3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1918-1919
THE BATTLES OF THE LYS
The first phrase of the Lys Battles, April 9th—11th of 1918, has been designated officially " The Battle of Estaires."
The sound of heavy gun-fire, distant as yet but ominously prolonged, roused the 3rd Worcestershire in their camp at dawn on April 9th. Presently rumours came running round: the Portuguese were being attacked. Rumours and reports became more numerous, more definite: the Portuguese line was broken: the Portuguese were in retreat.
Not until 11.0 a.m. did definite news to that effect reach even the Headquarters of the 25th Division, and it was past midday when an urgent message came to the Division from IXth Corps Headquarters; the line south of the Lys was giving way; to assist in its defence the reserve of the 25th Division, the 74th Brigade, would move at once southwards to Steenwerck and would be placed at the disposal of the XVth Corps. That order reached the 3rd Worcestershire at 12.45 p.m., just as the troops dinners were being issued. The meal was hastily bolted, equipment was donned and spare ammunition issued, and at 1.30 p.m. the Battalion moved off southwards to the appointed assembly-position of the 74th Brigade at Steenwerck.
By 3.30 p.m. the three battalions of the Brigade had assembled at the rendezvous, just north of Steenwerck: the situation was explained and orders were issued.
The enemy, it appeared, had routed the Portuguese and were advancing north-westward towards the crossings over the River Lys between Armentieres and Estaires; there were three main crossings, respectively at Erquinghem, Bac-St-Maur, and Sailly-sur-la-Lys.Already it was reported that the enemy's advanced troops had reached Bac-St-Maur. The 74th Brigade would advance at once to drive back the German vanguards and to establish a line along the river to cover the three crossings: the 9th Loyal North Lancashire would occupy the river bank from Sailly to Bac-St-Maur, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers from Bac-St-Maur to the river bend near L'Hallobeau, and the 3rd Worcestershire from L'Hallobeau to Erquinghem.
To reach those positions the three battalions would march south forthwith, the 9th Loyals by the road through Pont Vanuxeem arid La Boudrelle.the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers by Le Sequemeau and Croix-du-Bac, and the 3rd Worcestershire by the road that leads to L'Hallobeau.
Forward the three battalions marched accordingly, each down its separate road. The country was absolutely flat with strong hedges, and it was difficult to see a hundred yards. Advancing as swiftly as was compatible with caution, the 3rd Worcestershire soon encountered a retreating stream of wounded and stragglers from the 40th Division. The enemy, they said, were at hand. Presently from the front and from the right was heard the dry stammer of machine-gun fire. Bullets began to strike across the road as the head of the Battalion reached L'Hallobeau, and it were clear that the enemy were in strength around Croix-du-Bac; but no hostile force barred the advance of the 3rd Worcestershire, and the Battalion pushed on southwards past L'Hallobeau to the river bank,andthere established a defensive line as ordered,from the river bend to the bridge at Erquinghem. At that bridge the left flank of the Battalion gained touch with troops of the 34th Division. "A", "B" and "C" Companies held the front line along the bank. Battalion Headquarters were established in L'Hallobeau, and "D" Company was kept in hand as a reserve.
It was dark before that position was secure, and meanwhile the reports and the flashes of continuous firing around the houses and orchards further to the right showed that the enemy's advanced-guard had not yet been driven out of Croix-du-Bac. The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers had, in fact, been held up on the northern outskirts of that village. Further to the right, the 9th Loyals had reached the southern outskirts of La Boudrelle but could progress no further in face of machinegun fire.
It was clear that the enemy must be driven back across the river as soon as possible; the longer the delay the stronger they would-become. Croix-du-Bac must be stormed and, to assist in that attack, "D" Company of the 3rd Worcestershire were ordered off to the right at 7.0 p.m. to support the Lancashire Fusiliers. Thus reinforced, the Fusiliers attacked again at 2.0 a.m. that night and fought their way through the village, reaching a half-made fortification called "Suffolk Post" some distance south of the houses. At the same time the 9th Loyals gained ground towards the Pont de la Boudrelle, while on the left flank of the Brigade the right company of the 3rd Worcestershire pushed forward unopposed and occupied "Berkshire Post". "Berkshire Post" and "Suffolk Post" were part of half-completed reserve line of trenches—the "Army Line", corresponding to the "Green Line" further south.
The night was without a moon, dark and misty. Either parties of the enemy must have remained in Croix-du-Bac when the Lancashire men pushed through in the darkness, or else fresh German troops found their way during the night through the gaps in the thinly-held line; for at dawn (6.15 a.m.) on April 10th, fighting commenced again around Croix-du-Bac, and the posts of the Lancashire Fusiliers were attacked from the rear. As daylight grew the fighting spread further to the right, where troops of the 34th Division had come into line on the far side of the Stilbecque stream.
The reserve companies of the 74th Brigade were put into the fight in a last effort to drive the enemy back to the river. Their impetus carried the fighting line forward, and good progress was being made when, shortly before 10.0 a.m., the Germans were heavily reinforced. A strong force of the enemy advanced northwards across the river at Bac-St-Maur and attacked the Lancashire Fusiliers, forcing them out of Croix-du-Bac. The remnant of the Fusiliers fell back to Le Sequemeau. Orders were hastily sent to the 3rd Worcestershire to wheel back into line with them and to hold
the ground between that village and L'Hallobeau.
The Worcestershire companies were warned at once and moved back into the new position as swiftly as was possible. They arrived and deployed just in time. From Croix-du-Bac the enemy advanced in great force towards Le Sequemeau, but the 3rd Worcestershire were able to meet that attack from their new position with a fierce fire of musketry. Great numbers of the enemy were shot down and the attack was stopped dead.
But though the enemy had been checked on the left flank of the 74th Brigade, the position on the right flank was critical. There the 9th Loyals had been forced back to Pont Vanuxeem. Their remnant was holding on with difficulty, while further to the right the enemy were forcing back the troops of the 34th Division on the western bank of the Stilbecque. Shortly after 1.0 p.m. the advancing enemy were close to Le Kirkem, and the defenders of Pont Vanuxeem were almost surrounded.
About 2.0 p.m. the enemy again debouched from Croix-du-Bac and advanced to the attack. The 3rd Worcestershire, who so far had suffered little, again stopped the attack on their front; but on the right flank of the Brigade the enemy broke through the brave survivors of the Loyals and Lancashire Fusiliers and drove them back to Steenwerck. In the streets of that village the remnant of the Lancashire Fusiliers put up a desperate fight, headed by their Commanding Officer, Colonel Martin. Eventually they were overcome, Colonel Martin being among those lost; but their stand had given time for the Brigade to organise a last defensive line along the road which runs east and west across the Stilbecque, north of Steenwerck village.
No orders to retire had reached the 3rd Worcestershire, but retreat was inevitable. Major Traill gave orders for retirement and the Battalion withdrew to the northward. The Worcestershire companies moved across country, unmolested save by random bullets, and eventually took up a position on the left of the new defensive line. The platoons extended and lined the railway embankment, facing south-west towards Steenwerck. A sapper Field Company of the 34th Division was deployed on the northern side of the railway, facing south-east, for it was rumoured that Armentieres had fallen. The right flank of the sappers was in touch with the left flank of the 3rd Worcestershire and the point of junction thus formed the angle of a sharp salient. From every side, west, east, and south, came the sound of heavy firing. None of it, however, was very near at hand, and as darkness fell the troops, weary after twenty-four hours of continuous operations, dozed off over their rifles.
Suddenly in upon the angle formed by the left flank of the 3rd Worcestershire there dashed a strong force of the enemy who had crept forward in the gathering darkness along the railway embankment from Trois Arbres. A wild fight followed up and down the railway line until the enemy, coming on in great numbers, planted machine-guns on the embankment and raked the position of the Battalion from end to end. Under that fire it became impossible to remain on the embankment, and the platoons fell back to shelter near the railway station. There the companies were rallied and reorganised. Major Traill then decided to wheel back into line with some fresh troops who could dimly be seen entrenching on the rising ground two hundred yards in rear. Accordingly the 3rd Worcestershire moved back through the dusk, under a harassing fire, across the open
towards the trenches of the troops behind.
"Who are you ?" was shouted from the trenches as the stumbling platoons came within hailing distance. " Worcesters," answered the young soldiers of the 3rd Battalion. "What do you mean ?" called an officer in the trench, "We are the Worcestershire." It was the 4th Battalion of the Regiment.
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