Triumph and Disaster – Autumn 1917

RFCA Volunteer Magazine Issue No 112 – Spring 2018

Battle of the Menin Road Ridge 20 Sept 1917: Walking and stretcher-case wounded of Australian divisions on the Menin Road after the battle [IWM E (AUS) 711]

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same ... [‘If -’, Rudyard Kipling, 1910]

 Ian Riley, Liverpool Scottish Museum Trust

The previous article looked at three of the Lancashire Territorial Force (TF) divisions, the 42nd, 57th and 66th to the end of 1917. Here we look back slightly to follow the story of the 55th (West Lancs) Division in September 1917 with its success in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge [Passchendaele] and the very serious setback at Epèhy (south of Cambrai) in November 1917, a problem not of its own making.

At the end of July 1917, the 55th (West Lancashire) Division fought at Pilckem Ridge, the start of the ‘Passchendaele campaign, when two of three divisional objectives were secured. However, 164 Infantry Brigade became virtually non-effective through massive counter-attacks by reserve [Eingreif] divisions held back for that purpose. 55th Division moved 40 miles behind the front for re-equipping and retraining. Time was spent analysing new German defensive tactics that relied on improvising shell holes and groups of pill boxes with a lightly held front line absorbing the shock of an attack, allowing well-prepared counter-attack by fresh troops. There were repeated exercises up to divisional level. The historian of 1/5 KORLR wrote:

A Brigade tactical scheme … took place … on 30 August, the Divisional Commander and the Corps Commander being present. The scheme was to devise some method of dealing with the new German defence in shell holes and “pillboxes”. [Hodgkinson, History of 1/5 KORLR]

The battalion war diary later recorded that:

 The main object of [another] exercise being to practice the Brigade in attacking a number of isolated strong points and defending shell holes rather than a line of trenches. [WD 1/5 KORLR 4 Sept 1917]

For this, the leadership and initiative of the platoon commander was vital as was that of his NCOs and, indeed, of individual soldiers. This exposed serious weaknesses in the skills of under-trained and inexperienced junior officers. The pamphlet SS-143 Instructions for Training of Platoons for Offensive Action (issued Spring 1917) had already addressed this issue. It became the platoon commander’s handbook and made them responsible for training their platoons. The responsibility of more senior officers was to train their platoon commanders, both in-house and using a huge network of courses and schools within the BEF.

Battle of Menin Road Ridge 20 Sept 1917: Australians pausing at the roadside near whilst bringing up material for barbed wire entanglements – Note the iron ‘silent pickets’ which screwed into the ground with loops for securing the wire [IWM E(AUS) 768]

By mid-September, the 55th Division was back to the same area that it had left at the beginning of August, NE of Ypres. Two unsuccessful attempts had meanwhile been made to recapture the original ‘Green Line’, the final objective from which 55th Division had been pushed back six weeks previously. Their aim was to capture virtually the same objective, still known as the ‘Green Line’ but confusingly (for us) apparently mapped in blue, in part along the road from Schuler Farm to Kansas Cross (see map – the colour may have changed over 100 years). ‘Supreme importance’ was laid on taking Hill 37 on the right of the divisional front. With an awareness of new German tactics, they brought some new tactics of their own. Previously they had attacked with two brigades side-by-side (‘two up’) onto initial objectives and then the third brigade passed through on a wide divisional front to tackle the final objective. Now, the 55th Division operated throughout the operation on an 1800 metres, two-brigade front, 165 Brigade on the right and 164 Brigade on the left. These two brigades each worked with two battalions forward and two in support but they were each reinforced by a battalion from the third brigade (166 Brigade) giving each a strength of five battalions. The ‘fifth battalion’ in the leading brigades was held slightly back to form an immediate brigade reserve that could be committed quickly to either reinforce an attack in progress or meet an immediate counter-attack or one of the more deliberate sort that might come from Eingreif divisions which were able to respond within ten hours or fewer. The two remaining battalions of 166 Brigade formed the divisional commander’s own reserve. Artillery tactics had been revised with the creeping barrage moving in 50 yard lifts rather than 100 yards, keeping attackers closer to the barrage with the rate of advance starting at 100 yards per four minutes but then slowing successively to six minutes and, finally, eight minutes allowing more time for consolidation. The ‘106’ proximity fuze in use for shells meant less churning of the ground and the decreased overall depth of attack meant that artillery support was more easily maintained.

Map of 55th Division ground NE of Ypres on 20 September 1917. The BLACK LINE is the German front line. The British front line is the BROWN DOTTED LINE running between Pond Farm and Spree Farm [55th Div GS War Diary TNA WO95-2903 annotated]

At 5.40 am on 20 September 1917, after a well-practised night deployment onto an ill-defined line of shell holes, the assault (with a total of 11 divisions involved) was launched through an punishing enemy artillery barrage on the assembly positions, the taped areas possibly having been spotted. On the right, 165 Bde immediately encountered heavy small arms fire from areas such as Gallipoli, Iberian and Hill 35. Follow-up battalions began to find themselves involved too early and two companies of the brigade’s ‘fifth’ battalion (1/5 LNLR) reinforced 1/6 KLR in an attack on Hill 37 that proved, at that stage (midday), unsuccessful. A co-ordinated attempt to ‘mop-up’ the ground taken was needed to allow troops, reinforced by divisional reserve companies of 1/5 SLR, to start a brigade attack on Hill 37. By around 5 pm this was captured but precariously held against large-scale counter-attacks. These were repelled but at 7.30 pm two companies of 1/10 KLR, also from divisional reserve, deployed near Hill 37 as a dedicated ‘counter-counter-attack’ force.

Every German strong point and concrete dug-out [was] garrisoned; a continuous trench was dug along the front with strong-points pushed out, numerous ‘supporting points’ were made and troops posted … to counterattack. Machine guns were posted [for] mutual support and to bring a heavy concentration of fire down in front of Hill 37 and all [undamaged] enemy machine guns were put into action by [infantry] specially trained in their operation [Coop – Story of the 55th Division]

On the left 165 Bde, with its ‘fifth battalion’ (1/5 KORLR) in rear, moved forward in two waves of two battalions each towards Schuler Galleries (a series of dugouts and shell hole positions bristling with machine guns), Hindu Cott and Aisne Farm. The hostile barrage caused battalions to become mixed and 1/4 LNLR following 1/4 KORLR paid a penalty for the failure of the latter battalion to ‘mop-up’ at Aisne Farm. The 2/5 LF and 1/8 KLR and reserves had to be committed before Schuler Galleries, a first objective, could be won but held only with difficulty. Large scale counter-attacks were broken up by artillery but after an 11 am conference of COs at Forward Brigade HQ at the height of the battle, three companies of the brigade’s ‘fifth battalion’ (1/5 KORLR) were sent forward as a precaution, demonstrating the intended use of reserves against counter-attack. The orders of the acting CO, Major Johnstone, to Capt Bennett (OC A Coy) were precise and unequivocal:

You will take command of A, C and D Companies. You will move forward to the RED DOTTED LINE and dig in. You will not commit your force unless the enemy attacks the YELLOW LINE. The GREEN LINE will not be held necessarily but if the enemy attack the YELLOW LINE, you will attack at once. The YELLOW LINE must be held at all costs [War Diary 1/5 KORLR – CO’s Narrative]

The award of medal ribbons in the field during February 1918 for gallantry in the Cambrai operations of November 1917 [Source unknown]

Such a conference at the height of the battle would have been almost impossible a year earlier on the Somme but now possible through better training and ‘battle procedure’ and improved, although still difficult, communication. Overall, the battle was successful.

Following the Menin Road Ridge battle, the 55th Division moved to the south of Cambrai just east of the villages of Epèhy and Villers Guislain. After hard work in training and improving shambolic defences, the division supported the highly successful, eight-mile wide attack at Cambrai on 20 November 1917. Famous for the first massed use of tanks, it was equally significant because of the surprise gained when the barrage opened without previous registration, something made possible by improvements in gunnery. In the UK, church bells rang in celebration. Unfortunately, the concentration of troops and artillery for this attack had left the 55th Division holding an over-extended front of over 13,000 yards with very little artillery support and virtually no heavy artillery. On 28 November, the warning signs of an impending German counter-attack were apparent to the divisional commander, Major-General Jeudwine (enemy air and artillery activity including target registration) but requests for reinforcement were effectively ignored. The blow fell from the north-east at 7 am on 30 November. Overwhelming numbers of German troops came through thick mist to envelop and infiltrate the divisional left flank immediately surrounding 1/5 SLR. At 7.43 am the Divisional HQ got a cryptic ‘visual’ message, probably by lamp, from 1/5 SLR ‘We know nothing yet. OK’. That was the very last thing heard although fighting continued for some time. 53 men of the battalion were killed and almost all the remainder captured. Indicating the battalion’s determined resistance, the report was that ‘Not a man came back’.

The map to the left shows the front line positions of 55th Division on 30 November 1917 at Epèhy, south of Cambrai. Red arrows represent the German attack made in mist against the over-stretched division left without adequate artillery support and no available reinforcement. [Story of the 55th Division annotated]

Last message from the 1st/5th Bn., The South Lancashire Regiment at 7.43 am, 30 November 1917 at Epèhy sent by lamp - ‘We know nothing yet. OK’. It was reported that  “Not a man came back” [166th Infantry Brigade War Diary TNA WO95-2904]

Right of 1/5 SLR, the 1/5 LNLR were also enveloped from the left. The front companies were quickly surrounded: nothing more was heard. Battalion HQ made a stand but, outflanked by enemy moving up narrow, mist-shrouded ravines, fell back and dug in. Their casualties included 18 officers and 384 other ranks missing, more than half of the battalion. Further south still, the Liverpool Scottish (1/10 KLR) were similarly pressed. With many dead and wounded, almost half of the ‘Scottish’ were captured, many in the deep ‘Pigeon Quarry’, when the enemy appeared suddenly on the surrounding lip. Many of the supplies brought up to celebrate St Andrew’s Day were lost. Captain James Roddick MC fought on at Limerick Post with just over, totally surrounded, for 18 hours and brought almost all of them out at 6 am the next day, infiltrating through enemy lines; he was denied a decoration as he ‘was doing what was expected’ although the action was singled out by Douglas Haig. Further south again, the 1/6 KLR (Liverpool Rifles) were in trouble and LCpl William Evans of Wallasey, manning a bombing block, wrote:

We had been looking at the shells dropping in the quarry and our own Trench Mortar Battery [TMB] men firing their mortars directly in front of the entrance, when suddenly the cry went up “They are in the quarry”: we saw Germans swarming down the side and flinging their bombs at us. We retired to the dugout, the TMB officer called for a machine gun which of course was not there, neither did there appear to be a supply of bombs, although I saw one of the crew of the TMB throw on at the Germans. I raised my rifle over his head to fire at a German when a bomb exploded right in front and knocked out the TMB man. [LCpl Evans 1/6 KLR – IWM Documents 2235]

LCpl Evans then carried out one of the most dangerous operations in war - surrender. By the end of the day, 1/6 KLR reported 9 officers and 223 men missing, many of whom were prisoners. 

The sketch map left shows a diagram of the blocking position of LCpl William Evans with 1/6th Bn. KLR, 30 November 1917, probably at Eagle Quarry, before he was captured [IWM Docs 2235]

Lack of space precludes giving details of the Victoria Cross won by Merseyside’s Sergeant Cyril Gourley of the Royal Field Artillery in engaging enemy with his 4.5 inch howitzer at very close range throughout the day at Little Priel Farm.

The 55th Division had been pushed back nearly 3000 yards in places. The repercussions were considerable, especially following the much-acclaimed success 10 days earlier. The division had been hugely over-stretched on difficult ground without adequate artillery support and unheeded when reinforcement was requested two days earlier. Major-General Jeudwine sent his Aide-de-Camp [ADC] to London immediately to describe what happened in person to Lord Derby, with his estate at Knowsley, the division’s sponsor and known as the ‘King of Lancashire’. Derby also just happened to be the Secretary of State for War: Jeudwine’s ADC just happened to have been Lord Derby’s pre-war business manager. There was an official enquiry; corps commanders were replaced but Jeudwine survived. With his experience at Epèhy and with an expected German offensive in the spring of 1918, he rehearsed his division repeatedly for the expected defensive battle. This would pay dividends for the 55th Division in April 1918.


Further Reading:

A. Hodgkinson: History of 1/5th Bn King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)

E.H.G. Robert: The Story of the 9th King’s In France

A.M. McGilchrist: The Liverpool Scottish 1900-1919

The Rev J.O. Coop: The Story of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division

K. Shannon: The Lion and the Rose, Volumes 1 and 2 (recently published -1/4 KORLR and 1/5 KORLR)

SS 143 Instructions for Training of Platoons for Offensive Action1917