the Graincourt-Hermies Road, which it was to follow.
During the afternoon, in which some successful sniping was done at the Lock, a party of R.E. put a large charge into the west part of the Lock in order to demolish it. At 4.45 p.m. the enemy commenced bombing it and we retaliated, the Stokes gun, which had just arrived, co-operating. 2nd Lieut. Warren's platoon, which had been reinforced by 2nd Lieut. Bennett's No. 9 platoon of C Company, was at this time heavily engaged. By 5 p.m. the Germans had succeeded in again occupying Block B and the descent to the Canal. Lieut. Warren then sent four men of No. 9 under Sergeant Constable round by the left and right respectively to make a converging attack on B Block. This did not quite succeed. At this time the enemy were entering the Lock. After consultation with the R.E., and word having been sent to B Company and to Captain Fullbrook-Leggatt, Lieut. Warren gave orders to fire the fuse. Immediately this had been done a report spread that some of our men were still in the Lock, and Sergeant Constable ran down the intricate passages and stairways that led to the Lock basin, at imminent danger to himself both from the enemy and from the risk of a premature explosion, to see that every one got clear. Fortunately he returned safely from this gallant quest. For this he was subsequently awarded the D.C.M. The premature evacuation of the Lock was not attended by any evil consequences. The programme was followed throughout except that B Company had to take the Sains-Havrincourt Road instead of the Canal bank. By 8 p.m. (7th December) the Regiment had assembled at the old British line, which they occupied that night. Meanwhile Lieut-Colonel Weston, 17th Royal Fusiliers, had given Captain Bobby some 700 yards of Bullen Trench to hold.
This was not the front line, but Kellett Trench in front of it was very insecure on its right; the position also had a good line of fire. It overlooked the most vulnerable portion of Kellett Trench, as it ran westward from the old German front line along the northern slope of a spur. The trench bent forward on the left and ran across the intervening hollow to a parallel spur held by the H.L.I. The vulnerable portion of Kellett Trench lay at the mouth of the hollow between these spurs and was flanked by a spoil bank made of earth taken from the Canal. Over all this area the new line was good, but being on a forward slope the trench was much exposed to observation from Bourlon Wood. That night C Company was relieved, and with it a Company of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers similarly lent to the 2nd H.L.I, by the 24th Royal Fusiliers. An effort was made to secure that both relievers and relieved should do some work in a communication trench linking up with the old British line on our left, but the night being dark and stormy so much time was spent in going and coming that little work was done. C Company on relief took over an unoccupied sector of the old British line, but only by ''closing in" Regimental Headquarters was sufficient head cover found; and as rain had begun to fall this was an urgent necessity. In the morning (3 a.m. 8th December) word was received that the Regiment would be relieved that night by the 13th Essex Regiment, which duly took place, the Regiment returning to Le Bucquiere for a rest, well earned in that it had taken all its opportunities, though they were less than had fallen to the lot of most units of the Division. Except for the afternoon of the 30th November when the casualties had been severe, considering our distance from the front line, our losses were light. Nine "other ranks'' killed. Captain Barnard and thirty-two wounded, of whom two, including Sergeant Archer of B Company, subsequently died in hospital. Of the killed, two were attached to the Trench Mortar Battery. The remainder were all men of B and D Companies killed in Hughes Switch the first afternoon. Most of the other casualties were sustained in the shelling of the 5th December.
On the 6th, during the Lock fighting, only two men were wounded. As at least forty casualties were known to have been inflicted that day by A Company alone, and more are claimed, the balance for the week's fighting was probably on our side The slightness of our loss does not detract from the importance of the fighting in which the Regiment took part. The terrain was so new to both sides, and our dispositions so little known by the enemy's artillery, that the random conditions of open warfare almost prevailed. The whole battle emphasized that given no accurate barrages upon it a successful defence need fear few casualties. The 60th Rifles were in the front line the whole of the 30th November without a single man being killed.
It was only when the attacking masses were able to reach our trench that heavy losses were incurred. The Germans very considerably overestimated the Division's casualties. Three weeks after their great counter a very successful offensive patrol was sent out by the 24th Royal Fusiliers, which killed or captured twelve of the enemy. A few nights later another prisoner was taken, who said the enemy believed the Guards Division to be in front of them, as it was impossible for a Division which had sustained such heavy losses as attributed to us on 30th November to have carried out an enterprise such as that of the 24th Royal Fusiliers. In point of fact, the Division was not relieved until 2nd January. On Christmas Eve a present of 400 tons of gas was projected on to the enemy.
It only remains to detail the honours won during this action. The Military Cross, Captain Fullbrook-Leggatt (A Company); D.C.M., Sergt. Constable (C Company); Military Medals, Sergts. Flower (C), and Williams (D). Lance-Corporals Easden, Taylor (A), Willesden (B), Gunns (A), Foster (A) attached Headquarters; Privates Parker (C), Carter (A), Smith (D), Finch (A), and Gutteridge (C).
Sergeant Constable had been recommended for the V.C., and in his Commanding Officer's opinion he very richly deserved it.
Extract of map from History of the Second Division 1914-1918