2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1915
On 29th December 1914, the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment Headquarters were moved into the cellar of, a shattered cottage near the line but next day another move had to be made, back into a small farm near Richebourg l'Avoné. On 30th December 1914, the Commanding Officer, Major Hankey, was wounded, and Major G. W. St. G. Grogan took over command of the Battalion.
The wretched trenches of the 2nd Battalion were badly punished by enemy bombardment on New Year's Day. To guard against surprise while the parapets were repaired, small listening posts were sent forward that evening into No Man's Land. One of those posts was seen, and received a heavy fire. The sergeant in charge was severely wounded. At the risk of his own life Corporal G. Tibbetts brought the wounded sergeant back to safety, Corporal Tibbetts was awarded the D.C.M. for his brave actions.
Next evening the 2nd Worcestershire were relieved by the 2nd H.L.I., this was the first of a long series of trench reliefs between these two Battalions, and marched back into reserve in billets at Richebourg St. Vaast. The rest was short. Three days later the Battalion returned to the same trenches, and in bitter cold and slush took up once more the thankless task of improving the defences. Frost and rain were doing their work only too well: everywhere the parapets were collapsing and the communication trenches were falling in. All work had to be done under a constant sniping fire and casualties were frequent.
Major G. W. St. G. Grogan
Captain E. L. Bowring
On the 6th January 1915 the new Commanding Officer, Major G. W. St. G. Grogan, was severely wounded and the command of the Battalion devolved on Captain E. L. Bowring. Next day the enemy's guns added their fire to that of the snipers and increased the difficulty of work in the flooded trenches. "During the night," recorded the Battalion Diary, "the trenches of 'B' and 'D' Companies fell in in several places."
That night came relief. It had been decided that the 5th Brigade should be withdrawn to rest and that their places should be taken by the 4th (Guards) Brigade. After dark the Irish Guards arrived in relief, marching up by platoons across the open, for the communication trenches were impassable.
The Worcestershire extracted themselves as best they could from the mud and frozen water, and struggled back by companies to Richebourg St. Vaast.
Thence the Battalion marched westwards through Lacouture for a weeks rest in Corps Reserve billets at Vieille Chapelle.
During January the weather steadily grew worse. Though the 2nd Battalion in reserve billets at Vieille Chapelle or at Gorre did not experience the worst of the ordeal.
Between the 9th-20th January the Battalion were in billets first at Vieille Chapelle and then at Gorre. During that period some reinforcements arrived, including Lieut. G. E. McClellan and 2/Lieuts. W. L. Smith, R. F. Barker and E. P. Bennett. These last three officers were the first to come to the Regiment from the Artists Rifles; which corps had now assumed its invaluable role of training officers for the Line. All three were destined to make a name for themselves with the Battalion.
After a fortnight in reserve the 5th Brigade took over the defences at Festubert. There, as in the line further north, the original trenches had been flooded out, and the defending troops had been forced to shelter behind the parados, which had been built up with sandbags to form raised breastworks. On January 20th the 2nd Worcestershire relieved the 2nd H.L.I. in the breastworks at Festubert, and thence onwards until the end of February the two battalions relieved each other alternately in the same line.
On January 25th the enemy attacked the defences of Givenchy on the right flank of the Battalion; but no attack developed against the front of the 2nd Worcestershire, and the bombardment, although severe, fortunately caused no loss. Apart from that attack there was no engagement of importance, but all ranks were kept on the alert by the normal incidents of trench warfare in the breastworks. The breastworks were constructed mainly of sandbags and provided fair cover from rifle-fire. Shells would easily have destroyed the flimsy defences; but by a sort of tacit agreement the opposing artilleries did not bombard the sandbag walls. A constant sniping fire was kept up between the lines, but the energies of the defending troops were mostly expended on the repair of the breastworks, which constantly collapsed owing to the frost and the incessant rain.
The low ground was intersected by dykes, which made a continuous line impossible; and to pass from one isolated breastwork to another during daylight entailed a perilous rush across the intervening gap. All communication trenches were impassable, and relief could only be effected at night.
Save for the usual incidents and casualties of trench warfare no great event took place. The Battalion gradually increased in strength as successive drafts arrived.
One incident deserves special record. On January 28th, a faulty British shell burst in one of the Battalions breastworks, wounding severely a man of 'D' Company. Word of the casualty was signalled back. The breastwork was isolated, and it appeared impossible to get the wounded man back before dark. Two of the battalion stretcher-bearers, Lance-Corporal Chance and another, on their own initiative went forward to the breastwork with a stretcher across the open in full view of the opposing line. To the credit of our enemies it must be recorded that no shot was fired at the two stretcher-bearers, and that firing was not resumed until they had carried the wounded man into safety.
Between the 20th to 29th January the 2nd Worcestershire suffered no casualties.
On February 4th Major (afterwards Lieut.-Colonel) G. C. Lambton, D.S.O. arrived and took over command.
Between the 6th-14th February the Battalion suffered 1 officer killed, 2/Lieut. Leonard Basil Hardy, who was killed on the 11th February. Between February 22nd-25th, the Battalion suffered 1 killed and 7 wounded.
When out of the Line, the 2nd Worcestershire men were billetted as follows, January 29th—February 6th—February 14th-22nd Les Choquants. On February 21st, the Battalion was cheered by the publication of the honours and rewards for the Ypres battles (In recognition of the gallantry shown at Polygon Wood and Gheluvelt, the following awards were made:—Major E. B. Hankey to be Brevet Lieut.-Colonel, Captain B. C. Senhouse Clarke to be Brevet Major, Captain E. L. Bowring, the D.S.O., and the M.C. to Captain R. J. Ford, Lieut. G. A. Slaughter and Lieut. E. W. Carrington, R.A.M.C.).
At the end of February it was decided to readjust the line, and to shift the 2nd Division further south to the trenches by the La Bassée canal. On February 25th the 2nd Worcestershire were relieved by a battalion of the 1st Division and marched back southwards to billets in the historic old town of Bethune.
Three days later the Battalion marched eastward out of Bethune to the trenches near Cuinchy, and there relieved the 2nd Coldstream Guards. On their way up to the line the Worcestershire filed along a communication trench—the first communication trench of any size that the Battalion had seen. That communication trench had been dug by the Guards, and christened "Coldstream Lane." It was wide and deep, and had been well made, with the thorough workmanship which thenceforward came to be expected of all work done by the Guards. The feeling of security given to that relief was notable to troops accustomed to perilous reliefs across the open.
Major G. C. Lambton, D.S.O.
The new trenches were very different to the line previously held. The trenches were dry and deep, running in a curious tangle among brickstacks and railway sidings. But the absence of physical discomfort was counterbalanced by greater hostile activity. The trenches were frequently bombarded and a constant sniping fire compelled all to keep their heads below the parapet.
Even with that precaution the new trenches were not safe: for a new peril made its appearance. On one bright peaceful morning (one of the first days of March) the sentries standing at their loopholes heard a small report and saw a dark object "like a large whiskey bottle" shoot upwards from the German trenches. It fell slowly, twisting and turning over and over in the air, and burst with a crash as it struck the ground. Another followed and another. For the first time the Battalion was meeting the German "minenwerfer."
Thenceforward there was no more peace of mind in the front-line trenches. The deepest trench and the strongest parapet no longer provided secure protection. Men cleaning rifles or broiling bacon did so with an eye cocked upwards lest one of those dark twirling objects should fall on them unawares. It became necessary to hold the front line more lightly, to organise successive lines of defence in rear and to concentrate on the construction of stronger and deeper dugouts. Amid such activities the 2nd Worcestershire and the 2nd H.L.I. alternately held the Cuinchy trenches during the early days of March. The two battalions relieved each other every three days. When out of the Line the 2nd Worcestershire were billetted on March 3rd to 6th at Annequin, and thereafter on each occasion in Bethune.
THE ATTACK ON GIVENCHY
On the front of the 2nd Division the attack was delivered on March 10th by the 6th Brigade along the northern bank of the La Bassée Canal. The 2nd Worcestershire, in the trenches on the southern bank of the canal, did not actually take part in the attack. Nevertheless it was an exciting day.
The artillery bombardment opened at 7.30 a.m. There was no wind, and the smoke of each bursting shell shot up in a great mushroom which hung in the still air until, for miles to right and left, the German line was overhung by a pall of multi-coloured smoke clouds, grey, yellow, brown and pink, stabbed by the white fleecy balls of our shrapnel. At 8.05 a.m. the bombardment increased to intensity. Five minutes later the guns lifted their fire and the battalions of the 6th Brigade north of the Canal advanced to the attack. Meanwhile to the southward the French had exploded a mine at 7.30 a.m. and to the eastward the village of Fournes was set on fire by bombs from British aeroplanes.
The forward platoons of the 2nd Worcestershire did their best to assist the attack by opening bursts of rapid fire; and all stood to arms in the trenches awaiting orders, under a severe bombardment. But the attack of the 6th Brigade failed to break the enemy's defences. Presently the firing died down, and all were relieved to find that the enemy's shell-fire had inflicted but few casualties on the Battalion (OAP killed, one sergeant and four privates wounded). Just before midnight the 2nd Worcestershire were relieved by the 2nd H.L.I. and marched back without further incident to billets in Bethune.
On the Messines front, however, the subsidiary attack was to have a grimmer issue for the Regiment. The attack of the 3rd Division was made on March 12th by the 7th Brigade—with disastrous results.
Further south the 2nd Battalion passed an equally quiet time. After the battle of Neuve Chapelle the front of the 2nd Division was altered, and the 5th Brigade was ordered to take over
once more the defences of Festubert. The breastworks there had been but little damaged during the recent fighting and in the fine spring weather that part of the line was no longer so unpleasant as before. It was possible for battalions to be kept longer in front line than during the winter and seven days became the normal tour. The Battalion remained in the Festubert sector until the middle of April, shelled intermittently but suffering little loss.
The Battalion was in the front-line March 22nd-30th and April 7th-15th. From March 30th to April 7th Battalion was billetted in Essars, and after April 15th in Bethune.
Casualties suffered by the 2nd Worcestershire were — March 22nd to 30th nil casualties. On March 25th, Lieut. Eric Robert Meade Odling, Royal Engineers., was killed while working in the front line. On March 29th, the Battn. Dressing Station was hit, and the Medical Officer, Lieut. A. M. Smith, R.A.M.C. was severely wounded. April 6th-16th, 3 killed (Private William Brown  and Private Ernest John Hutchins  killed on the 6th and Private Joseph Richards  on the 13th), 8 wounded.
It was now widely known that a new offensive was in preparation. In co-operation, with the French to the southward, the British First Army was to strike on a wide front and drive back the enemy from his positions. The 2nd Division was intended as general reserve to the new attack and the troops of the Division, including the 2nd Worcestershire were exercised in the tactics of open warfare. The 2nd Worcestershire lay in billets at Bethune from April 15th till May 3rd, training and refitting. During that period three drafts were received, totalling 130 N.C.O's. and men, with 2/Lieuts. N. Temple and D. L.
That training lasted for a week, and then the 5th Brigade received orders again to take over the Cuinchy sector. There mine-warfare was in active progress. The 2nd Worcestershire took over a section of the front line on the evening of the 3rd May and next morning detected signs of a mine being driven against their line. Arrangements were made, the troops were withdrawn from the front-line trenches, and British howitzers shelled the suspected ground. The result was seen when at dawn on the following morning (May 5th) a mine exploded at that very spot, just in front of the Battalion line and within fifty yards of the front trench. A huge crater was made some 15 feet deep and 20 yards across—and the experts calculated that 4,000 lbs. of explosive must have been used. Had not the previous days shelling caused the enemy to explode the mine prematurely much loss must have been caused; as it was, the casualties from the explosion totalled no more than 1 killed (Private James Kirby ) and 13 wounded. In spite of heavy enemy shell fire during the rest of the day, no attack took place; but for the next two days there was a sharp interchange of rifle shots and bombs while both sides drove sapheads towards the new crater.
Throughout that day of battle the 2nd Worcestershire, together with the other battalions of the 5th Brigade, had lain at Loisne, in reserve to the attack of the 7th Division from the Rue du Bois, south of Neuve Chapelle. During the day the guns thundered continuously, and three or four big shells struck near the Battalion. Presently came news that the attack in front was held up, then definitely that it had failed. At sunset that evening came orders to move forward to the line.
The Brigade moved forward at 9 p.m., and after a long and trying night march reached the battle front near the Rue du Bois. An intermittent bombardment still continued. With great difficulty the companies made their way forward through a congestion of disordered troops and many wounded. Eventually the Brigade formed up (the Battalion got into position about 4 a.m.) for attack behind breastworks on the Rue du Bois. Orders were that the attack should be made at 11 a.m. that morning, but subsequently those orders were cancelled and the Brigade was ordered back into billets in Richebourg St. Vaast. In that neighbourhood the 2nd Worcestershire remained for the next few days, several times changing position and suffering a few casualties from the continual shell-fire (May 10th, 3 wounded and May 11th, 3 wounded).
The failure of ,the attack on May 9th had demonstrated how hopeless was an assault in daylight against defences which had not been broken by artillery fire. British Headquarters, impelled to continue the offensive lest the French, now fighting hard to the southward, should be left unsupported, decided on an attack by night.
Orders were issued for the renewed attack to be made on May 14th but afterwards the attack was postponed for a further twenty-four hours.
THE BATTLE OF FESTUBERT
On the evening of May 14th the 2nd Worcestershire took over the frontage allotted to them for the attack with two companies, the other two companies being billetted in close support. On the left of the Worcestershire lay battalions of the Indian Corps which were to attack simultaneously. On the right of the Worcestershire were the 2nd Inniskilling Fusiliers. Further to the southward the attacking line was continued by the 6th Brigade and the 7th Division, past Festubert to the outskirts of Givenchy.
The Inniskilling were to attack astride a cinder track which runs eastward from the Rue du Bois. The frontage allotted to the Worcestershire was some 320 yards; the right flank of the Battalion being about a hundred yards north of the cinder track.
Elaborate preparations were made for distinguishing marks, flares, and signals, and a large working party of the Glasgow Highlanders were attached to the Battalion. Orders were that the assault, timed to commence at 11.30 p.m., was to be made in absolute silence and at a walk until the enemy's line was approached; then the hostile trenches were to be rushed and the defenders bayonetted.
Such were the plans. The night was dark and close. At about 10 p.m. movement was begun, and the two companies in front line ('B' and 'D') began to clamber out of the trenches and lie down in front of the parapets. Covered "sally-ports" had previously been cut in the parapets, but in many cases these proved too narrow for equipped men in the darkness, and the troops had to climb out "over the top." That deployment for the attack was difficult in the darkness and was effected very slowly. Not until 11.15 was all ready.
The strain of that midnight deployment was great, and no adequate arrangements had been made between the different units for a simultaneous assault ("Synchronisation of watches" had not then been instituted). The watches of the Worcestershire officers were still several minutes short of the "zero" hour- 11.30 p.m.—when suddenly the Inniskilling companies on the right flank rose to their feet and with a chorus of wild Irish yells, charged forward through the darkness.
At once illuminating flares shot upwards all along the German line and a storm of fire was opened. Through that fire the Inniskilling companies dashed onward to the German parapets. The Worcestershire companies rose to their feet and plunged forward through the mud.
Festubert (Northern Section) attack on the night 15/16th May 1915
Surprise was now impossible. The German flares lit up the scene and the companies had some two hundred yards to traverse before they could close with the enemy. In the changing light of the flares control was difficult. Companies and platoons became disordered: officers and men fell in rapid succession under a hail of bullets: the survivors rushed onward in little groups up to the German wire entanglements.
Lieut. J. G. McCormick led one gallant group which struggled to find a gap in the wire. The brave subaltern was struck down mortally wounded, but his men charged onward and stormed the parapet. Lance-Sergeant T. V. Churches and one private soldier fought their way into the trench, killing two of the enemy. Then they paused and looked around. They were alone: all who had followed had been shot down.
The young sergeant decided that he and his one supporter must bomb outwards along the trench. They separated and the sergeant advanced alone along the trench to his right. He had not gone far when a shell burst on the parapet and struck him down. Badly wounded, he worked his way out of the trench and crawled back into "No Man's Land," where he was presently found and assisted back to the British lines. Lance-Sergt. Churches was awarded the D.C.M.
Others of the Battalion may possibly have reached the German trenches but only that one N.C.O. survived to tell. The majority of the attackers were either shot down or were driven by the fire to shelter in such cover as was afforded by shell holes or small folds in the ground.
'C' Company climbed out over the parapets to reinforce the attack and efforts were made to organise a fresh assault. But everything was in confusion and under that intense fire it was impossible to reorganise. It became clear that the attack had failed; but it was impossible to report the situation, for the communication trenches were blocked with wounded and the telephone communication with Brigade H.Q. had broken down. Colonel Lambton decided that the attack must be abandoned and gave orders for the survivors to be withdrawn behind the breastworks.
It was one thing to give the orders and another to obtain compliance. Almost without exception, such officers and men as were still unwounded refused to come back, and remained in the open, tending the wounded and searching for the lost, until the full light of dawn made further effort impossible. Captain P. S. G. Wainman and Captain C. L. Armitage directed the reorganisation, ably assisted by Sergeant W. Plant and Sergeant R. Baldwin. The Battalion stretcher-bearers, headed by Lance-Corporals A. S. Saveall and W. J. Startin and by Bandsman S. F. Leigh, were conspicuous in their devotion, and by their bravery many lives were saved. Lance-Corporals Saveall and Startin were awarded the D.C.M. Captain C. L. Armitage, who showed great bravery throughout the fight, was subsequently awarded the D.S.O.
Not until dawn was it possible to take stock of the general situation. Then as the survivors of the attack were reassembled behind cover, it was found that, although the enemy's trenches in front of the Battalion were uncaptured, the Inniskilling on the right had secured the German front line south of the cinder track.
As morning broke the artillery of both sides opened a fierce bombardment, and the troops in the congested front line suffered severely. Orders came that the survivors of the 2nd Worcestershire were to withdraw into reserve. The Glasgow Highlanders took over the forward trenches, and the Worcestershire platoons made their way back as best they could to billets behind the line. When all were collected it was found that over 250 of all ranks had been lost. The casualties as reported were 2 officers (Lieut. J. G. McCormick and Lieut. A. W. H. Scott) and 24 other ranks killed, 3 officers (2/Lieuts. L. H. Tosswill, C. J. Hart and N. Temple) and 95 other ranks wounded. In addition 127 were reported missing; nearly all of these latter were certainly killed in front of the German parapet.
Throughout the rest of the day the 2nd Worcestershire lay in reserve, in drenching rain and under continuous shell-fire. Then, on the morning of May 17th, came orders again to move forward to the reserve breastworks and thence to follow up the attack of the Glasgow Highlanders. For over two hours that morning, from 8 a.m. till 10.30 a.m., the line held by the Battalion was pounded by the enemy's heavy howitzers. At several points the breastworks were blown in, and some twenty of the Battalion were killed or wounded. Two companies moved up to the front line at 10.30 a.m. when the Glasgow Highlanders attempted an attack; but the assault failed, and no progress was made, in spite of much hard fighting on the right of the 5th Brigade front. There, in the trenches captured by the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 2nd Oxford and Bucks L.I. carried on a swaying fight at close quarters, and to aid that battalion two machine-guns of the 2nd Worcestershire were sent forward under Lieut. F. C. F. Biscoe.
Lieut. Frederick Crozier Fraser Biscoe
That machine-gun detachment became involved in desperate fighting. Lieut. Biscoe was killed and the command devolved on Corporal Pugh, who continued the fight until only two men of his detachment were left standing. At the same time that Lieut. Biscoe was struck, Private E. Greenwood of his detachment was severely wounded. Despite his wound Pte. Greenwood refused to leave his machine-gun, and not till he had ensured its safety would he allow his wound to be dressed. His bravery was rewarded with the D.C. M. On hearing of the death of Lieut. Biscoe the other subaltern of the Battalion machine-gunners, 2/Lieut. R. F. Barker, went forward and took command. 2/Lieut. Barker and the three machine-gunners continued to fight the two machine-guns throughout the day.
In the old front line, the other two machine-guns of the 2nd Worcestershire were kept in action despite the enemy's bombardment, by the gallantry and ability of Sergeant E. Welch who was awarded the D.C.M. for his brave actions.
Throughout the day the enemy's shell-fire continued, causing heavy casualties in the crowded breastworks. Total casualties of the 2nd Worcestershire during that day (17th May) were 91. At last came orders that the 5th Brigade was to be relieved by the Sirhind and Bareilly Brigades of the Indian Corps. During the ensuing night that relief was carried out. The 5th Brigade marched back to Le Touret and the tired troops reached billets at dawn (May 18th). On the following afternoon the Brigade moved westward into reserve to rest and refit. In four days fighting the casualties of the five battalions (2nd Worcestershire, 2nd Inniskilling, 2nd Oxford and Bucks L.I., 2nd H.L.I., and Glasgow Highlanders) had totalled nearly 2,000.
The battle of Festubert continued for yet another week, but neither the 1st nor the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment took any active part. In the afternoon of May 18th the 5th Brigade marched to the Hinges area, and the 2nd Worcestershire found billets at Les Harrisoirs. On the 19th the Brigade moved still further back, to the area around Lillers. The Battalion settled into billets at Ecquedeoques and remained there for ten days, resting and training.
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