10th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1918
The 10th Worcestershire, were holding a sector of the front line east of the Messines Ridge. On their right and left were the other two battalions of the 57th Brigade, the 8th Gloucestershire and the 10th Royal Warwickshire. The three battalions had been in the line for eight days, and relief was awaited; but on the morning of 9th April 1918 the thunder of guns to the southward and the subsequent news of the Portuguese debacle had brought a sense of imminent danger. The relief was cancelled and all possible preparations were made to meet the threatened attack.
The preparations possible were sadly inadequate. The three weak battalions of the 57th Brigade were covering a front of about 3,400 yards, extending from the River Wambeek on the north to the River Douve on the south. The front and the support lines of defence consisted of isolated posts, neither strong enough nor sufficiently well manned to ensure a long resistance. The reserve line was somewhat stronger, but even that was only a line of half-completed redoubts, not yet connected by a continuous trench. Worse still, the wide front of the Brigade absorbed every platoon of the three weak battalions in the mere occupation of the defences, leaving no reserve available for counter-attack. The situation was ominous, but north of Armentieres the day of April 9th passed quietly enough, as also did the following night.
THE BATTLE OF MESSINES (1918)
Dawn of 10th April 1918 was shrouded in a thick white mist. The first light had hardly found a way through that mist when, at 5.30 a.m., a terrific barrage crashed down upon the defences of the 19th Division. For half-an-hour the storm raged! Then behind their curtain of bursting shells the German infantry came flooding forward.
On the front held by the 57th Brigade, the German attack was made by no fewer than thirteen battalions; two of which were "Stoss-trüppen"—picked fighting men specially trained. The dense waves of the attack poured forward in the mist, surged through the gaps between the defensive posts of the British battalions, and then flooded over the defences from flank and rear. There were many desperate struggles in the mist as the little groups of defenders fought back-to-back until finally overwhelmed.
The regimental officers went down fighting at the head of their men. After all the officers of the two forward Companies had fallen, Company-Sergeant-Major S. W. Brush and Company- Serge ant-Major F. Yeates took command and inspired the remnant of their men to resist as long as defence was possible. Sergeant B. King took command of his platoon after his officer had been killed, held up two successive attacks and then covered the withdrawal of the troops on either flank (C.S.M. Brush was awarded the M.C. and C.S.M. Yeates and Sgt. King were awarded the D.C.M.). Inspired by such leaders the platoons fought on, selling their lives at bitter cost.
Soon after half-past six the last defences of the forward zone had fallen, and the enemy came crowding up the slope through the fog to storm the reserve trenches of the Brigade. Those trenches had already suffered severely from the bombardment; but their garrisons held them desperately fighting to the last man against great odds. Eventually the sheer weight of the attack carried it forward. The grey wave swept over the reserve trenches, killing most.of the defenders arid breaking the line. The casualties of the 10th Worcestershire Regiment on April 10th included: Killed—Lieut. W. A. Beaman and 2/Lieut. H. J. Luckman. Missing—Capt. G. M. I. Blackburne, Capt. A. M. Dickinson and 2/Lieut. P. E. Thompson. Wounded—Capt. L. H. Salmon, Lieut. T. Bishop, Lieut. W. J. F. Heap, 2/Lieut. H. Bryant, 2/Lieut. C. J. Cullis.
The survivors of the three battalions fell back as best they could through the mist up the slope to the crest of the Ridge. On the right flank a remnant of the 8th Gloucestershire turned to bay among the ruins of Messines: on the left flank a few detachments of the 10th Royal Warwickshire took up a position near the cross-roads east of Wytschaete: in the centre of the-Brigade line some fifty leaderless soldiers of the 10th Worcestershire made their way up to the high ground south of Pick House.
At the summit of the Ridge those hunted stragglers met an unexpected reinforcement. A British field battery, "A" Battery of the 88th Brigade R.F.A., had originally been in action on the reverse slope south-west of Pick House. Warned by the bombardment and knowing the weakness of the line east of the Ridge, the battery commander, Captain E. S. Dougall, M.C., had boldly run his guns forward on to the crest of the high ground, to give close support to the troops in front. The sight of the ordered battery rallied the retreating soldiers. They closed in on the guns, turned about and threw themselves down in some dismantled trenches on either flank. Captain Dougall took command of the little force, lent them his battery Lewis-guns, armed his spare gunners with rifles and sent them to aid the defence.
The pursuing Germans came stumbling up the slopes through the mist. The guns blazed out over open sights at point-blank range. The stricken enemy fell back, reorganised and moved to encircle the battery; but the survivors of the 10th Worcestershire opened, rapid fire, and the advance was checked. The mist, which hitherto had crippled the defence, now proved their salvation, veiling the battery from the enemy's overwhelming artillery. No shells struck near them, although the battery position was soon swept by the fire of the enemy's rifles and machine-guns.
Despite the bullets the gunner captain walked about as though on parade and calmly gave his orders. "So long as you stick to these trenches I will keep my guns here," he said to the Worcestershire lads; and thus encouraged they held firm. Attack after attack was repulsed. At that short range the effect of the gun-fire was very great, and the attacking enemy hung back, waiting for reinforcements or for the mist to lift; but providentially the mist hung low along the Ridge during the whole of that dull day. The morning passed, noon passed, afternoon drew on towards evening, and still that lone battery and its little group of supporters held the crest of the Messines Ridge.
Behind them a new line of defence was being formed with desperate haste. Attempts at counter-attack were organised; but the forces available were not sufficient to achieve success. At Wytschaete the South African Brigade drove back the enemy and secured the position which the 10th Royal Warwickshire had maintained. Further south the advancing enemy poured forward along the valley of the Douve into Ploegsteert Wood.
That advance made it necessary to recall Captain Dougall's battery from its position, lest the enemy to the southward should take it in flank and rear. Wytschaete village was securely held, and a new line had been established from that village southward to Wulverghem. The crest of the Messines Ridge could safely be relinquished.
Dusk closed in and orders came to withdraw. The guns of Captain Dougall's battery were manhandled out of their position and down the shell-torn slopes. The survivors of the 10th Worcestershire covered and aided that withdrawal till the guns had been worked back to the road behind. Then the battery limbered up and rumbled off into the darkness, and the little party of tired foot soldiers tramped away to search for the Headquarters of their Battalion. Characteristically, the only reference they made to their fight was to explain their absence to Colonel Sole by saying that "they had been with some guns all day." The episode would have been unrecorded but that Capt. Dougall's fine defence actually saved the 19th Division from destruction, and consequently was specially mentioned in the Divisional Report on the operations. The account here given is based on that Report, checked by the War Diaries of the flanking units. Captain Dougall was awarded the Victoria Cross. Unfortunately he was killed a few days later (14th April 1918 near Kemmel); and, in view of the heavy fighting and continuous losses of the following weeks, there seems to be little hope now of learning the identity of any of those brave men who, under his command, so well maintained the honour of the Regiment.
Captain Eric Stuart Dougall, V.C., M.C.
Lieut-Colonel D.M.A. Sole
Battalion Headquarters of the 10th Worcestershire had escaped by good fortune from the general destruction. Colonel Sole and his immediate following had fought their way out through the surrounding enemy when the reserve trenches were overwhelmed. The little group made their way back, and took an active part in the organisation of the new defences behind the Ridge. As we have told, those defences consisted of a line running southwards from Wytschaete to the outskirts of Wulverghem. The work of entrenchment was covered by the unexpected stand of Captain Dougall's little force and by a gallant counter-attack against Messines made by two companies of the 8th North Staffordshire. The remaining two companies of that battalion were held back to defend the new trenches; which were known thenceforward as "the Wulverghem Line."
Presently the North Staffordshire were joined by a reinforcement of 700 men, a draft sent up from the base for the three battalions of the 57th Brigade. Those new arrivals were for the most part young troops, untried and half-trained. They had just arrived from England and were now thrown at once into a losing battle; but they bore themselves manfully enough, and, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel R. B. Umfreville, of the 8th Gloucestershire (but formerly of the Worcestershire), they held most of .the "Wulverghem Line" until darkness fell.
Before dawn (April 11th) came further reinforcements, a Brigade (The 108th Brigade) of the 36th (Ulster) Division. The Ulstermen relieved the 8th North Staffordshire on the slope near Messines; and such officers and men as still survived of the three battalions of the 57th Brigade found their way back to trenches in reserve. There the newly arrived draft joined the Battalion, and were organised, together with the survivors of the original companies, into six temporary platoons.
Throughout April 11th those six Worcestershire platoons held trenches in the "Wulverghem Line," while away to their right heavy fighting raged round Ploegsteert Wood and Hill 63. By nightfall it was definitely known that Hill 63 was lost. From the lost hill the enemy would have been able to take the positions at Messines in reverse; so orders were issued for the Ulstermen and the South Africans to withdraw to the "Wulverghem Line." They came back after dark, and the shattered battalions of the 57th Brigade were then ordered further back into reserve. The 10th Worcestershire were placed in position in reserve trenches between Lindenhoek and Daylight Corner (Those trenches were part of the half-completed "Army Line"). The Battalion remained in that position throughout the following day (April 12th). The enemy's artillery shelled the trenches intermittently; but no attack was made that day against the front of the 19th Division.
THIS PAGE IS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION