I have previously written an account of aspects of the German Spring Offensive in March 1918, based on Charlie Payne’s experiences during the Defence of Bucquoy. Today’s blog involves events some four months later.
The 1918 German attacks against the Allied forces had continued at different points on the Western Front until July 1918. At the onset of these attacks in late March 1918, the German forces made considerable advances on a wide front. For the next three months the Allies would essentially be on the defensive. However, at the height of the Spring Offensive, and as a consequence of it, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander on 26th March 1918 to deliver better coordination of British and French forces.
In July 1918, Foch received information that a German attack would be made in the Marne area (defended predominantly by French troops supplemented by some Italian and US divisions). Seizing on this advanced information, Foch requested that four British Divisions be sent to the area to help repulse any such attack. 62nd Division (which included my grandfather, Private Charlie Payne, 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment) was one of the Divisions sent, arriving in the area on July 18th 1918, three days after the Germans had indeed attacked. On July 15th the Germans had made progress in some areas, gaining a foothold across the Marne, but in other areas the French and American troops had defended the anticipated attacks well and had made some successful counter attacks.
On their arrival in the area, 62nd Division’s task (as part of XXII Corps) was to counter-attack the Germans, up the valley of the River Ardre, South-West of Reims. (The actions involved have now become known as the Battle of Tardenois). There was no organised trench system in this open countryside of hills, woods, villages, and fields; it was open warfare with few or no defensive positions available. On the evening of 20th July, Charlie’s battalion (within 186th Brigade) had been ordered to support an earlier attack by 185th and 187th Brigades on German positions in the villages of Marfaux and Cuitron. However, when Company Commanders and Headquarters Staff went forward to reconnoitre they found an almost impossible position. The two villages lay in the bottom of a valley and attacking troops would have to cross open ground for 800 yards under a withering Machine Gun barrage from enemy positions directly in front and also from Machine Gun posts in woodland on higher ground at the S.W. corner of the Bois du Petit Champs, which overlooked the Ardre Valley. As a result a decision was made to cancel the attack.
It was now realised that the key to a successful advance up the Ardre Valley was to clear the Germans from the wooded ridge overlooking the valley. Thus, on 22nd July, Charlie’s battalion received orders to clear the Bois du Petit Champs, which contained two battalions of German troops, including many well-hidden machine gun positions.
The wood was filled with dense undergrowth and the Germans were well-concealed. The Battalion War Diary describes the attritional events that day in some detail. [Charlie was a Lewis gunner in B Company]:
“Company Commanders and Battalion H.Q. Staff carefully reconnoitred the jumping off positions in liaison with the French who were holding the existing front line on the eastern edge of Bois du Petit Champs early in the morning. Troops were all in position by 11.30 am and zero hour was at 12.15 pm. Almost immediately the right company (“A”) met with slight opposition and captured one prisoner and were able to get about 250 yards into the wood before they encountered a strong point held by the enemy consisting of 4 machine guns [M.Gs.] and about 20 personnel. After a severe struggle the resistance was overcome and the garrison and M.Gs. captured. After proceeding another 200 yards they met with similar opposition and captured another 6 machine guns and a further batch of 30/35 prisoners. In this latter operation the right Company (“A”) were assisted by the supporting Company(“D”) as casualties had been heavy. They then pressed on a further 350 yards capturing several isolated machine gun posts for the most part consisting of single machine guns, until they met with really serious opposition from a strong point about the centre of the wood whose exact position was difficult to locate. Having suffered serious casualties they withdrew 300 yards and consolidated their position in a series of posts from the N. edge of the wood to about the centre. By patrols these two companies (“A” and “D”) endeavoured to gain touch with the companies (“B” and “C”) operating on the southern edge of the wood. They were assisted in the consolidation by two platoons of 1/5th Battalion Devon Regiment, sent up by Brigade to reinforce. On the south edge of the wood, opposition was encountered immediately from a Strong Point about 50 yards from the jumping off point just outside the wood. This held up the advance for some time but was finally encircled from both flanks and captured with the help of the rear company (“B”). 8 Machine Guns and 50 enemy garrison were captured. A series of 5 enemy strong points were encountered at the S. edge of the wood all of which were quickly dealt with and the Machine Guns and garrisons captured. These yielded about 20 Machine Guns and 80 prisoners. Isolated small posts were met with and easily overcome, the forward company (“C”) finally reaching its objective at the N.W. edge of the wood after having suffered heavily. After having reached its objective “C” Company was threatened with envelopment by a very strong counter-attack which the enemy launched from the North. “C” Company were eventually surrounded. The enemy captured the most forward post held by 2/Lieutenant Storry. He then charged the other two posts of “C” Company with fixed bayonets. A Lewis Gun was put into action and caused great damage amongst the enemy compelling him to retire temporarily. They came on again using stick bombs freely and got so close and in superior numbers that the positions became untenable. Captain. J.B. Cockhill M.C. withdrew his few remaining men into a shell hole in the open on the S. edge of the wood where they were subjected to rifle and machine gun fire from the wood and from the Valley at Cuitron. A shell burst in the shell hole putting the Lewis Gun out of action, and no other means was open but to retire further. This was done in a westerly direction followed closely by the enemy and finally the elements of the company – 2 officers and 6 other ranks fought their way out to “B” Company’s posts. “B” Company in the meantime had made a strong point about 700 yards in the wood away from the jumping off point and with the assistance of a company of the 1/5th Devon Regiment they consolidated a line from the S. edge of the wood to meet “A” and “D” Companies . The total prisoners taken were 2 officers and 206 other ranks and 41 machine guns. The prisoners belonged to 53rd Prussian Regiment. Our artillery barrage was very accurate and caused many casualties. The troops who were attacked were taken completely by surprise and had only just completed a relief an hour before zero hour. After the attack was launched the enemy artillery reply was negligible but as the afternoon wore on and he became aware of the situation the edges of the wood and all approaches were subjected to a heavy counter bombardment. The new line was consolidated by nightfall and held by the battalion with the help of 1/5th Devons. During the night the enemy pushed out strong reconnoitring parties to locate and endeavour to surprise our line but on each occasion was repulsed. Our casualties during the operation were 5 officers and approximately 150 other ranks. The battalion was heartily congratulated by the Corps, Divisional and Brigade Commanders on a particularly fine fight which had had the effect of greatly reducing the enemy’s power of resistance. The whole operation was carried through with great vigour and all commanders led their men with great dash and determination.” [Crown Copyright Extract from WO 95/3086; War diary of the 2/5th and 5th Battalions Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding ) Regiment. Available at The National Archives: Public Records Office (TNA:PRO), Kew, UK]
Thus, working methodically, the 5th Dukes had surrounded and rushed several German strong-points and, by the day’s end, most of the wood had been secured although C Company was almost annihilated in the process. Marfaux and Cuitron were soon taken by other battalions within the Division which continued to make slow but significant progress up the Ardre valley, capturing the village of Bligny on 28th July before being withdrawn from the fray. For Charlie’s battalion, the war diary notes on July 29th 1918 that :
The men were all utterly worn out and exhausted after 8 days of very hard fighting in most difficult country. Their morale was still high but they were physically exhausted. The casualties to the battalion in the weeks fighting had been particularly heavy – about 13 officers and 400 other ranks, leaving only a composite company of about 130 fighters. [Ibid]
Charlie had been one of the survivors and reported home to Ida on 2nd August 1918:
My dear Wife. At last I have an opportunity of writing you, & to let you know that I am quite well. I trust you got my whiz-bangs as they would relieve your anxiety on my behalf. I also wrote you a long letter on the 18th ulto., but was “called over the coals” about it by the Censor so do not know whether you would get it. I had no time to write another. Well, my darling, you will see from the papers that our battalion has been in action again (wood fighting similar to last November). We have come through very creditably & succeeded in driving back the Huns to some extent. Of course once more I have lost some very good pals. [Next three lines crossed out, by Censor]…& I am hopeful that during such interval I may be fortunate enough to get my leave – I have now completed 12 months out here- needless of course to remind you. I have received all your letters, I think, dear, & I note all your news. You do not mention your own health so I trust, little woman, you are feeling better….. The weather has been glorious here lately – a little too hot – fitter for picnics than for the devilish work going on out here. God grant it may now soon be over. Love to all upstairs & they must really excuse my not answering letters just yet. Kiss the boys well for me & I hope to see you all soon. God bless you all. Ever yours, Charlie.
He added further information in a letter written on 10 August 1918:
We are now out on rest for a bit – under canvas in a wood & it is like being in Paradise after what we have been through. I thank God, darling, I am safe & well, but I am longing to see you & the boys. I am not far down the leave list & with luck should get home within the next 6 weeks. The news is still good – we have got the Huns on the run, but they fight hard….. You can tell from the papers, dear, in what part of France we have been – I must mention no names here. After the battle we were reviewed by a great French General & thanked by him for our deeds. Our Regiment did splendid work & those who came back have every reason to be thankful. As before, dear heart, thoughts of you & our boys kept me cool & collected in all times of danger & altho’ it was terrible I felt no fear. The Huns would not face cold steel. I shall have lots to tell you when I do come home on leave of my journeyings in France. It is indeed a fair country but the War has made big wastes of parts of it.
On the 1st August, as mentioned by Charlie, the surviving members of the battalion had marched past General Henri Berthelot the officer commanding the 5th French Army, under whose orders the successful advances had been made. By then the Germans were in rapid retreat from the Marne salient. The German Field Marshall, Hindenberg, later commented in his memoirs that “it was of the greatest and most fateful importance that we had lost the initiative to the enemy”. However, the 5th Dukes, and other battalions in 62nd Division had suffered considerable casualties in the process. To bring the battalion back to strength, during August it received reinforcements in excess of 400 men.
On 8th August, the British Fourth Army delivered a successful attack near Amiens advancing up to 8 miles on the first day, and starting what has become known as ‘The Last Hundred Days’ of the war. In many British accounts of the War, it is usually this date that has been regarded as the ‘beginning of the end of the War’, but the earlier reversal imposed on the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne, and engineered by Foch with British and American support, was a highly significant turning point, as Hindenburg recalled.
To capitalise on the Allied successes in late July and early August, the British Third Army organised another major attack to the North, towards Bapaume. Charlie’s Division was involved and between 25th August and 2nd September, the 62nd Division pushed the German forces back another 3 miles. The Allied advance was now developing considerable momentum. Charlie, however, was granted his first, and well-deserved Home Leave since arriving in France 13 months previously.
My biography of Charlie Payne is currently being written under the working title of ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox‘.
Payne, C.F. (1903-1919). 1903, 1904 and 1907 diaries, and letters written to his wife Ida Muriel Payne between November 1916 and February 1919. (From the collection of C. C. Payne).
TNA:PRO WO 95/3070. War Diary of 62nd Division.
TNA:PRO WO95/3084 and 3085. War Diaries of the 186th Infantry Brigade Headquarters.
TNA:PRO WO95/3086. War Diary of the 2/5th (later the 5th) Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment.
TNA:PRO WO153/747. War Diary of XXII Corps. Operations whilst employed with French Army. pen and Sword
http://penhey.name/omiwxb262Div14(p).htm#FourteenThree (The Battle of Tardenois)
Skirrow, F. (2007) Massacre on the Marne; The life and death of the 2/5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War.
Stevenson, D. (2012) With Our Backs to the Wall; Victory and Defeat in 1918. Penguin Books Ltd.
Wyrall, E. (2003) The History of the 62nd (West Riding) Division. (2 Volumes). The Naval and Military Press (Originally published by John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd in 1924/1925).