Chapter Eleven. Stormy Days Of Black Michael,.
MY story would not be complete if it did not contain a brief chapter on the progress of the ” old boys,” Who, with their new battalions, were soon to receive a severe shock. They, like millions of others, fought (and many fell) in the battles of Black Michael and Mars, as the German offensives of March and.April, 1918, were termed by the enemy, who thirsted for revenge.
The general line of the enemy’s advance was in a westerly direction to the ports of Boulogne and Abbeville, in order to separate the British from the French. A German officer who died at Serre on April 6th, 1918, recorded in his diary: ” If France is left to herself she will come to terms quickly; therefore, the main blows will be directed against the British. ” The preparations had been go well thought over and planned that failure was said to be almost an impossibility, and the’ officer was so impressed by the gigantic scenes behind the German lines~; the drawing together of immeasurable quantities of material, colossal number of artillery pieces, and vast masses of men, all marching westward, that all he could say was ” ” Germany on the march”
Ludendorff, speaking of this great historic period, said: “For the progress of the infantry in the offensive battle the preparatory operation of masses ‘of artillery was of decisive~importance. Twenty or thirty, batteries, or about 100 guns, to every 1,000 yards of the front, of attack were to he engaged at the attack; these were figure’s such as no man’ had,thought possible, still less had there ever been any idea of the quantities of ammunition that these guns discharged against the enemy. These were, indeed, massed effects
From the foregoing it will be realized what our men had to face. The draft to the 7th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment had not been long in the Cambrai area before the blow fell, while the 300 odd officers and men, now associated with the 13th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, were rushed up to the line between Arras and Bullecourt, and afterwards to the Lys.
Abler pens than mine have dealt fully with these terrible thrusts. , The 31st Division was mentioned in dispatches twice, once for its valour on the flank of the Third Army which protected Arras and held the enemy in check at this point; a second time on being one of the two divisions which saved Hazebrouck and closed the gate to the Channel Ports. Ludendorff` says- the key of the whole situation of the Michael offensive was the failure of the German Seventeenth Army at Arras. It only reached our second line, thanks to the glorious work of the British Third Army.
Sheffield City Battalion men played -a noble part in these fierce struggles of life and death. Tense moments were spent by everyone present, yet, strangely enough, the silent prayer was followed by a serene calmness and occasional jocular stoicism. Fellows died with a jest on their lips, for they had prepared themselves for whatever destiny held in store.
The 13th Battalion lost over 400 men in the wonderfully steady and slight retirements in the area of Boyelles, Hamelincourt, and Moyenneville. The Guards, by whose side the Battalion fought, expressed admiration for the brave front presented by the Barnsley and Sheffield boys, who, in, spite of the loss of their colonel (Lieut.-Col. G. B. Wauhope, D.S.O.), who was, wounded, made successive counterattacks.
A brief rest at Magnicourt, a village of happy memory, was ended on April 9, 1918, by a pell-mell rush to the battle of the Lys. Hundreds of lorries containing troops dashed through St. Pol, Frevent, Pernes, Lillers, and Merville to Vieux Berquin, which was reached just as the day was dawning on April 11th. What a pathetic sight met our eyes!
Then came strings of artillery. The drivers A dead tired. None spoke, for many slept in their saddles, and instinctively the mules pulled their loads in that tireless manner which makes the animal the subject of a horseman’s love. Though mischievous and full of roguery, a mule was never the butt of a driver’s scorn, for, as a rule, mules were as hard as nails and possessed wonderful stamina,,,
Outtersteene was reached at 6 a.m., and the villagers were making a frenzied exit, though one poor body stayed behind to auction off the groceries and sweetmeats of her shop.
But ‘twould take too long to describe the retirement of the artillery and the 13th Battalion’s march into action; the successful attack in the evening and the deadly German counter attack of the morning of the 12th of April, when more Sheffield men were killed and wounded.
April 12th and 13th were tragic days,~in very truth. On these days the 31st Division held a frontage of 9,500 yards and kept at bay six German divisions. Then came the Australians, but the 31st and 29th Divisions had saved the situation. As was the case with other battalions, the 13th Battalion had a gruelling time, and again suffered over 400 casualties, while men were scattered in all directions. On April 15th the 31st Division could only muster six fighting companies, though later numbers of soldiers returned to their units. One party of old 12th Battalion men became attached to-the Ist Queen’s, and fought so gallantly under the leadership of Lieut. E. N. Taylor and Lieut. C. V. Burgess that the Divisional Commander wrote a letter of special commendation to the Commanding Officer of the 13th Battalion. It was in this fighting that Company Sergeant Major A. W. Bright (of ” C ” Company) died in a glorious attempt,to win the Victoria Cross. The sergeant-major led a daring counterattack for an important position, and was killed when the objective had almost been won. Merris, Meteren, Strazefle, and Vieux Berquin, where the late Captain V. S. Simpson, M. C., was slain at dead of night, are names stamped on the memories of all who were engaged in the battle.
Part of the personnel of the headquarters of the 94th Infantry Brigade, which was now composed of battalions of Guards, was constituted of soldiers formerly connected with the 12th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, and, in consequence, I feel compelled to give the details of the magnificent stand made by this brigade, which was on the flank of the Barnsley and Sheffield Battalion, near the Fort de Nieppe.
The Guards were told to fill a gap and bar the Estaires Hazebrouck road on the line L’Epinette-Vieux Berquin.
This they did, although out of touch with the troops on their left and right, and at times almost wholly surrounded. Grenadiers and Coldstreamers were in the front line. The Guards themselves considered that the fighting in which they were involved was as heavy as any in which they had taken part in the war. They were constantly outflanked on both sides. They were split into little detachments, which continued to keep the~’enemy at bay. Try as they would, the Germans failed wholly to envelop the British line the Guards died, but they did not surrender.
One brief message which came back from a lone group of Grenadiers gives a glimpse of the scene on that eventful day when the fortunes of our troops seemed to be hanging in the balance. ” We are so surrounded,” wrote the officer who commanded this isolated detachment, ” that my men are standing back to back and shooting on all sides. ” The Germans kept pressing them after this message was dispatched. At last only eighteen Grenadiers were left alive. he Germans were perhaps twenty yards away, and were steadily creeping forward. Their commander ordered a charge, and the handful of Guardsmen leaped into the mass of grey.
Fourteen returned. Still the enemy came on. When the last was seen of them they were still fighting ‘,’ in a sea of Germans.” One man survived, a corporal. He crawled into a ditch, lay as though dead, and crept back at night to tell the story of this last stand.
A detachment of Irish Guards came up and tried to make a defensive flank, but the Germans kept flowing round them, and, although they used their bayonets, it was literally a fight: to the death. One non-commissioned officer and six men returned. A private of the Coldstreamers, the sole survivor in a machine-gun post, kept the enemy off for twenty minutes until he was killed. Some men of the King’s Own Yorkshire L. L, a pioneer battalion fighting in close proximity to the Guards, are warmly praised by the latter for their resistance at a moment when every man was of vital importance. They ” fought with the greatest determination, although not a fighting unit.”
Another incident which thrilled us a few days later was the story of how the Allied airmen on April 26th held the crest of Mont Kemmel, in Flanders, on our left, for six or seven hours, fighting desperately in relays with bombs and machine-guns and smashing the Germans’ attempt to *establish themselves.
At the end of all this the 13th Battalion stayed in the area of. Morbecque, Sercus, Fort de Nieppe, Le Tir Anglais, La Motte, Hazebrouck, Caestre, and occupied the line several times at Meteren, the pretty village which had now been reduced to a mere heap of stones and which was in front of the famous Mont des Cats, on which stood the monastery which the ex-Kaiser desired to be left untouched, but which was often shelled.
The reason of the ex-Emperor’s command was a personal one. He was afraid that the aged prior, of the monastery might be killed and with his death go the secret of the burial-place of Prince Maximilian of Hesse, his nephew.
An account published in a periodical in 1918 stated that at the time of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 Prince Maximilian-then a dashing young officer of twenty was reported missing, and, later, killed. The story as it reached the Kaiser was that he had been slain under strange circumstances by his own men.
Investigation proved that he had first been wounded and cared for by the Trappist Fathers in the Monastery des Cats. The rest was veiled in obscurity, save the facts of his death and burial, it being said that the Kaiser’s nephew lay in a grave with some of his own men.
The prior, when approached by the Kaiser for a solution to the mystery, displayed a furious anger at some circumstance unknown, and flatly stated that he would withhold all information until the Germans had left Belgium and restored its shattered churches. Then, he said, he would exact reparation.
Kaiser William wrote to the Pope asking his Holiness to request the prior to return the prince’s body to Germany, that it might rest in the family vault. This the spirited prior also said he would refuse until the end of the war.
Prince Maximilian was the son of the Kaiser’s sister, Princess Margartte.
On large sectors of the British front the new line seemed strange to those long accustomed to the wire-bound trench zone. It had been shaped according to circumstance, for it was a line actually determined by the depth of the German thrust, which left its highwater mark of~ corpses and destruction. Following came the British local counter-offensives -small, determined battles for local tactical points-and’ these pushed the Germans back to lowwater mark.
This beach of debris and devastated country marked the .new front, and the actual front-line positions of both sides ran between the two tide limits, but the ebb and flow had left their track of corpses throughout the zone.
Behind the line on both sides were deserted villages, evacuated by the civilians and not yet seriously damaged by shellfire. Support-trenches meandered about among these disconnected farms and houses, and daring men, risking the hostile sniper or the casual shell, were able to salve fruit, vegetables, and even eggs and livestock. These farms contained a pitiful medley of poor furniture, coarse clothes, and domestic trifles strewn amid the general untidiness of the homestead. Shells had brought down plaster and roofing tiles, dead Germans where the counter-attack left them, dead cows and other stock rotted in the byres, and shattered machine-gun mountings rusted among the outhouses.
~ Little by little, burial parties attended to this monstrous task, interring cows and dead horses and spreading wide the life-saving chloride oklime. War itself carries its own dread sanitary agent in the shape of fire, and daily the ruins blossomed into flame and smoke under shellfire, while at night the horizon was red-girdled with the reflection of a dozen burning homesteads.
No Man’s Land itself held a few peritly good, undamaged farms, veritable Tom Tiddler’s ground~–too dangerous to be occupied either by us or by the enemy. At dusk both sides sent out patrols to see if the other side had seized the farm, but there was no desire for conflict, for both sides were busy digging in to improve their positions.
The line where weary men flung themselves down in odd shell-holes and behind scraps of ruins had been dug in deeper every day. First a hasty breastwork was thrown up, then in a few days an actual trench took shape, and the rough line became everywhere connected. Bouquets of barbed wire and stakes blossomed in the night, and within 13 month the front that had been open became again a permanent position, with a full trench system and all the defences of siege warfare.
In July, 1918, Captain J. C. Cowen won the Military Cross. He, with a fellow-officer and tbree’men, penetrated the German line of outposts and captuped two of the enemy. He took them by surprise and cowed them, even though his revolver was unloaded, arid, calling on his men, brought his prisoners back to our lines through heavy machine-gun fire.
Eventually, after the Battalion had captured in distinguished manner various farms-notably Ankle Farm and Soyer Farm-it took part in the pursuit of the retiring enemy. The division was on the flank of the Second Army when the brilliant assault in Flanders was made, and the York and Lancasters followed up the Germans through Meteren, Bailleul, almost to ArmentWes, Then it was switched to the left, through Neuve Eglise, over Messines Ridge, and engaged the enemy as he retreated beyond the River Lys at Warneton, near Ploegsteert Wood.
Hereafter there was a pause, but before many days the division was in rapid action again, crossing the Lys and getting in touch with the swift-footed Germans with considerable difficulty. The Battalion’s path lay through Les Quesnoy, Lindselles, and various desolate lands and villages in which savage and wanton destruction had been wrought by a furious and beaten foe.
Fairer scenes were witnessed at Tourcoing and RoubAix, where our troops were hailed as sweet deliverers and greeted by a rescued people with overwhelming displays of emotion. Streets were decorated with flags and bunting, and cornmanding officers were presented with bouquets of flowers. The gratitude of the inhabitants was boundless, for they alone knew from what fearful agony they had been delivered.
On to the Scheldt the Battalion went, and then came back a little distance, marching to Courtral and thereafter moving forward well nigh to Brussels.
After Armistice Day the division turned about and had a long march across famous battlefields, passing through Menin, Passchendaele, Ypres, finally billeting near St. Omer, where demobilization began.
The 7th Battalion had stirring times also, and finished up at the old spot, Mailly-Maillet.
Before concluding, mention should be made of the fact that over 500 members of the City Battalion at one time or another received His Majesty’s Commission, and a very large number of them gained honours and distinctions on the field of battle. .