25th-30th March 1918: Charlie Payne at the Defence of Bucquoy

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.

The March of the 2/5 Battalion Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment on 25th-26th March 1918, to defend the Line at Bucquoy

The March of the 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment on 25th-26th March 1918, to defend the Line at Bucquoy (Click on map to enlarge)

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.

Approximate location of the 2/5th Battalion DoWs north of Rossignol Wood 26th-30th March 1918

Approximate  positions of the companies of the 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s and a company of the 9th Durham Light Infantry, in a disused enemy trench system north of Rossignol Wood. These trenches had been vacated by the German forces during February-March 1917 during their strategic  withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. (Click on image to enlarge)

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. 

A 2011 photograph of the site occcupied by the 2/5th DoWs

A 2011 photograph of the site occupied by the 5th Duke of Wellington’s near Bucquoy. Rossignol Wood is to the right. The village of Puisieux is on the horizon, just right of centre. (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

The German army also suffered heavy casualties during the Allied forces Defence of Bucquoy.  German gravestone in teh Rossignol Wood Cemetery, October 2011.

The German army also suffered heavy casualties during the  Defence of Bucquoy. German gravestone in the Rossignol Wood Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, (Photo October 2011).

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.

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14 Responses to 25th-30th March 1918: Charlie Payne at the Defence of Bucquoy

  1. Victor J Chapman says:

    I read your blog with interest since I have been trying to find out more about an action in which my Gt Uncle Richard Chapman (King’s Sergeant). He was – like Charlie – a machine gunner with the 62nd Battalion MGC which apparently became part of the 62nd division (I think I’ve got that right).
    May I copy here a letter from his Commanding officer to my Gt Grandfather. The brackets are mine with what I believe to be the correct place name spellings taking into account the fact that the L. Col would have been dictating to possibly an enlisted writer unfamiliar with French place names and their spelling.

    62nd Battalion Machine Gun Corps,
    Dear sir, I am writing to congratulate you on the award to your son, Srgt, R.F.J. Chapman of the Military Medal for bravery and devotion to duty during the recent fighting.
    Your son has thoroughly deserved the decoration and is a credit to the Battalion and to the Machine Gun Corps.
    Underneath you will see the action for which the medal was awarded by the Corps Commander.
    Yours truly, (signed) G.R.Harrison
    Lieut. Col. Commanding 62 batt. Machine Gun Corps.

    At Beaucoix (sic), (Bucquoy) on the 26th March 1918 for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. These two men were members of the machine gun team. On the 26th of March they covered the withdrawal of the 186 Brigade to Aehai-le-Grande (sic) (Achiet-le-Grande) engaging snipers and machine gun fire under heavy shell fire.
    They combined later to cover the withdrawal of the other guns of their Section, finally withdrawing themselves and taking up a new position and again bringing their gun to action throughout the entire period of 26th March to 2nd April.
    Their cheerfulness, courage, and initiative were a fine example to their comrades.

    It does seem to me to be the same attack as you described above. By chance, I found a section of trench map of the attack oj the Gt War forum http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=122627
    This shows how close our ancestors were and maybe even engaged alongside each other.

    As an aside – my Gt uncle born in 1898 was like many others, an under age enlistee which may be why he joined a Yorkshire regiment when he hailed from deepest Essex. I assume the local recruiting Sgt in a small town would probably know him.
    In 1939 he lied about his age again to enlist as a younger man in WWII into the RASC (as did my father) where he earned a bar to his MM – I have yet to research the action for which he received the second award.
    Richard Chapman survived WWII but died aged 49 of cancer in 1947 which I suppose might have been a result of gas in the trenches of WWI. I have no actual account of this happening to him but I suspect few got away without being gassed to some extent.
    Thank you for your description of the action which puts some meat on the bones of the letter from his C.O.
    I shall read the rest of your blog posts with great interest.
    Regards Vic Chapman (ex RB)

    • Peter Baker says:

      Victor,

      I was extremely interested to read your comments about your Great Uncle Richard Chapman who served with the 62nd Battalion MGC – particularly the comment about “these two men were members of the machine gun team”.

      The reason for my interest is that my wife’s father, George Still, also served in the 62nd Battalion MGC from 1916 until the end of the war and was also decorated for bravery for action in/around Bucquoy on exactly the same day as your Great Uncle. His parents also received a letter from Lieut. Col. Harrison (written on May 9th 1918), but with the location where the action took place, censored. His citation reads:
      “At …….(censored) on March 26th 1918 Sgt. Still took over command from the Second Lieutenant who was wounded. He remained in action, though slightly wounded, for two days during which time he succeeded in repulsing enemy attacks and inflicting severe losses.

      His section became so depleted, owing to casualties, that only two guns remained in action. Seeing that the situation on the right flank was so critical he reconnoitred and changed the position of the guns for the advance to the flank.

      His personal example, courage and careless disregard of shell fire restored the situation which was critical and encouraged to great endurance the troops in his vicinity.”

      I cannot help but wonder if “these two men” to whom Lieut. Col. Harrison referred were your Great Uncle and my wife’s father.

      For this action, George was awarded a bar to the DCM that he had won a few months earlier at Cambrai and about which, in truly modest style which was typical of so many of those who served, he wrote to his sister…

      “My dear sister,
      A line wishing you a lucky new year and hoping you spent a happy Xmas. I had a fairly good one myself, had a jolly good dinner. Perhaps you will be interested to know that I have been awarded the DCM, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, so will probably be home very soon. I am not absolutely certain I shall come home to receive it but I hope so…”

      George was a West London man and joined the army as a Territorial soldier in the 4th Royal Fusiliers in 1912 at the age of 16 years and 10 months.

      He was demobbed in 1920 and returned to civilian life in West London, where he succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 56, in 1952.

      I would be very interested to share more information with you – we have already made several trips to where George saw action with the MGC and we plan to make another journey to try and fit more pieces into the jigsaw.

      With best wishes
      Peter Baker

      • admin says:

        Hi Peter. Many thanks for your excellent contribution to the topic. I hope to hear more about your dialogue with Victor. With my personal interest in 62nd Division, I would be particularly interested in hearing more about your Great Uncle’s experiences. I have letters that my grandfather (Lewis Gunner in 2/5th and 5th battalionsWest Riding regiment; 62nd Division) sent home which I am currently compiling into a book, so would be particularly interested in hearing about Cambrai, Battle of Tardenois, Battle of the Selle from your relative’s perspective, and happy to share my information in return. regards, Chris Payne.

  2. Victor J Chapman says:

    Addendum.
    It appears that Dick was awarded a bar to his MM in August of that year (www.forces-war-records), perhaps at the Marne. In 1939 he was (his Granddaughter tells me), awarded a second bar for his actions covering the retreat at Dunkirk but I’m still looking for confirmation.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Vic. Thanks for contacting me about your Great Uncle’s involvement. The letter from the commanding officer clearly indicates that he and my grandfather were involved in the same general action. Have you had the opportunity to read the War Diary of the 62 Battalion MGC at the National Archives (TNA)? I believe that TNA reference for it is WO95/3077/3 and it should certainly tell you where the various MGC units would have been located.

  4. Leonard Watson says:

    Interesting comments about the fighting around Bucquoy in late March 1918. My father was Mentioned in Despatches from his actions during the fighting. His name was Harry Watson and he served with the 42nd East Lancs Brigade D Battery. My researcher discovered that at about 1-30 PM on the 28th a ‘large party of Germans rounded the gun positions and engaged D and C Batterys with hand to hand fighting’.
    My Dad’s brother Edward was killed in the war, but I have no idea where or when. I just didn’t ask Dad the right questions as a boy. Dad would just say “better not to know lad, let history tell the tale”

  5. Victor J Chapman says:

    If Leonard Watson cares to click the link in my first response he will see the 42ns in the center of the map with several E.Lancs and Lancs Fusiliers units named.

  6. Victor J Chapman says:

    Peter (Baker) & Admin
    For our ancestors to have been fighting together as a team would be a great and fortuitous coincidence indeed.
    I have written to my uncle Dick’s granddaughter with whom I last had contact over ten years ago (hoping I have the correct address). I believe she was intending to delve further into her grandfathers service record for both world wars since it is believed he was awarded a bar to his MM for action at Dunkirk. I included a link to this blog for her to read for herself.
    I have recently purchased and can recommend “The story of the 62nd (West Riding) Division 1914 – 1919” a two volume set by Everard Wyrall from the Naval and Military press. It describes well the actions and gives the official reports, maps and extracts of Officer’s diaries and is good to have as an accompaniment to Charlie Payne’s letters home which give a more personal account from the enlisted man’s point of view. I have also been prompted to obtain “The Marne” to get a more overall view of that battle but have yet to delve deeply into it.
    If/when I receive a response from my 2nd cousin I will post here again. (Perhaps she will respond here herself.)

    • admin says:

      Wyrall’s book is really excellent. Great maps and descriptions that appear to tally very well with the war diaries that I’ve looked at.

      • Peter Baker says:

        Very interested in Victors comments and look forward to hearing further. Am going to the Somme for the fifth time in October and any further info I get before then much appreciated. I do have a copy of Whyalls History of the 62nd Div. Very informative.
        Regards Peter

    • Peter Baker says:

      Victor
      Re your message of 31/8 agree with you would be a wonderful coincidence if we could prove our ancestors fought so gallantly together. I look forward with much to your further information Regards Peter

  7. Robert Jackson says:

    Regarding the 25th – 28th March 1918.
    I am the custodian of a DCM awarded to Sjt Alan Smith, 2/7th W Yorks Regt.
    He was killed in action on 28th March, his citation talks of him going out with a lewis gun and providing covering fire for his officer and men retiring, mostly at point blank rage. Later he, his officer and ten men went in with the bayonet and managed to disperse a large body of the enemy. This when he was killed at 23 yrs old

    I am researching this young mans short life, from artist to an incredibly brave man who fought through 4 years of hell.
    I want to tell his story, can anyone help me with eyewitness accounts, any mention of 2/7th, anything.

    Thank you & Kind Regards

    Rob Jackson

    • admin says:

      Hi Rob. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the records held by The National Archives (TNA), and you may have already seen the 2/7th Battalion’s War Diary (185th Brigade, 62nd Division) but if not, I would strongly recommend that you should do that as a starting point. The 2/7th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment War Diary can be downloaded from the TNA website. The relevant TNA reference is WO95/3082/2, and this War Diary covers the period January 1917 (when the Battalion first went to France) until June 1918. Beyond that I would recommend reading the relevant volumes of the Official History of the First World War that cover your period of interest, and checking the appropriate Regimental history. Everard Wyrall’s 2-volume work “The Story of the 62nd (West Riding) Division 1914-1919” is also excellent. Further than that it is worth searching the Imperial War museum Collections online to check out whether there may be any personal accounts in their Collections. Sorry if you have done all this already!

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