My Blog post today covers another aspect of my grandfather’s military service during the First World War. Ninety-six years ago, Private Charlie Payne’s Battalion, the 5th Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment was sent into action during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Together with other British and Commonwealth units, the Battalion helped to halt a major German attack, during five days of intensive fighting that, in the annals of the First World War, has become known as the Defence of Bucquoy.It provides another illustration of why it is so important to remember and commemorate those who participated in this dreadful conflict.
For several months, a German attack on the Western Front in 1918 had been expected after Russia had surrendered, as Germany was now able to release troops from the Eastern Front to expand their forces in France and Belgium. The Allies anticipated a German attack in Spring, and Charlie and others in his Battalion had been busy during the winter months helping to strengthen the defences in the southern sector of the British First Army Front Line positions (between Gavrelle and Acheville, north-east of Arras). On 21st March 1918, the German Spring Offensive started. Coincidentally on the same day, Charlie’s Battalion was relieved after their usual duration in the Front Line . Charlie just had time on 23rd March to write a short letter home to his wife Ida and their fours sons before he was involved in some of the most desperate fighting during the War:
“My dear Wife, I have your letters of the 10th & 15th, but regret to say, dear, the parcel never reached my hands – it must have gone astray owing to being along with the R. E’s [Royal Engineers]– hard luck – Was there a letter in it? … Did you receive that 5 franc note I enclosed in one of mine & which I got an artilleryman to post for me? Should like to know in your next. Well, little woman, I was very pleased to learn that son John got over the measles so well & that Dick & Rupert did not take them. Also it cheers me up immensely to learn that in spite of high prices, shortages etc. you manage so well. – Expect to be on the move a good deal now, but will endeavour to write as often as possible, dear, but must ask you to excuse brevity. At the moment we are out of the line. We are still enjoying very fine warm weather here & I trust you are too, dear, as I know you like to get the boys out a bit. So the little chaps are waiting for me to take them out in their new suits – God grant they will not have to wait long. I likewise am longing for that happy time. Now that Spring is here, of course, dear, there must be some fighting – in fact, you will see by today’s paper “Johnny” is making an attack – he will catch a cold though, I have no doubt. Give my love to all upstairs, dear, & tell the boys I will try & write to them again soon. It is good to learn that your health stands this extra strain so well, dear, & I believe it will not be much longer necessary for you to work so hard. God bless you, dear, & keep you all safe. Ever yours, Charlie“
The main attack by the Germans (or “Johnny” as Charlie had referred to them in his letter) was unleashed on the Third and Fifth British armies that were holding the Line further to the south of Arras. In these sectors, the German forces soon made considerable advances on a wide front, driving back the British forces several miles (particularly in the Fifth Army area) and, by 23rd March, considerable gaps appeared in the retreating British front line. On the same day, the 62nd (West Riding) Division (which included Charlie’s Battalion), was transferred to the orders of Third Army and, on 24th March, received instructions that within the next 24 hours they would have to move to help fill a substantial gap in the British front line in the Third Army sector, near Bucquoy.
At 3.05am on 25th March, the Battalion marched from the Etrun area to Ayette, via Warlus, Beaumetz and Ransart. The roads were all very congested with moving troops and guns and the march was a lengthy, slow and tedious one. After arriving at Ayette at 7.50am the Battalion received orders to go on to Bucquoy. The area by now was one mass of artillery, and exhausted men moving in the direction of the British retreat. Marching in the opposite direction, the men of the 5th Duke of Wellington’s were instructed to dump their packs at this stage, leaving them with just their fighting equipment and emergency rations. At 4.30 pm, Charlie’s Battalion received orders to advance in front of Achiet le Petit to help guard the railway, south-east of the village. Before dusk, parties of the advancing enemy were clearly observed on the skyline in front of Irles. There were some encounters with the enemy overnight and, just before dawn on 26th March, the Battalion received orders to retreat to high ground between Bucquoy and Puisieux. The Battalion was very closely followed by the enemy in large numbers, especially on the Miraumont-Puisieux Road, where B Company encountered an enemy cyclist patrol 40-strong with light machine guns, but which was dispersed by B Company’s Lewis gun fire (Charlie was a Lewis gunner in B Company). At this juncture, one Lewis gun team in B Company ‘disappeared’ and was probably taken prisoner by the Germans. The Battalion then formed a defensive line 330 yards east of the Bucquoy-Puisieux road, with Lewis guns pushed forward. Despite strong attacks by the Germans, the enemy was held back, and an attempt to outflank the Battalion was frustrated. A further orderly withdrawal of the Battalion was undertaken, establishing a Line running from the south-east corner of Rossignol Wood towards the south-east corner of Bucquoy. After the withdrawal, the Battalion’s right flank was completely exposed, with Charlie’s Company being some three miles distant from other Allied troops.
During the afternoon of 26th March, Germans were observed to be occupying Rossignol Wood, directly in front of B Company. The enemy attempted to advance towards the Battalion’s positions in small bodies but were driven off by Lewis gun and rifle fire; considerable casualties being inflicted. Due to a misunderstanding created by the difficult communications between the Battalion and Divisional Headquarters, during the heat of battle, Charlie’s Battalion (and others in the same Brigade) withdrew further but, when the error was realized, Tanks were sent forward and the men rallied and advanced to their original positions and the enemy fled. Enemy night patrols were observed and taken prisoner.
On 27th March, the Germans again attacked in the open and by bombing up the trenches. The bombing strategy again exposed the right flank of the Battalion. B Company and a platoon of the 9th Durham Light Infantry were then turned into a defensive flank and the Battalion’s position made secure. Night patrols were sent out; enemy patrols were encountered and driven off or taken prisoner. By the end of the day, troops from Australian and New Zealand forces had managed to move into position to the right of Charlie’s battalion, and the gap in the Allied front line had been plugged. On 27th March, Field Marshall Douglas Haig recorded in his diary that British troops had been attacked at Bucquoy but had vigorously counter-attacked and held the line in spite of enemy attacks repeated 10-11 times.
There was no let-up on 28th March. The enemy put down a heavy artillery barrage on the Battalion’s front line and to the rear, and attacked at 10.30am along the front. British artillery put down a counter barrage…and a stiff fight ensued but in no case did the enemy succeed in getting to the Battalion’s line. Time after time the enemy massed to make fresh attacks but was decimated by accurate rifle and Lewis gun fire at each attempt. However, a platoon of D Company was isolated by a German trench- bombing attack, and despite strong resistance, was wiped out. Bomb fighting continued during the afternoon on the right of B Company and the riflemen were concentrated against enemy snipers in Rossignol Wood with satisfactory results.
On 29th March, the enemy opened up with artillery and trench mortars, and the Battalion sustained some further casualties as a result. During the day, enemy rifle and machine gun fire were particularly active. This was replied to by field artillery and Lewis gun fire, and Stokes’ mortars. On 30th March, though somewhat quieter, the Battalion suffered increased shelling and sniping and enemy field guns enfiladed their positions from west of Rossignol Wood, causing serious casualties.
By now, the German advance in this sector had been halted and the German forces themselves were spent from days of fighting and the difficulty of maintaining supply lines in an area totally devastated by warfare. It was no doubt with some considerable relief to Charlie and his colleagues that the Battalion was finally relieved during the night of 30th March/1st April , and went into support. During the period 25-30th March 1918, 34 men in the Battalion were killed, 57 missing and 130 wounded. On 1 April the Battalion marched to billets at Henu.
It is difficult today, to imagine the conditions that the men of Charlie’s Battalion must have faced during six days of desperate defence, which was nonetheless successful in stopping the German advance in the Bucquoy area. The events had started with a lengthy and exhausting march, followed byintensive engagement with an enemy which had achieved considerable early success in pushing back the Allied forces between 21st and 25th March. For all concerned, the conditions must have been appalling. Charlie’s Battalion suffered considerable casualties (about 25% of the men), and encountered disrupted supply lines that would have made it extremely difficult to provide sufficient munitions, food and water during the period. Charlie’s message home on 3rd April 1918 gives little of this away, partly because of the extensive use of the censor’s blue pencil.
“3rd April 1918. Since writing the foregoing I have received your further letters & was indeed sorry to learn that Dick & little Rupert took the measles after all, but perhaps it is as well & I know that in your capable hands they will soon get over them. Well little woman, ….[ at this point the censor’s blue pencil intervenes and strikes out 6 ½ lines]… you will see by the papers that the Germans have started their great offensive – but do not be downhearted, dear, – I cannot believe they will meet with success in the end – their losses must be terrible. We are now out of the line, but of course not for long these days. I note all your other news, dear, but have a lot of cleaning up etc. to do, so please excuse brevity. How pleased I feel that you keep so well, & I pray God that you may not have a recurrence of your old complaint. Keep up a good heart, dear. We cannot do more than that & just leave the rest to God. Ever yours, Charlie.”
It is deeply ironic that, while Charlie was helping to fight off the German Army, his sons back in the UK were apparently fighting another German ‘export’: German Measles!
If you are interested in finding out more about Charlie’s experiences during the First World War, you will find several other relevant articles elsewhere on my Blog: http://chrispaynebooks.com/blog/category/the-great-war/
Further accounts of events during ‘The Defence of Bucquoy’ can be found in the War Diary of the 5th Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment available at The National Archives, Kew, London, UK (Document WO 95/3086), and in Wyrall, E. ; The Story of the 62nd (West Riding) Division 1914-1919 Volume 1 pages 143-164.