One hundred and eight guns of the Field Artillery would cover the 20th Division with standing and creeping barrages. Five minutes after zero, the barrage would stand in front of the first objective. Fifty minutes after zero the barrage would move forward to the second objective and stop there until one hour and forty minutes after zero, before moving forward to the final objective, where it would remain until two hours after zero. Twenty-four guns of the Heavy Artillery would concentrate their fire on batteries and other targets in the back area. Great difficulty was experienced in getting the guns forward over the swampy and shell pitted ground, after the fighting of 31st July. When the guns were got into position many sank, so platforms had to be built before the guns could come into action.
Also the attack would be supported by the 60th and 61st Trench Mortar Batteries, and half of the 60th and 61st Machine Gun Companies, who would be close to their infantry, while forty eight machine guns would fire a barrage over the heads of the attacking troops. Elaborate arrangements were made to keep the troops supplied with rations, ammunition etc.
As a preliminary operation it was necessary to gain ground on the far side of the Steenbeek, where the leading waves might form up for the main attack. A very strong work at Au Bon Gite, 300 yards beyond the east bank on the Langemarck Road guarded the way. There were other concrete blockhouses at intervals on both sides of the stream but Au Bon Gite was the key. Several attempts had failed before the 10th and 11th R.B. managed to get a footing on the east bank, on 14th August. After severe hand to hand fighting, they advanced as far as Au Bon Gite taking the mill and several dug-outs near by but the main structure held out, the R.B. were all round it and even on top of it.
Meanwhile the 6th K.S.L.I. moved to dug-outs in the canal bank on the 14th, and during the night of the 15th/16th the assault troops took up their appointed places, while the 83rd and 84th Companies R.E. bridged the Steenbeek. It was Captain Dugdale's job to lay out the 6th K.S.L.I.'s forming-up tapes. He took with him his batman and three men from each company to act as guides. They proceeded by compass bearing from Brigade H.Q. at Stray Farm to the first rendezvous point. From here the first three guides were sent back to Brigade H.Q., to wait for the Battalion. The rest struggled on in the dark to the forming-up point, three more guides were then sent back to the rendezvous point. Lengths of tape were then laid for each company, the task was finished by 1.30 a.m., they then had a long wait in the open for the companies to come up. Captain Dugdale wrote in his book "Langemarck" and "Cambrai"
"About 3.15 a.m. (not all of the times given in Captain Dugdale's account of this battle match with those in the Battalion's War Diary) we could see a line of men moving in front of us. We hoped they were the Oxfords marching to their positions. For a moment we were not at all sure whether they were friends or foes ...they disappeared. A few minutes later rockets of many colours rose from the German lines - S.O.S. Their artillery put down a barrage right on to us; Whittingham (Dugdale's batman) and I lay in a shell hole quaking. Shells screamed over us, bursting all round us. What with the noise in front and behind it was pandemonium let loose.
It did not last long and soon ceased altogether. To our amazement "D" Company, led by Kimpster, arrived from somewhere in front. They were led to their positions on the tape. The Battalion now started to arrive in real earnest; we were kept busy sorting them out and answering questions.
The guides at the rendezvous had a dreadful time, I was told, all becoming casualties. At about 4.30 a.m. the colonel himself appeared, complete with staff and large silk handkerchief.
"Show me my battalion," he said.
After I had walked with him to see the companies we adjourned to a good-sized shell holes.
"Where did you leave Stanier (Battalion Adjutant), sir?" I asked.
"At battalion headquarters," he replied.
"Won't there be a spot of trouble over this, sir?" I asked tentatively.
"I expect so" he laughed. "I am not going back there now. I consider it my duty to stay with my battalion; I can't help it if there is a row. I am used to them".
German artillery fire started to fall around them. Dugdale wrote:
"The rumble of their guns was one continuous roar; shells of all caliber's, were crashing around us in hundreds, throwing up mud and water; the air was thick with smoke, debris and lumps of earth fell all around us. The sickly smell of burnt explosive was horrible; the ground It seemed impossible for anybody to survive this savage drum fire. A 5.9" burst within ten yards of the shell hole in which we lay, covering us with mud, another fell closer still, burying us both. This was too much for me.
"Shall we go to another place, sir?" I shouted. "This is getting too hot".
"Find another hole if you know of a better one," he yelled back.
I thought better of it. We might as well go up together. I admit I was petrified with fear."
This shell fire lasted about half an hour. At 4.40 a.m. the British barrage fell like a curtain and was followed closely by the leading waves of infantry. The 11th R.B. and some men of the 83rd Company R.E. attacked Au Bon Gite (which fell about a hour later), whilst the 6th Ox. & Bucks skirted it. The 6th K.S.L.I. and 12th K.R.R.C. started to advance at 5 a.m., and Dugdale recalled:
"We rose to our feet shaking the dirt from our uniforms. Everyone lit a cigarette. Expecting to find half the battalion knocked out we were surprised to find very few casualties."
Once across the Steenbeek all movement became very difficult, the ground being a swamp full of craters right up to the final objective. The first wave of the Ox. & Bucks had taken the Blue Line by about 5.20 a.m., its second wave started to advance on the next objective at 5.45, while the 6th K.S.L.I. and 12th K.R.R.C. halted on the Blue Line for 20 minutes. This short break enabled the Battalion to rescue all those who had become stuck in the mud. The situation in front of the 6th K.S.L.I. was obscure and they could not see the second wave of the Ox. & Bucks attacking. The situation looked critical - in fact the Ox. & Bucks had attacked their second objectives from the flanks, owing to pill boxes firing on them. Lt.-Colonel Wood, of the K.S.L.I., took matters into his own hands and with alpine-stock in his right hand, bandanna in left, and a cigar between his lips, he waved the Battalion forward with the words "the Shropshires will advance". As it advanced it mopped-up all the shelters and dug-outs which it passed, capturing about 46 prisoners. Lt.-Colonel Wood became stuck in mud up to his waist; Dugdale recorded:
"I could not move him - he was a man of ample proportion. Assistance was promptly rushed up and he was hauled out amidst loud applause".
The Battalion secured Alouette Farm, removing a dead German officer, and made this Battalion H.Q. "A" and "C" Companies formed up 100 yards east of the Green Line, along with "D" Company, who would act as "mopping-up company". "B" Company were in reserve. At 7.30 a.m. the 6th K.S.L.I. advanced on the Red Line, in two waves, coming under heavy machine gun fire from White Mill and White House. Strong opposition was met from parties of Germans concealed in hedges, ditches, concrete dug-outs and fortified houses. As the advance progressed, the Battalion came under intense fire from the right flank, the 11th Division on this flank had been held up with Rat House still in German hands. The 6th K.S.L.I. took its objectives by 7.45 a.m., which ran from map references U.24.c.20.55. to U.24.c.45.05., and started to consolidate its line, putting out posts 150 yards in front. The rest of the 20th Division had also captured their objectives.
At this time the 20th Division was in touch with the 29th Division on the left, but the 11th Division on the right had not done so well, most of its line was about 200 yards in rear of the Red Line. The 9th Lancashire Fusiliers should have liased with the 6th K.S.L.I. at White House but had not, in fact one officer and his men of this battalion had indeed advanced very rapidly, outstripping the barrage, arriving at White House before the stipulated time. This party was shelled out when the British barrage caught them up and they were forced to retire. The K.S.L.I. came under fire from White House, so Lt. E. M. Hannah and eight men, rushed the fortified house, killing nine of its defenders and taking five prisoners, this officer was later killed whilst shooting through a loophole. For his gallantry he was specially mentioned in despatches.
Captain Dugdale found some men of the Battalion guarding two very dirty Germans. He recorded in his book:
" They both stood to attention; they were bareheaded. The tallest man addressed me.
"I must apologize, Sir, for my very dirty and unkempt appearance," he said in perfect English. "Your intense bombardment for the last three days has made shaving and washing impossible."
I was so astonished that I made no reply. I had not realized he was an officer.
The officer and about 130 other prisoners were sent back down the line in batches. Captain Dugdale later learned that the officer on arrived at Essex Farm walked up to one of the medical officers and offered to lead his men back to Brigade headquarters and act as stretcher bearers, this offer from a gallant German officer was accepted.
At about 9 a.m. the Germans attacked the 12th K.R.R.C., who held Eagle Trench on the K.S.L.I's left flank, gaining a footing in one their trenches. The fighting spread, involving the Battalion's left company (A), which was pressed hard. The K.S.L.I. lent the K.R.R.C., two bombing sections, two rifle sections, two Lewis guns, two machine guns and a Stokes mortar *1; also a company of the 6th Ox. & Bucks. was sent to support "A" Company. A small counter attack drove the Germans out, things quieted down for a while but German planes were active, firing their machine guns at about 100 feet or less.
About two hundred Germans were spotted forming for another counter-attack on the left in the distance; this information was passed on to Brigade H.Q., who notified the artillery, and the Germans disappeared in a cloud of smoke and bursting shells. The Corps Staff seem to have been unsure of the 6th K.S.L.I.'s position; Dugdale wrote:
"At mid-day we were visited by two officers from Lord Cravan's Corps. We gave them full details of our positions. They seemed to think we had done very well indeed, we were of course surprised that they had come up so far to see for themselves; it was a most unusual occurrence."
A small attack developed on the K.S.L.I.'s right flank and men were seen falling back, Lt.-Colonel Wood sent a platoon from "B" Company to help. The Germans beat a hasty retreat and the positions on the right were re-occupied. No more than five attempts by the Germans to form-up 200 yards away from White House for counter-attacks were annihilated by the Artillery. But at about 4 p.m. the German artillery opened a barrage all along the Division' front, German infantry crawled up close along hedges and ditches. The 6th K.S.L.I. sent a message to Brigade H.Q. informing them of the German concentration on its front, along with map references of the German positions. The map references sent to Brigade H.Q. were U.24.c.2.4. to U.24.c.8.4., this included part of the Battalion's own forward positions and shells fell on it when the British artillery opened up, and the Battalion had to send a message back by flag. When the shelling ceased there was no sign of the Germans on its front. This was not the case on the rest of the Divisions front, at 4.10 p.m. a serious attack fell on the 12th King's Liverpool about Schreiboom, driving them back about 200 yards. The left flank company of the 12th K.R.R.C. was left exposed but they fought on until annihilated, this battalion then draw back to form a defensive flank and gained touch with the 12th King's. A company of the Ox. & Bucks. was sent up to support the K.R.R.C. The 6th K.S.L.I.'s left company was told to hold on at all costs and was reinforced by "B" Company. Two companies of the 12th R.B. were sent up to the Green Line, and the 10th and 15th Battalions of the Welsh Regiment (38th Division) were placed at the disposal of the 20th Division, doing invaluable work, bring up much needed ammunition, water and rations.
The night was quiet on the Battalions front, but because its right flank was very exposed, White House, which was not in the Battalions sector was evacuated. The right flank was thrown back in a quarter circle, by about 50 yards, and at midnight two platoons of the 12th R.B. took over the right wing. During the 17th the King's and 12th R.B. attempted to regain the lost line and although the king's regained some of its line on their far left, the R.B. were held up by heavy fire and had to dig-in. Meanwhile the weather being fine, the K.S.L.I. improved its positions, completing a continuous trench before being relieved on the night of the 18th, by the 10th Welsh *2.
The Battalions casualties during this time were: Died of wounds - Captain H. M. O'Connor, Lt. D. G. Smith and 2nd Lt. E. M. Hannah; Wounded - 2nd Lt. V. C. Hares and 2nd Lt. J. T. Hannon. 39 other ranks were killed, 147 wounded, five missing and many died of their wounds in the days that followed.
*1 It is not clear when these sections were lent to the 12th K.R.R.C., the 6th K.S.L.I.'s war diary mealy mentions that these section were lent to the 12th K.R.R.C. during the day; Captain Dugdale mentions that two machine guns and a trench mortar were sent to the K.R.R.C. to help repel the attack during the morning. The two bombing sections, two rifle sections and two Lewis guns may have been sent to the K.R.R.C. to help during the counter-attack at about 4 p.m.
*2 In my book on the 6th King's Shropshire Light Infantry, I wrongly recorded the date of relieve as the night of the 17th/18th.
Any infringement of copyright is unintentional, and every effort has been made to ensure that this has not occurred
Sources of information
The 6th Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry War Diary, Shropshire Regimental Museum.
The History of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry In The Great War 1914-18, edited by Major W de B. Wood.
The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division, by Captain V. E. Inglefield.
"Langemarck to Cambrai", by Captain G. Dugdale, M.C.
The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle 1917-1918, by Lt.-Colonel A. F. Mockler-Ferryman.
The Lancashire Fusiliers, 1914-18.