6th Battalion on the Western Front (1916-1918)
The 6th Border Regiment arrived in France in June 1916 as part of the 11th (Northern) Division, but didn't play any significant part in the Battle of the Somme until the beginning of September (and had been billeted around Arras until then).
Westlake's "British Battalions on the Somme" then records the battalion's arrival on the Somme sector in 1916 thus:
- Arrived Lealvillers from canettemont (2/9). Tou Bouzincourt (5/9), Donnet Post (6/9) fron line facing Thiepval (12/9). Attacked and gained part of Danube Trench (16/9). To Ovillers (18/9), Englebelmer (20/9), Mailly-Maillet (21/9), Donnet Post (25/9), front line (26/9) - attacked Joseph and Schwaben Trenches 12.35pm - objectives carried by 12.45pm - 5 machie guns and 191 prisoners captured. Moved forward to reinforce 9th Notts & derby in Zollern Trench (27/9) - "C" Company attacked and took hessian Trench 3pm. War Diary notes "a bad night" in hessian with heavy and very accurate shelling. Counter attack driven off about 7pm. Withdrew to support positions (First Street) (29/9).
In the late September 1916 operations, the battalion lost 1 officer and 43 other ranks killed, 10 officers and 155 men wounded and 1 man missing.
Thiepval Sept 26 1916 - (CO 9th Sherwood Forester's narrative)
Punctually at the Zero Hour 12.35 p.m. the 9th Sherwood Foresters moved forward under the barrage with the 6th Border Regiment on their left. In ten minutes the first objective was taken, and the battalion had captured 95 prisoners, 3 machine guns and one trench mortar. The 6th Borders had been equally successful, and at 12.59 p.m. the Sherwood Foresters moved forward to take the second objective - Zollern Trench. On the 27th at 3 pm the 6th Borders successfully attacked the remaining portion of Hessian Trench and took over the whole trench shortly afterwards, the Sherwood Foresters returning to Joseph Trench. The GOC Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) General Sir Hubert Gough sent a dispatch:-
- “The following message recieved today from General Sir H Gough Commanding Reserve army by G.O.C. 11th Division is to be communicated to all ranks, begins - My best congratulations to you and your Division on their gallant fighting today and throughout the successful operations in which you have been engaged since the capture of the Wonder Work. You have all done splendid work. Ends.”
The 33rd brigade suffered over 600 casualties and over half of these were from 9th Sherwood Foresters.
It has been argued that the Battle of Messines was the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front. Carried out by General Herbert Plumer's Second Army, it was launched on 7 June 1917 with the detonation of 19 underground mines underneath the German mines. The target of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914. The attack was also a precursor to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, decided upon by the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig following the collapse of the French Nivelle Offensive earlier in May 1917.
General Plumer had begun plans to take the Messines Ridge a year early in early-1916. Meticulous in manner, Plumer preferred to plan for limited successes rather than gamble all on a significant breakthrough. In preparing for the Messines battle he had authorised the laying of 22 mine shafts underneath German lines all along the ridge, his plan being to detonate all 22 at zero hour at 03:10 on 7 June 1917, to be followed by infantry attacks so as to secure the ridge from the presumably dazed German defenders, the infantry heavily supported by the use of artillery bombardments, tanks and the use of gas. Work on laying the mines began some 18 months before zero hour. Two battalions of the Border Regiment, the 6th and 8th were destined to take part in the Battle of Messines in the 11th and 25th Divisions respectively. During the month of May 1917 the 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment was stationed first at Fremicourt, later at Beaumetz and in the middle of the month at Le Transloy, and of this period the diary records that:
- “this tour of duty in the line was most peaceful, the total casualties in the Battalion being 2 other ranks killed and 4 wounded The moral effect on the men of the wanton destruction of trees and houses roads and wells by the retreating Germans will, it is confidently anticipated, bear fruit in the next operations undertaken by the Battalion. Their feelings have undoubtedly turned to anger, and the local grindstones have been busy: the men entirely on their own initiative have sharpened their bayonets.”
On the 15th the 6th Battalion marched through the area of the old Somme battle-fields to huts at Montauban and on the next day to Fricourt, when a halt of twenty-four hours was called, and then on again by Albert and Abbeville to a camp at Caestre.
During May two officers joined for duty 2nd Lieutenants A. D. F Torrance and R. Pugh. On the night of the 6th June the Battalion marched from the camp where for some days past all ranks had been busily engaged in the practice of the attack upon flagged trenches, to Westhoutre and thence by a track to the place of assembly which was reached at 2 am on the 7th, and here all lay down to get what sleep they might This was not for long. However, for zero hour was announced at 3.10 by the simultaneous blowing up of several mines containing 600 tons of explosive and the immediate opening of a tremendous bombardment from a very large number of guns arrayed along an unusually narrow front; under this fire the German front line seemed, with its defenders wholly to crumble and vanish.
While waiting for the opening of the bombardment every man had been provided with an extra water-bottle to carry on him bombs tools flares and very lights had been issued, and in all this preparatory work R.Q.M.S Farra was of the greatest possible assistance, so that by 6 am the Battalion 23 Officers and 607 other ranks was completed in every particular and ready for the next move orders for this did not arrive until noon and these were to march to Vierstraat Switch, where by 12.55 all was in readiness for a further advance; the first and second waves were composed of A Company, (OC Captain Ridley M.C.), on the right, and B Company Lieutenant Gandolfo. On the left; the third and fourth of "D" Company, Captain Williams and "C," Captain Carr, M.C.
Pushing forward to the Chinese Wall a brief halt was made while the Battalion objective - Van Hove Farm-was pointed out; the advance in artillery formation was then resumed, Wytschaete Ridge was crossed and all went well until the companies had reached the eastern slopes of the ridge where they came under a heavy shell fire and began to lose men No pause, however, was made though the advance to the Odonto Line was a long and trying one owing to the great heat but it was carried out in perfect order, thanks in large measure to the admirable leading of the platoon and section commanders.
About 6.30 pm the rear Company, C Company was ordered to halt, and take up a position covering the valley of the Wambeke, but the others continued moving forward towards Polka Estaminet, where the Battalion Headquarters was now established and to the Odonto Line, a company being sent forward under Captain Hood with orders to capture and consolidate Van Hove Farm, which was successfully done in face of considerable opposition from machine-guns and snipers, but two very gallant young officers, 2nd Lieutenants Roberts and Farmer were here killed and several non-commissioned officers and men were killed and wounded; the enemy was driven off suffering much from our rifle fire. The capture of the farm was greatly assisted by two Vickers guns of the 33rd Machine Gun Company.
Patrols were now sent out to the right and left with orders to get into touch with other troops on the flanks but were unsuccessful and everything possible was done to make the line secure for the night, the Anzacs and the remaining two Vickers guns guarding the right while 2nd Lieutenant Adams with two platoons of the Border Regiment looked after the left. Snipers were very active on the left front and the men were all dead beat, but there is no doubt the position could have been held had it not been for the very heavy shelling which began about 9 pm and which forced the companies to fall back to a line in rear, which was reached in good order and was at once consolidated. Here touch was established with the Royal Irish Rifles on the left and with the Anzacs and 25th Division on the right.
By midnight things quieted down water was discovered close at hand, and the morning of the 8th showed no counter-attack imminent so work was re-com- menced, and, as the soil was easy,the men had soon linked up the many shell holes to form a tolerably strong defensive position. At 3 in the afternoon, however, things began to move ; the enemy guns commenced registering on the position and machine guns opened on it from the ridge in front while half an hour later small hostile groups were seen moving forward taking advantage of the cover afforded by hedges and barks, to the right front near Joye Farm. A message was at once sent back to the British guns and within a minute and a quarter a shrapnel barrage was playing on the enemy position when large numbers of Germans were seen retiring. "Our men and the Vickers and Lewis gunners," says the Battalion diary joyously, "then had the time of their lives!"
Just before darkness fell a heavy shell fire developed on both sides, and by 9pm was continuous along the whole front and the 7th South Staffords who were due to relieve the 6th Border Regiment, had a difficult and hazardous time of it. The relief was however, effected in due course and the companies rendezvoused at the Chinese Wall where all lay down to get some sleep after the two last very strenuous days; the casualties totalled 102 made up as follows:
- Killed 3 Officers Second-Lieutenants G. E. Roberts E. A. Barry and A. W. Farmer, and 15 non-commissioned officers and men.
- Wounded the CO Lieutenant Colonel D Mathers D.S.O., Major K M Chance, D.S.O., Captains N D Williams, T E Bjerre, J W Hood, M.C. (adjutant), and A I McCreadie, R.A.M.C. (RMO), Second Lieutenants W Constantine and A D F Torrance, and 76 other ranks. The Battalion now had an eight days' march by way of Shaexken, Strazeele, Hondeghem, Renescure and through St Omer to billets in the Fifth Army training area at Westrove, where reorganisation was taken in hand and training schemes were sedulously carried out.
Here the following message was received from Major General W. B. Hickie C.B., commanding 16th Division, and was read out to all ranks on parade:
- “I want to express my thanks to the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 33rd Brigade not only for the manner in which they attacked and carried The Oostaverne Line and held it under heavy fire until relieved but also for the way they accepted and overcame the great difficulties thrust upon them by the change of plan which was made at 12 noon. I beg you to convey to your commanding officers the great appreciation of the 16th Division at the manner in which the troops under their command carried out their task and our regret at the casualties which they suffered.”