The German Command, with no disruptions of their own communications, had no difficulty in transmitting orders to the front and they were precise and unequivocal. Within three hours of the launch of the battle they had ordered that ‘The 14th Infantry Division will recapture Neuve Chapelle’, and at 10 p.m. that evening more precise instructions arrived:
Major-General von Ditfurth will carry out the attack on Neuve Chapelle. In case the troops at his disposal are not sufficient for the recapture of our former positions west of the village, the 14th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Brigade is placed at General von Ditfurth’s disposal. This Brigade must be in position in the Bois du Biez at 6 a.m. on the 11th.*
But they were not in the line by 6 a.m. Before midnight the troops from Lille had all arrived at the nearest railheads, three hours’ strenuous march from the front, but the night had been so dark, there were so many battalions travelling along narrow roads through unfamiliar country that they had been a long time on the way. As they assembled behind the Aubers Ridge dawn was reaching up the eastern sky behind them. Fog lay across the low ground but it might easily disperse, it was almost half-light, and it would clearly be madness to string a large body of troops along the skyline and march them down the ridge in full view of the British lines. General von Ditfurth had no alternative but to postpone his counter-attack and to order the troops to fan out into the villages behind Aubers, to hide from reconnaissance planes and lie low until dusk. Without them, even though the Germans had been able to double their numbers in the line, there were still only four Battalions facing the British troops and it would be twelve clear hours before darkness fell and reinforcements could come to their aid.
Twelve hours was enough, and more than enough, if all went well, for the British Army to sort out yesterday’s muddle, to keep up the pressure and thrust forward from the Rubicon of yesterday’s success. If all went well. But the second day of the battle was destined, like the first, to be a day of lost opportunities, of misunderstandings, mounting confusion, and unforeseen fatal delays.
The attack was due to take place at seven in the morning and at 6.45 the guns would open the bombardment. They had specific orders to destroy the strongpoints which had caused the infantry to founder in yesterday’s advance, but it was easier said than done. Peering into the foggy morning from their old observation posts, luckless artillery officers found it almost impossible to pinpoint targets. Firing blind and mostly by guesswork, they were horribly aware of the danger that they might be firing on their own troops – the ragged lines of survivors lying somewhere in front of the redoubts that had brought them to a standstill when they had first advanced. No one knew precisely where they were. And no one had the shadow of an inkling that a new defensive line was concealed in the mist beyond. When the guns lifted and lengthened range to cover the infantry’s advance the redoubts had hardly been touched – and the new trench that ran the length of the battle front had not been touched at all. At seven o’clock when the troops tried to advance they ran into an inferno. The air tingled with bullets streaming from machine-guns and the very earth seemed to explode beneath their feet as the German guns answered the bombardment with a bombardment of their own. It was fierce and it was accurate and the shells pounded the front for three hours. By the time it tailed away some thousands of British soldiers had been killed, Neuve Chapelle was a heap of smoking ruins, every line and wire had been severed in a dozen places and communication, even the sketchiest, was non-existent. The signallers had done their best, frantically repairing wires that were ruptured in another place even as they were mended, but the odds were against them.
Bdr. W. Kemp.
We signallers were still in the straw stack. We’d been there all night trying to keep the lines open to the battery. I’d been issued with wire-cutters – proper wire-cutters, the same as they used for barbed wire. They weighed about one and a half pounds, and I was supposed to use these on the D-3 telephone wire! I soon lost them. We had one pair of pliers for all of us. I don’t really know at this stage how we did manage to cut and mend the phone wire. I do know that the telephone we had was a C-Mk-11 magneto and you had to ring it by hand, but the batteries were six large cells in a wooden box. They had to be excited by adding water and leaving them for a few hours before they were any use. Well, some of them were ready to use when the battle started, but next morning when all hell was let loose it didn’t matter anyway.
The fog was lifting from the battlefield but it still hung thick around Brigade and Divisional Headquarters where the anxious staff were groping for vital information. Messengers were slow in coming and, when they did, the news they brought was mostly out-of-date and often contradictory or untrue. It was not the fault of the troops. The Grenadier Guards, starting off close to the Moated Grange, were brought to a halt at a stream not three hundred yards ahead, and the runner who struggled back through the bombardment reported in all good faith that they had been held up at the Layes Brook. It was the first good news General Capper had received, for here, on the left, the Layes ran well behind the German line and he joyfully ordered up the guns to bombard beyond it to clear the way for the Grenadiers to advance.
The Layes Brook (described ambitiously on local maps as a river) was an artificial drainage ditch, inexpertly dug by local farmers, and it straggled across the fields in front of the Bois du Biez and the Aubers Ridge to join a tributary of the River Lys. On the staff officers’ maps it stood out as an unmistakable feature which could safely be described as an objective on terrain that was singularly short of landmarks, but to a man on the ground itself the Layes could not easily be distinguished from a hundred other ditches that trickled in all directions across the dead and battered marsh. Few of them were narrow enough to leap, even without the weight of extra ammunition and equipment, and they were filled to the brim with filthy brackish water. It was deep enough to lap the chins of all but the tallest guardsmen as they floundered through. Now, soaked and shivering, they were digging in on the other side, and, even if most rifles were clogged with mud, trying to reply to the fire that pinned them down. Waiting for supports. Waiting for the guns. Waiting to get forward.
But the deep ditch they had forded was not the Layes Brook, and the guardsmen had advanced only half as far as the unfortunate Worcesters the evening before. When the bombardment began the shells fell far ahead of their position, far behind the strongholds that faced them, and far, far behind the enemy line. And there they stopped when the bombardment lifted. There was nothing else they could do.
The Meerut Division was stuck in front of the Bois du Biez. The opening bombardment had done them no good at all, for Corps Headquarters, knowing nothing of the new trench that now lay between them and the wood, had instructed the guns to bombard the edge of the wood and the wood itself, well behind the enemy and the enemy, safely entrenched on ground that had been occupied and given up without a fight, were unharmed.
Lt. C. Tennant.
The repellent facts are that the Germans (who were now well entrenched on this side of the Bois du Biez) at once opened a hot rifle and machine-gun fire both on the Gurkhas in the front trench and ourselves behind it. Our first orders were to attack again at 7.15, but owing to the want of support on our left, the colonel of the 9th Gurkhas came back to report to our Battalion Headquarters that he found it impossible to get forward with the heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, and he was ordered to stand fast. We had several casualties and our own colonel was wounded in the thigh at 7.30. One of the stretcher-bearers going to fetch him was shot stone dead through the head. His body fell back into my scrape in the ground. I’d left it just a moment before and moved to a neighbouring shell-hole where I’d started to dig a new shelter. Minchin very pluckily at once came out of his scrape and took the stretcher-bearer’s place and brought the C. O. in, but the firing was so heavy that we couldn’t send him back to the field ambulance post for some time. When he did go, he was unlucky enough to be hit again in almost exactly the same place high up in the thigh.
All morning the batteries kept up a very heavy fire against the Bois du Biez, and the Germans replied with high explosive, shrapnel and Jack Johnsons. A great many heavy shells were being fired with great effect into Neuve Chapelle. There was nothing we could do and, in spite of all the row, I managed to sleep very soundly for a good forty-five minutes in my shelter.
It was the first of the unfortunate misconceptions which, before the end of the day, were to cause the Commander of the Meerut Division to tear his hair and reduce the staff of the Dehra Dun Brigade first to bafflement and then to a state of despair. For Brigadier General Jacobs’s instructions, passed down to him from Indian Corps Headquarters, had been perfectly clear. From their forward position the leading Battalions of the Dehra Dun Brigade were to attack towards the Bois du Biez as soon as the 8th Division on their left arrived alongside them. But the Battalion of the 8th Division which stood immediately on their left, although slightly behind them, was the 2nd Rifle Brigade. The riflemen were still holding the trench on the outskirts of Neuve Chapelle and Colonel Stephens was not the only one who was fed up, because the Battalion, or what was left of it, was due to be relieved and to move back into support with the remainder of the 25th Brigade. The relief had duly taken place but, by some oversight, no one had appeared to take over from Stephens’s battalion. At eight o’clock, forty-five minutes after the Dehra Dun Brigade had tried vainly to advance, Major Walker, its Brigade Major, braved the storm of shelling to go personally to Colonel Stephens to demand the reason for the delay. He found him in the cellar of a tumbledown house behind the RB’s trench. Its brick walls had been white-washed by the Germans and ‘Gott Strafe England’ had been scrawled in many places and signed with the initials of the bored German soldiers who had once sheltered there. Half a dozen runners, sunken-eyed with fatigue, slumped near the cellar stairs, each awaiting the order that would send him out to take his chance in the inferno, dodging to the line or to the rear with the next urgent message. Inside, under the anxious eye of the Colonel, signallers hunched over their instruments were ringing and buzzing repeatedly without much hope of making contact. They worked by the light of candles that flickered and dimmed with close explosions. The circumstances were not conducive to pleasantries or the exchange of the usual courtesies; although a mug of lukewarm tea was offered it was brusquely refused and, from time to time, the two officers had to raise their voices to be heard above the thunderous explosions that were rocking Neuve Chapelle. Perhaps it relieved their feelings of frustration, for they were both equally in the dark. Colonel Stephens was obliged to confess that he had received no orders from IV Corps, from Division or from Brigade, that contained any mention of an advance. Quite the contrary. His last instructions had been to stand fast and consolidate and, in the absence of any others, he could only obey.
Major Walker returned in bewilderment to report to his Brigadier and it was some hours before his unpalatable news travelled up the chain of command and arrived at Indian Corps headquarters where it baffled Sir James Willcocks, for in a subsequent conversation with IV Corps he was assured by the Corps Commander that the 8th Division had advanced and, without the support of the Meerut Division on their right, had failed to get forward. It was a sad mix-up, they agreed, but it was vital to retrieve the situation and to try again. A fresh attack was arranged for 2.15 – but only the timing was changed and the new orders were precisely the same as the old ones. In the Indian Corps the Meerut Division was instructed, as before, to advance to the Bois du Biez as soon as the 8th Division was seen to be advancing alongside, and IV Corps had assured them in all good faith that the 8th Division would advance. No one passed on the vital information – and at that stage perhaps no one at IV Corps Headquarters knew – that the Battalion of the 8th Division which happened to be standing immediately beside the Meerut Division had been ordered to stay where it was.
The mistake over the relief of the 2nd Rifle Brigade had caused some irritation at 8th Division Headquarters and it was too late now to put it right. After the failure of the early morning assaults it was highly likely that the Germans would counter-attack in the wake of their devastating bombardment and, if the Germans were to launch it while troops in the front line were changing over, the consequences did not bear thinking about. The orders, when they finally did reach Colonel Stephens, were surprising – if not downright contradictory. The RBs were to stay where they were but, although they were in the forefront, they should consider themselves to be in reserve. However, if the counter-attack developed, then (and only then) Stephens could attack in his turn.
The Colonel lost no time in sending a reply that was more than a mere acknowledgement. Even before he received the message the heavy German bombardment had tailed away, the shelling had become spasmodic, and he was able to inform the staff that there was no movement in the enemy line and no sign whatever that they were preparing to attack. He reported his casualties and, putting his case as forcibly as brevity and military etiquette allowed, he requested permission to attack the enemy’s guns, near the Layes Bridge. They were only a short way ahead and Colonel Stephens was convinced, as he had been convinced the previous day, that the position could easily be captured and the guns knocked out. The reply, when he eventually received it, was stiff and coldly categorical. He was on no account to make any attack whatever without orders or permission. All the Battalion could do was to wait. They were still waiting at two o’clock when British guns began to thunder on the Bois du Biez. When the bombardment lifted the Gurkhas would go over. Two hundred yards behind their line close to the Layes Brook, the 4th Seaforth braced themselves to dash forward to reinforce the trench as the Gurkhas left it.
Lt. C. Tennant.
Just at this time the Germans got the range of our trench exactly and did some damage with high explosive and shrapnel. On seeing No. 1 Company move forward I ran across to get final instructions from Major Cuthbert, who was now in command. He was sitting in a shell hole with the adjutant, Macmillan and Sergeant Ross of the machine-gun team. Just after I had got there two shrapnel bursts clanged close beside us. Poor Macmillan got a terrible wound right across the forehead, and Cuthbert fell forward with the blood streaming from his head. I could see it was only a flesh wound and, as soon as I had put a field dressing on, the bleeding stopped, but Macmillan was in a bad state – so bad that the adjutant thought he was dying. I saw that his lungs and heart were still working, though part of his brain was laid bare, and I was going to put a field dressing on him too, when the adjutant said that as No. 1 Company had started off some time before, I should go on at once. So I got out and, having got hold of Jim, we gave a yell to the platoon and started off hell for leather across the open.
We took breath under cover of the Smith-Dorrien trench, fifty yards in front, before starting off on the hottest bit of our advance – the hundred and fifty yards of open ground, sloping slightly towards the front, between the Smith-Dorrien trench and the Gurkha trench which we were reinforcing. About twenty yards before we got to it the ground was practically dead and there we flung ourselves down and crawled the rest of the way up to the trench. With my head well down in the mud and my pack in front of it I had a look round to see how the boys were getting on and I only realised when I saw how many of them had been stopped on the way what a hot fire we had come through. A nice cheerful Londoner, Appleton, was blown to pieces by a shell just as he was getting out of the trench, handsome Macdonald, the piper, was killed stone dead by a bullet through the heart, and Speer through the head, and a dozen or more, including my jolly little batman Simpson, were wounded.
Jim had been close to me during the advance and we settled down together in a cramped but safe corner of the Gurkha trench to take stock of the position and to pull ourselves – literally – together. Both our kilt aprons had been practically torn off and I had lost my watch bracelet. Luckily I saw it lying only a yard or two back, so I rolled out at the back of the parapet and recovered it. Jim had a bullet right through his pack (there was hardly a man in the company who had not got a hole through him somewhere) and, generally speaking, it looked anything but tidy.
I naturally expected that as soon as we had brought up supports the Gurkhas would go ahead but their colonel, after discussing the matter with Cuthbert, reported to Brigade HQ and was ordered not to advance further until the people on our left came up.
This time it was Brigadier Jacob himself who made his way, fuming and incredulous, to confront Colonel Stephens in his cellar. What had caused the hold-up? Why had his troops been left out on a limb? Why had the 8th Division not advanced? The Brigadier was quivering with fury and frustration and when Stephens produced the order – the order that forbade him under any circumstances to attack – Jacobs read it, and then re-read it, hardly able to believe the evidence of his eyes. There was no more to be said. The Brigadier returned to his Headquarters and, angry, perplexed, and none the wiser, he called off his attack.
But the 8th Division had advanced – or, at least, some of them had.
It was almost a quarter to three when the orders for the attack reached Brigadier General Carter at 24th Brigade headquarters and he knew very well that, in the thirty-three minutes that remained until zero, it was useless even to hope that a runner might reach the troops in the forefront of the line where the Worcesters, the Northants, and the Sherwood Foresters were still lying out – still taking punishment, if they raised so much as a finger, from the fortress strongholds between Mauquissart and Pietre. Already the guns which were meant to destroy them had begun to fire. When they stopped the men must be ready to spring forward and capture the redoubts. They were barely five hundred yards away from their support line, but it was five hundred yards of open ground without a tree, without a bush, with no hollow, no incline, no single feature that would conceal a running man from the fire of the enemy, alert and watching in their line beyond. And yet the attack must go in. The Army Commander himself had insisted on it and such direct orders had to be obeyed.*
With deep misgivings General Carter issued his instructions. They were addressed to Colonel Woodhouse who waited with the two remaining companies of the 1st Worcesters in a captured German trench on the northern edge of Neuve Chapelle. The Colonel had spent an anxious, sleepless night and his anxiety had not diminished in the course of his restless morning. It had been hard to concentrate on routine duties, hard to hide his concern at the lack of definite news from his two companies in front, harder still to conceal his impatience at the absence of orders. He had spent much of his time in the line scanning the ground beyond and had seen for himself the faint flutters of movement in the distance, had guessed at the futile attempts to get forward, had heard for himself the lethal rap of the machine-guns that laid every attempt to waste. When the orders finally reached him from Brigade Headquarters they were not much to his liking, for General Carter had resorted to desperate measures. The advance was to be made at once. Under cover of the bombardment Woodhouse must push his two reserve companies up to the outpost line, scoop up the survivors of the three Battalions, and by their own impetus carry them forward to the assault.
It was well past two before the message reached Colonel Woodhouse and the bombardment that was to lead the way had finished five minutes earlier. It was all too clear that it had been intended as the prelude to an attack and the Germans were prepared for it. Shells were falling thick and fast across the open ground and machine-guns blazed out as the three hundred soldiers of the Worcesters began to cross it. Fewer than forty of them made it. They brought little in the way of impetus but they did bring the message that ordered the attack. A dozen copies had been distributed for fear of misunderstanding, and one of the men who carried it had managed to get through. It was passed to Major Winnington and, as second-in-command, it was his responsibility to decide what must be done. It was also his responsibility to pass it to the Northants on his left and the Sherwood Foresters on his right. A little later, from his position in the shallow trench in front of Nameless Cottages, he heard the faint sound of whistles, and the fire and the fury as the Sherwood Foresters tried to go over the top. They tried once, twice, three times to make headway, but, at the fourth attempt, they were successful, for they managed to get forward close to the Mauquissart Road and seized two abandoned buildings close to the German line. It cost many men to gain that hundred yards and the line beyond remained impregnable.
The Worcesters also tried to advance. Two platoons started out on a leap towards a ditch thirty yards from the German trench. Only a handful of them reached it. Lieutenant Conybeare was the only officer who had survived the rush, for Lieutenant Tristram, like so many of the men, had been killed on the way across. All he could do was to gather the shaken survivors of two platoons, to crouch squelching in the mud up to their knees in water, waiting for the rest of the Worcesters to come up. They waited a full half hour but no help came. And then the shells began to fall, coming closer and closer, and they were British shells. At last the guns had got the range of the German line and were exultantly bombarding it. At least it kept the Germans’ heads down and stopped them firing at the few survivors on their long crawl back.
The Northamptonshires on their left did not advance at all. Colonel Pritchard had lost half his men that morning, his Battalion had been cut to shreds, and the order that three hundred exhausted men should now renew an attack that was clearly futile was thecatalyst that reduced him to cold fury. He did not try to dodge the issue and, with an angry disregard for discipline, quite at odds with his long service and training, he took pains to make his feeling perfectly clear in his reply.
I received a note from the Worcestershires, ‘We have got to advance. Will you give the order?’ I answered ‘No! It is a mere waste of life, impossible to go twenty yards much less two hundred yards.’ The trenches have not been touched by the artillery. If artillery cannot touch them the only way is to advance from the right flank. A frontal attack will not get near them.
When it finally arrived at Brigade Headquarters and wound its way up to Division, Corps, and Army Headquarters this message caused deep disappointment and put paid to any hopes of success that day. In front of Mauquissart and Nameless Cottages the survivors clung on, digging deep and toiling to improve their perilous positions. They were completely isolated. Far on the right the Dehra Dun Brigade precariously situated with both flanks ‘in the air’ retired after dark to a safer position behind the first of the captured trenches. The British line had advanced by hardly an inch since the morning.
Lt. C. Tennant.
At about sunset we received orders to retire to our last night’s position and as soon as the light began to fade I went back to look after the wounded. Thank Heaven I am not a thirsty person and though my water bottle had not been replenished for two days, it was more than half full and I was able to supply the terrible need of some of the sufferers. Poor John Allan (whom I have always liked best of all my NCOs – and he was in my opinion undeniably the best soldier of them all) was hit in three places – the leg, shoulder and stomach, and was in a bad way. Luckily an officer of the Gurkhas had some morphia tabloids with him and he gave them to the men who needed them most. As soon as I had done all that I could for the wounded I hurried back to get stretchers, but it was a desperate task as our casualty list during the afternoon had been very heavy, and moreover our first aid post was a long way back. It had been shelled out of the houses on the Neuve Chapelle Road and had had to go back into safety, so the few stretchers we had took a long, long time on the way. Finally we rigged up stretchers with puttees and greatcoats and rifles, but they were not very satisfactory and it took three hours and a lot of time and trouble to get the wounded carried down. Poor Allan died on the way, to my great sorrow.
In the early evening Sir Douglas Haig went forward to assess the situation for himself and to find out from personal meetings with his Generals and Brigadiers closer to the battlefront what had gone wrong. The reasons were all too clear. The breakdown in communications, the difficulties of relaying messages to and from the line, could not easily be rectified – but something could be done. The guns could be brought closer to the line – dangerously close if need be – and positioned to make such an all-out effort to destroy the German defences that, with one more push, the infantry would be able to sweep across and carry the day. To make doubly, trebly, sure, to give the gunners ample time and the advantage of good light to register their targets, the attack this time would be scheduled for ten thirty in the morning. The night lay before them, and four full hours of daylight. There was time, and surely time enough, for even such feeble strands of communication as there were to carry instructions to the front, to move the guns forward, to bring up the reserves, and to ensure that every infantryman was prepared to play his part tomorrow morning.
But the Germans also were preparing for tomorrow. Under the cloak of the darkness the movement of many men was masked by the enemy guns as the six battalions which had been skulking out of sight all day crossed the Aubers Ridge and took their places in the German line. They were well fed and well rested and it was all to the good for there was not much left of the night. Just before dawn they would launch the counter-attack.
The 4th Seaforths were out of it but they had waited six hours for their relief and it was a long, weary wait. Charles Tennant had formed up his men on open ground behind their trench and it was two in the morning before the HLI arrived to take over.
Lt. C. Tennant.
The C.O. told Jim and me to show their officers our line. By this time I was beginning to feel very sleepy – consequently stupid, though not really tired – and I felt as if I was handing over an unsolved Chinese puzzle in pieces instead of a fairly simple position, complicated only by the rather vague whereabouts of the shattered remnants of the Garhwalis and the 9th Gurkhas in front. Why we should have been ordered to hand over the old line to the HLI instead of putting them into the front trench with the Gurkhas I’m still at a loss to understand, but the whole strategy (or want of it) throughout the action was utterly incomprehensible to the lay mind. As a result on the following morning the Gurkhas (who for some unknown reason were not relieved that night) were driven in by a German counter-attack and the HLI lost heavily in men and officers recovering the position we could have put them into with no difficulty on the evening before. Such is war – at least under anyone but a Napoleon!
About 2.45 a.m. we roused the men who were sleeping like logs on the bare ground and marched back to la Couture – an uncomfortable march over smashed-up roads dodging shells and being chased by shrapnel. One burst on the road just before we passed and left six or seven wounded and moaning Gurkhas in its train: another passed over the rear of the column just clear of No. 3 Company. It was five o’clock by the time we reached la Couture and the men were pretty well done up but the transport had got hot tea and rations ready for them which cheered them up and then they turned in for a short hour’s rest. I made some Oxo in my mess tin and then lay down on some straw and had a glorious sound sleep for twenty-five minutes.
There were fewer of the Seaforths now as they marched away from the line and as they re-formed on the road it was all too clear that they had left many men behind them. As they closed up the thinned ranks and continued on the journey back to blessed rest and billets, the sound of the battle, carried west on the wind, followed them along the road. It had been raging for hours past.
The Germans attacked through the morning mist in the half-light of false dawn.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.
We’d been building up the parapet and, just before dawn, we got back into the trench and stood to. At this moment the Hun attacked. It was still dark but round the horizon it was growing light so that the enemy’s legs were clearly defined. It was an extraordinary sight to see this mass of legs coming forward. The mist was lying just above the ground, and at first, you couldn’t see their bodies. In our immediate front and half-right, they’d been able to get up through their trenches to within forty or fifty yards of us before they delivered their assault. Sutcliffe was with my left gun firing to the right, I was with the right gun firing to the left. We aimed low and just sat down to it. The guns fired beautifully. The Germans came on in dense lines about eight to ten yards between each line. We absolutely caught them in the dim light, in enfilade.
L/cpl E. Hall.
I was in the front line attending to wounded men who needed attention, and so I had a good view of the Germans as they were advancing. They came over in mass formation. Our reinforcements had come up after dark and they’d brought several machine-guns, so we were prepared to give the Germans a fight to the finish. There was thick wire in front of our position and our officers knew that the Germans would never be able to break through it under a hail of lead, so they gave strict orders that no one was to fire until the Germans were up to the entanglements. The idea was that at such short range the slaughter would be much greater, and fewer Germans would have a chance of getting back to their own lines when we forced them to retreat.
There wasn’t enough room on the firestep for all our men, because it was only a short length of trench on that side of our redoubt, and the unlucky ones left standing at the bottom of the trench were so excited while we were blasting them that they were actually dragging some of the men off the firestep, so they could get up there themselves and get a few rounds off to settle old scores with Fritz. What with the rapid fire of machine-guns and rifles the Germans were simply mown down. They tried to turn tail, but hardly any of them, not even their swiftest runners, managed to make a home run.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.
Later as it grew light we counted over five hundred dead in our front. The guns must have done most of this for they were just lying in rows, one behind the other. On the left there were about eight rows of dead, just like swathes of corn. On the right they were scattered – the ground was more broken. Thank God I got a little of my own back and helped to avenge the death of our poor fellows.
There were two points that wanted watching – on our left front a collection of houses on the road with orchards about two hundred yards away, and on our right and running right into us, the Boche system of trenches. Of course they worked up these trenches, sniping and bombing, and it was hot for a bit because they were able to get completely round our flank. But we drove them off – we had a little gas-pipe bomb gun but most had to be done with hand grenades. The Black Watch in our rear helped with rifle fire and later they sent out and got in some prisoners.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.
When daylight began to appear there was nothing to be seen except lines of dead Germans. We counted about a hundred on our immediate front. There were lots more to our right and left, and the Dehra Dun Brigade’s evacuated trench in front of us was full of them. Only a few live ones remained there, and a company of the HLI turned them out by an attack at 1 p.m. The first line advanced through us under fairly heavy rifle fire – they lost about twenty men before they reached the trench. The second line was just about to advance, and the officer in command of it jumped up near me and shouted ‘Second line, advance’ when he suddenly dropped, shot through the head. The second line never advanced. On our right the 4th Gurkhas advanced and took up their position on the right of the HLI in the trench ahead of us. Our artillery all this time was firing heavily, and we were also firing. Suddenly white flags began to appear in the German trenches and they got up and began waving to us to cease fire and on both sides we stood up to see what was happening. Some men in the Gurkhas on the right started sending back Germans into our lines with their hands up, many of them badly wounded. More followed, until about a hundred or so passed through our trench and there were many more who wished to come from further to the left. They put up white flags but it was difficult to send anyone to bring them in as the Germans were firing from behind and they themselves didn’t dare to leave the cover of their trench altogether. However, we got a pretty good bag.
The Germans had been flung back all along the front – even in the shaky line near Mauquissart where the Northants and the Worcesters clung to their precarious foothold.
2nd Lt. E. B. Conybeare, 1st Bn., Worcestershire Regt., 24 Brig., 8 Div.
The Germans came on in a great mass. Their officers were in front waving swords, then a great rabble behind followed by a fat old blighter on a horse. There was a most extraordinary hush for a few seconds as we held our fire while they closed in on us. Then, at last, we gave them the ‘mad minute’ of rapid fire. We brought them down in solid chunks. Down went the officers, the sergeant-majors and the old blighter on the horse.* We counter-charged, and back the rabble went full tilt for their own trenches four hundred yards away.
The Worcesters had done more than drive the Germans back – they had followed behind, forced the enemy to abandon part of his position and captured the machine-guns that had caused such havoc in their ranks. And they had rescued the Sherwood Foresters when their weak line broke, swinging to their right to recapture it and to retake the ruined cottages when the Germans forced the Sherwood Foresters out. In the wake of the counter-attack the Worcesters thrust forward their fragile line and at last reached the objective they had strained in vain to capture more than thirty-six hours before.
Colonel Woodhouse made haste to send a message back to Brigade Headquarters on the other side of Neuve Chapelle. He was more than happy to be able to report that the Battalion had advanced. But, with unpleasant recollections of yesterday’s misunderstanding, he made a point of requesting that the artillery should be warned that the Worcesters were now occupying a part of the German line. He took pains to give a specific map reference, stressed that the Worcesters were now isolated and hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and added a plea for reinforcements to help them consolidate and continue the advance.
The Worcesters beat off three counter-attacks and held on for three despairing hours of shelling – mostly by British guns. No reinforcements arrived. By ten o’clock it was clear that they could hold on no longer and, with bitter reluctance, Colonel Woodhouse ordered the battalion to leave the captured buildings and fall back to the old line. It was a disciplined retirement. They fell back by platoons, each one endeavouring to give covering fire as the others ran the gauntlet through a horseshoe of crossfire from rifles and machine-guns ranged round them on three sides. One after another, as they dashed and dodged across the open ground, the platoons melted away. By the time the remnants of the Worcesters reached the trench they had left at dawn the ground was strewn with dead and wounded. The Colonel was gone, so was the Adjutant and the last surviving company officer. The Battalion had lost nineteen of its twenty-six officers and platoons had dwindled to fragmented knots of men with only corporals or lance-corporals to take charge. By 10.30, when the new advance was scheduled to begin, the Worcesters, like the Northants and the Sherwood Foresters, were far too weak to make a move. As it was, the attack had been postponed for, yet again, the thick ground mist had prevented artillery officers from making the final, vital observations that would pinpoint the enemy’s positions and guarantee the accuracy of the guns. This time they could not afford to take chances. This time the attack must succeed.
It was hard on the front-line troops to wait. They were flushed with their victory, anxious to get on, to follow up the demoralised Germans and hit them hard while they were still stunned and shaken by the failure of the counter-attack. If, like the Worcesters, the whole line had advanced, and chased the Germans into their line, if the reserves had followed, and the opportunity had been seized, their defences might easily have crumbled. But the enemy had been given a breathing space and made the most of it to re-organise the line and bring up support troops to defend it. They were hardly able to believe their luck as the hours ticked by and the British made no move.