Four battles involving a Yorkshire Territorial Battalion, the 2/5 Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment
The 2/5, raised in York from September 1914, were sent to France in 1917 as part of the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division. In this talk to the Yorkshire Branch of the WFA we were taken through the training as well as the improvement in leadership and use of weapons, especially artillery and tanks, which lead to an ordinary territorial force becoming a successful fighting unit.
At Bullecourt, in April 1917, 62nd Division were in support of the 4th Division of 1 ANZAC . When the tanks sent to support the ANZAC attack did not arrive, the Australians called off the attack without informing 62nd Division. 2/5 West Yorks had been directed to attack and occupy Hendecourt, a salient in the Hindenburg Line, after an initial artillery barrage. The attack failed as they advanced into a hail of machine gun fire and artillery shelling and the whole division took heavy casualties.
The Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt (taken in 1920). Three trench lines and communications are here shown, with acres of wire entanglements in the left foreground protecting first-line positions. (Wikimedia) There is more information on the photograph here.
Why had the attack failed? The reasons are varied but include: the Germans were in deep bunkers left intact after the initial artillery barrage; the weather was poor; there had been a snowstorm at zero hour; the barrage lifted too soon so was too far ahead of the advance to help the attack; the support the 62nd Division had expected in terms of machine gun fire (the guns were too far back for the barrage to be effective in keeping the Germans down) and tanks (which did not arrive in time) was not there; and, finally, the reserve troops got lost in advancing to the front line.
Two German maps showing the defensive dispositions at Bullecourt and German counter movements (NB the Hindenburg line was called the Siefried Stellung by the Germans) (Wikimedia)
The 2/5 were criticised after the battle for ‘not showing fighting spirit and discipline’. The divisional commander, Major-General Walter Braithwaite (in place since 1915) took this to mean his officers were too inexperienced and lacked specialist training. As the 2/5 had attacked in lines, battlefield tactics had remained unchanged since 1914. A new commanding officer was appointed together with experienced junior officers. Specialist training was undertaken by both officers and men, and a system of regular night patrols was established. All officers led patrols into No Man’s land; some officers, especially the bomb officer, went out as often as they could if not every night. By the time of the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, the 2/5 had changed out of all recognition.
The 62nd Division fought on the left of the 51st (Highland) Division which had the ‘interesting’ battle at Flesquieres. The 2/5 were assigned part of the Havricourt offensive, their objective being the ruins of Havricourt and beyond. The division fought hard, took all its objectives and by nightfall were in sight of Boulon Wood which stood on the commanding heights above them. This was an advance of almost five miles, later to be claimed as a record for troops in battle.
Why were they so successful after just eight months? Training and especially the ability of junior officers to adjust their tactics according to battlefield conditions! The initial artillery barrage was successful, the 2/5 manoeuvred around the 2/6 which had marched across their advance. As the 2/5 advanced in ‘blobs’, this was not difficult. Machine guns which opened up on their flanks were neutralised by whichever platoon was closest, one was suppressed by grenades, another by a bayonet charge. The one German bunker in their way was taken out by two tanks which were called up for this very purpose.
Compared to the battalion which took part in the Bullecourt battle, the 2/5 were properly trained in advancing, properly armed with grenades and Lewis guns, and they had good communication with aircraft and tanks. This battlefield management by the junior officers and NCOs (especially while advancing in diamonds or blocks) was only achieved by training experienced men.
The third battle which involved the 2/5 battalion was the defence of Bucquoy in March 1918. The 62nd Division had an exceptional defence of the line during the German spring offensive. The battalion held the line with a low casualty rate. This demonstrated the success of the training as officers and men proved to be flexible in defence as well as attack.
The last battle involving the 2/5 was the attack on Marfaux in July 1918. This was part of the French-led Second Battle of the Marne. The 2/5 battalion, supported by Italian artillery, were directed to attack in the Ardre valley (a steep valley which meant a narrow front between heavy wooded flanks) without reconnaissance, maps or preparation. It was a dawn attack with the objectives of taking out the machine guns and to occupy the village. As the artillery had failed to neutralise the machine guns in the woods, the 2/5 were enfiladed immediately they advanced. Messages were sent back by the attacking companies but communication with the officers ceased within 2 hours. The reserves fared no better. The battalion took 400 casualties including all officers and many of the HQ staff. The objectives were not taken.
How could a battalion, which had improved since the battle of Bullecourt in April 1917, suffer such high casualties? The simple answer lies in the lack of preparation for an ‘all arms battle’. The men of the 2/5 were put into the line without maps or reconnaissance. Their artillery had failed to suppress the enemy (shades of Bullecourt, 1917). The newly acquired tactics of manoeuvring in the face of the enemy and using units in a fluid situation, proved useless as the men were machine gunned by an unseen enemy.
This was a fascinating insight into the training of a battalion to become a finely honed weapon of war, then to be thrown away by wastefully attacking a strong position without the necessary ‘back up’.
Reference: this article was based on a talk Fraser Skirrow gave to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA, a talk based on Fraser’s book ‘Massacre on the Marne’, 2007.
Contributor: Peter J Palmer.
West Yorkshire Badge by Leo Reynolds on Flickr.