1st Battalion in the Battle of the Lys (1918)
In the previous chapter we saw the 1st Border Regiment in the Battle of Cambrai. By the end of the battle the Borders saw in the year 1918, where they were encamped in the general area of Proven. Here the men stayed, January passing them by given them enough time to recuperate and to continue their ongoing training. By the end of January they were instructed to move on to their next position in helping to supply working parties in the Army Defence Zone at Wieltje. When February came they had moved on again to Passchendaele where they yet again saw action on the front line, and as a result suffered further casualties but few in number. After their stint at Passchendaele, they then made their way to Watou and continued their training for some time. February passed them by and in came March. On the 26th the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, a place they had frequented before, and encamped at St. Jeanter-Biezen, here providing more working parties this time in the Army Battle Zone. At this time the Central Powers had been amassing a large number of infantry divisions from the Eastern and Italian theatres, moving them west; the number of German divisions had increased also by 46 making the total number of 192 Divisions. Something was about to happen; the Great German Offensive was about to commence.
It wasn’t until the second week of April that the 1st Battalion had received orders to make preparations to move on. They entrained to the St. Pol area, where they, on the same evening left for Neuf Berquin minus 10 per cent, which had to stay behind in camp. By the 10 April the men had arrived at their billets in close proximity to the village and later in the day the Battalion, which was in Brigade Reserve, had formed a support line to the 50th Division. It should be mentioned at this point that the 1st Border Regiment were placed at their disposal. The Commanding Officers of the 1st Border Regiment were thus:
- A Company – Captain Chambers, M.C.
- B Company – Captain Ridley
- C Company – Lieutenant Ruxton, M.C.
- D Company – Second Lieutenant Yates
In the evening German attacks had forced the 50th Division to fall back from Estaires, the neighbouring town, to Neuf Berquin. As a result of this preparations were made at positions to the north and west of the town and whilst the reinforcements helped for a short while, the following day confirmed little improvement in the situation. The 40th Division, who were positioned on the left, were being driven back as were a number of troops from the 50th. A Company was in readiness to advance east for a counter-attack and D Company of the Battalion, also engaged in the fighting, was losing its flank; Second-Lieutenant Yates had since become a casualty. He was brought back to safety and the Company ordered to retire but in all the confusion, two platoons were unable to retire and were steadily being surrounded, however, they continued to fight. A Company held off the enemy advance for some two hours but after this time it had become impossible to keep the enemy advance at bay. They were simply too many, too powerful, especially as trench mortars were being used on their positions. The men were ordered to retire further still to a new line in rear. It was here that they managed to repulse a further two enemy attacks. This line was stronger and held by no less than six different battalions, the 1st Borders being one of them. Every effort was made by the enemy to break through this line and every attempt was hit back twice as hard. Little impression had been made here, yet, on either flank of this line they had somehow managed to advance with considerable threat and power, breaking through and forcing another retreat. Orders were followed to withdraw to new lines, which was completed by the morning of the 12 April.
This day saw an increase in the German offensive whereby they attacked the whole line, in several places breaking through. The 1st Borders had to fall back to Bleu. It was here that A Company was able to close a portion of the line by joining up with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry of the 31st Division; meanwhile, the remaining Companies of the Battalion, B, C and D, were able to hold the line to the south of Bleu. An urgent request came through from the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that they were in need of more men to close the gap in their portion of the line. This was done with two platoons of the 1st Borders under the command of Second-Lieutenant Chicken. The gap was duly filled and the portion of line currently held was secure, for the time being anyway. By 5pm bad news came through of the two platoons of C Company; all but three men and Second-Lieutenant Chicken, who had by then sustained injuries, were wiped out. Most in number of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and 2nd Royal Fusiliers had also sustained the same fate; the commanding officers of both bringing with them the remnants of 30 and 20 men respectively. They had been cut down by close-range machine gun fire whilst retreating to new lines in rear of their positions. This slaughter claimed the lives of many men in an attempt to reach the new line in a railway cutting. The line was held by several battalions of the 29th, 31st and 50th Divisions. The 29th Division revealed some shocking figures:
- The strength of 86th and 87th Brigades came to 11 officers and 352 other ranks;
- The 86th Brigade details as follows:
- 1st Border Regiment – 8 officers and 195 other ranks;
- South Wales Borderers – 24 other ranks;
- King’s Own Scottish Borderers – 47 other ranks;
With so few in number it was fortunate that the German advance did not continue on their particular front. In fact the night passed by relatively quietly, which gave ample opportunity for rations to be sent up as well as line consolidation and even the construction of a barricade across the railway cutting. By this time the 1st Battalion Border Regiment was positioned with B, C and D Companies holding the railway cutting whilst A Company occupied a trench up front. The line on the left flank was held by the 97th Brigade and on the right by the K.O.Y.L.I., who in turn connected up with the Guards Brigade. There had been a great deal of violence and bloodshed and the German advance had been successful. They had managed to drive back the British Forces from one line to another, consolidating their new lines only to re-attack with seemingly greater force. The 11th and 12 April are dates that hold particular interest as this is the instance the 1st Border Regiment won its third V.C., the soldier in question being that of Captain (Acting Lieutenant-Colonel) J.R. Forbes-Robertson, D.S.O., M.C. The official account of his actions were noted and stated:
- “For most conspicuous bravery while commanding his Battalion during the heavy fighting. Through his quick judgement, resource, untiring energy and magnificent example, Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes-Robertson on four separate occasions saved the line from breaking and averted a situation which might have had the most serious and far-reaching results.”
- “On the first occasion when troops in front were falling back, he made a rapid reconnaissance on horseback, in full view of the enemy, under heavy machine-gun and close-range shell fire. He then organized and, still mounted, led a counter-attack, which was completely successful in re-establishing our line. When his horse was shot under him he continued on foot. Later in the same day, when troops to the left of his line were giving way, he went to that flank and checked and studied the line, inspiring confidence by his splendid coolness and disregard of personal danger. His horse was wounded three times and he was thrown five times. The following day when the troops on both his flanks were forced to retire, he formed a post at Battalion Headquarters, and with his Battalion still held his ground, thereby covering the retreat of troops on his flank. Under the heaviest fire this gallant officer fearlessly exposed himself when collecting parties, organizing and encouraging. On a subsequent occasion, when troops were retiring on his left and the condition of things on his right was obscure, he again saved the situation by his magnificent example and cool judgement. Losing a second horse, he continued alone on foot until he established a line to which his own troops could withdraw and so conformed to the general situation.” 
By the 13 April, the enemy attacks were consistent and unwavering. At 9.30am one such attack came across with dash and boldness but was driven off and many of the enemy suffered heavy casualties. However, along the line the K.O.Y.L.I. were literally bombed out of their posts and had fallen back to a position some 300 yards away; equally, the Lancashire Fusiliers were victim of heavy shelling and they too were bombed from their position at Vieux Berquin. A Company of the 1st Border Regiment pushed out forwards to try and reach the Lancashire Fusiliers, who at that time were engaged in fighting but still holding their ground. The following despatch gives further details stating:
- “The troops of the 29th and 31st Divisions, now greatly reduced in strength by the severe fighting already experienced, and strung out over a front of nearly 10,000 yards E. of the Forest of Nieppe, were once more tried to the utmost. Behind them the 1st Australian Division was in process of detraining, and the troops were told that the line was to be held at all costs, until the detrainment could be completed....Everywhere, except at Vieux Berquin, the enemy’s advance was held up all day by desperate fighting, in which our advanced posts displayed the greatest gallantry, maintaining their ground when entirely surrounded, men standing back to back in the trenches and shooting in front and in rear. In the afternoon the enemy made a further determined effort, and by sheer weight of numbers forced his way through the gaps in our depleted line, the surviving garrisons of our posts fighting where they stood to the last with bullet and bayonet. The heroic resistance of these troops, however, had given the leading Brigades of the 1st Australian Division time to reach and organize their appointed line E. of the Forest of Nieppe. These now took up the fight and the way to Hazebrouck was definitely closed. The performance of all the troops engaged in this most gallant stand is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number.” 
By the end of the day, on the 13 April, the two brigades, or rather the remnants of what was left after such bitter fighting, withdrew back to safety, passing the new defensive line that was being dug by the Australian reinforcements. They moved back further to the peace and comfort of billets situated in barns in the area of St. Sylvestre. In their new temporary and much appreciated accommodation, the 1st Border Regiment, under the command of Captain Cowburn, M.C., was formed into two companies and became part of a composite battalion, formed of various other units of the Brigade under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Murray of the 1st Battalion K.O.S.B. So few men had survived that not one battalion in the brigade were enough in number as to be anywhere near decent fighting strength. Their numbers were so frighteningly few that the 1st Battalion Border Regiment now contained less than half of Border Men. The casualty figures for the operations mentioned amounted to:
Soon after, on the 16 April, the French were organising an attack on Meteren and the composite 1st Battalion, with little in the way of rest, was ordered to take up positions in support at Le Peuplier. They remained in very close billets on alert and ready to move at a moments notice. The night passed by but they were not required as the French did not attack, however, an urgent request for support came through on the 17th by a French commander and the 1st Battalion moved on to positions at Courte Farm where they spent a quiet couple of hours amongst their Allies. By 8am though there was some aerial activity and by 9am a heavy bombardment opened on their positions, most likely after the aerial reconnaissance only an hour previous. This continued for at least three hours after which the casualties of the 1st Battalion numbered 3 officers and 31 other ranks. The same night the men of the 1st Battalion were relieved and moved out by route march, then by ‘motor-lorries’ to La Bréarde where they remained until the end of the Battle of the Lys. They would, however, not receive any rest during this time as enemy artillery fire was repetitious in the very sector the Battalion had moved to. The war was still far from over and the final advance operation was about to begin where fierce battles in Ypres and Courtrai would lead the 1st Border Regiment into the welcoming grasp of the Armistice and eventually onto peace on the Western Front.
References / notes
- Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.187.
- Despatch, dated 20th July 1918.