8th Battalion in the Battle of Messines

The Battle of Messines[edit]

Since the end of the year 1916 and the majority of January 1917 the 8th Border Regiment had been in the area of Ploegsteert where they did not take part in any active operations; whilst they were busy with fatigues it could be said that regarding the fighting that was occurring elsewhere they had quite an inactive few weeks. The Battalion's training was taken seriously and on the 24 February the Battalion, and the entire 25th Division, was moved to the area of St. Omar, which at the time was considered to be an excellent training area. Here they took advantage of "musketry and field-firing practices."[1] Roughly a month later on the 21 March the Division had been moved to the Merris and Caestre area after it had been transferred to the Anzac Corps. Only a week later the Division had relieved the New Zealand Division in the Wulverghem sector and almost immediately there was work set about for the forthcoming offensive. This included working parties for the important tasks of cable laying, road building and the construction of dug-outs and other various different forms of shelters. For almost two weeks between the 30 April and the 11 May the 25th Division had spent time away from the front line in the Anzac Corps Reserve and then again it found itself relieving the New Zealand Division in the same sector. The 25th Division was actually quite lucky that they were holding a section of line they had spent time preparing. All to often units put in a great deal of labour in preparing lines for coming offensives only to be moved on and not reap the benefits of their hard work, instead, and quite possibly, having to hold a line with poor and inadequate cover. During the rest of May the 8th Borders were at La Crèche, later moving on to Revelsburg on the 29 May and Neuve Eglise, a substantial march, the following day. During this march a German shell exploded near C Company, which killed 4 men and wounded 6.[1][2][3]

The months were passing by, the 8th Battalion now in June, were to become part of an operation that was to attack German defences along a lines of hills between Messines[4] and Wytschaete. This operation consisted of a large number of men of the Second Army and a further three Army Corps all working tirelessly together to achieve an objective that was to capture this important line before any further and successful advance could be made. According to the 25th Division's history:

The Steenbeek, a 4 foot wide stream in the badly shelled Steenbeek area. This image depicts the other Steenbeek, please see note.[5]
The objective of the 25th Division lay in front of the village of Wulverghem and comprised the strip of ground with a front of about 1,200 yards on the German front line to a depth of about 3,000 yards, but narrowing towards the top of the Messines Ridge to about 700 yards. A short forward slope followed by a descent into the Steenbeek Valley. The stream, about 4 feet wide, ran through ground marshy in winter but fairly dry in summer except for occasional pools, and presenting no natural obstacles unless stiffened by the aid of military science. From this point the ground rises steeply, flanked on either side by Hell Farm and Sloping Roof Farm, with Four Huts Farm, Chest Farm and Middle Farm on the crest of the ridge...These farms, both naturally and tactically strong points, had been converted by military art into positions of immense strength and importance, impregnable to all but overwhelming artillery.[6]

The 8th Border Regiment, on the 6 June (the eve of the attack), moved up to their assembly position in Newcastle Trench. In the early hours on the 7th the 25th Division was assembled thus: 7th Infantry Brigade on the left, the 74th on the right and the 75th in reserve. The Battalion at this time was commanded by Major C.W.H. Birt. The reserve brigade, which the 8th Battalion belonged, remained in its assembly trenches until 7am; the attack had already started some 4 hours prior to their leaving. On advancing, C Company[7] was on the left, D[8] was on the right and A[9] and B[10] Companies were in support. Their objectives was to consolidate the Black Line east of the Messine-Wytschaete Road and to clear the remaining 'pockets' of enemy troops left behind from the advance. Their first objective was reached about an hour and a half after leaving their assembly trenches where they quickly put themselves to work on consolidating the Black Line. Two platoons of the Battalion captured some particularly battle-hardened enemy troops and C Company did sterling work on the organisation of a new line. In addition to this D Company helped to capture an enemy gun taking several prisoners. At this time the 11th Cheshires had also reached their objective and started at once in the construction of posts. The 8th Borders, having sent two platoons, assisted the Cheshires by establishing posts on either side of them. After an hour and forty minutes the enemy had lost the Messines Ridge and was now in the hands of the British, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's desptach of this time stated that:

The position assaulted was one of very great natural strength, on the defence of which the enemy had laboured incessantly for nearly three years. Its possession, overlooking the Ypres Salient, was of the greatest tactical and strategical value to the enemy. The excellent observation he had from this position added enormously to the difficulty of our preparation for the attack and ensured to him ample warning of our preparations.

In a bid to gain back the positions the Germans had lost they started to shell the British in their new lines at regular intervals during the day and night. During the the first evening of the successful operation the 8th Border Regiment was relieved and went back into Brigade Reserve near to Neuve Eglise. Considering the amount of fighting that took place the Battalion's casualties were not great in number, however, their losses were 13 other ranks killed as well as Second-Lieutenant Healy.

A destroyed German trench in the Battle of Messines showing the bodies three dead German troops.

The 7 June 1917 was an important day not only because the successes won there meant that further advances could be achieved but also because it was a day the 8th Battalion would remember, along with so many others, the importance of their efforts including two men who especially distinguished themselves in the action of the Battle of Messines, these being Corporal H. Carter and Private F. Brown. Shortly after these men had reached their objective they noticed that there was an enemy battery still in action not far from the present position. With a British tank passing by they immediately put together an idea that would bring down the battery and in moving off to attract the attention of Tank Officer, the plan was put into action. Once briefed the tank moved off in the direction of the battery with Private Brown and Corporal Carter following cautiously behind. When in range the tank fired upon the battery after which Private Brown and Corporal Carter charged the guns by themselves. By that time the enemy had retreated to their dug-outs, which was their downfall. Private Brown fired a couple of rounds into the dug-out and soon afterwards the gun team surrendered to the Border men, seven of the enemy in total of which two were wounded. The captured gun was marked by Private Brown and Corporal Carter as a sort of stamp of achievement and taken also as a souvenir was a helio.[11] Upon the success of taking the battery the men moved on to another one north of the one they just captured. In their approach Corporal Carter was knocked unconscious from a stick bomb but he was not wounded severely and soon after recovered, however, Private Brown continued to take a further 6 men prisoner of another gun team. It was the bravery of these two men that potentially saved the lives of many others of the 8th Battalion and other units of the Brigade.

With the 8th Battalion in Brigade Reserve, another attack was planned for the 14 June to advance further another 800 yards. Moving out from camp Neuve Eglise the 75th Brigade relieved the 14th Australian Infantry the day before the attack, the 8th Borders finding themselves in the front line with the 2nd South Lancashires immediately to their right. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Major Birt, decided to take it upon himself to make a personal reconnaissance of the front as he was not entirely satisfied with the information he was receiving from his patrols. Major Birt, along Lieutenant W.H. Anderson and three other ranks went out to assess the situation as it stood at that time. They established that there were enemy positions at Les Quatre Rois Cabaret, Steignast Farm and the Puits. Lieutenant Anderson was killed when the group unexpectedly came across a party of enemy troops in a trench hidden behind some trees, but in retaliation, Privates Bell and Livesay and Lance-Corporal Robinson successfully dispatched the enemy swiftly. On the same evening (the eve of the attack), much good work was achieved in preparing the communication trenches but the heavy barrage did, however, hinder this somewhat; most likely as the Germans knew of an impending attack on their lines at any time.

By 6.30pm the 8th Border Regiment had moved up and was ready in Switch Trench; the assembly took place in daylight with the possibility of many casualties. Even though the men moved up in twos and threes behind a row of hedges, which obscured the view for the enemy snipers, there were few casualties as a result mainly due to the excellent discipline of the men. What might have seemed like minor movement to the enemy was in fact the Battalion readying themselves for the next attack, which was largely undiscovered. In Colonel Wylly's history of the Battalion, what happened next is stated in his account of their actions:

At 7.30pm the line moved forward under a creeping barrage in conjunction with the Zew Zealand Division on the right; on the left was the 8th Battalion The Border Regiment with “A”Company, Lieutenant Strong, on the right, “B”, Captain Coxon in the centre and “D”, Lieutenant Duggan, on the left, in the front line, and “C” Company under Captain Dawson in support, and the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment on the right. Owing to our standard barrage falling on to the objective practically simultaneously with our advance, the enemy was unable to retreat, and in twenty-five minutes all the line of the Brigade objective – Ferme de la Croix, Les Quatre Rois Cabaret, Gapaerde, Deconinck Farm – had been gained. The enemy was mostly discovered lying in shell holes and improvised trenches, which were soon cleared; one or two strong wired points gave some trouble but were quickly outflanked, leaving several machine guns and some prisoners in our hands. Five minutes later after the line moved forward to attack, the enemy barrage of 4.2's and 5.9's came down on our front line in rear, and again about 9pm the enemy's barrage fell with great intensity and lasted for about half an hour in rear of our front line, causing some casualties, but during the night the battalions energetically consolidated and wired the line against any counter-attack.[12]

Of the four officer casualties during the attack, Second-Lieutenant Bell was killed and Captains Stewart and Dawson, including the Battalion's commanding officer Major Birt, were wounded. The day after the attack the 8th Border Regiment was relieved and moved back into support. A week later on the 22 June the 25th Division was withdrawn from the sector and moved to Bomy in the general area south of St. Omer where they remained for approximately two weeks for a much needed rest.

The Third Battle of Ypres[edit]

The progression of the battle and the general disposition of troops.

After resting at St. Omer the 8th Border Regiment was on the move again at the beginning of July, this time to Ypres. The 25th Division, minus the 74th Brigade, which remained in the training area for a further two weeks, arrived at Ypres and were positioned at the forward area of the IInd Corps. It was here that the 25th and 8th Divisions alternated in front line duties. Planning for a large-scale attack by the British Fifth Army had been ongoing for some time, this attack that involved many different units needed the greatest attention to detail and those involved had to work closely together to deliver an assault that would smash through the German defences. The Fifth Army, consisting of the IInd, XIXth, XIVth and XVIIIth Corps, along with the Second Army's Xth Corps and the First French Army, made its main and subsidiary attacks from 3.50am on the 31 July 1917. The 25th Division, at the time of the attack, was positioned 2,000 yards behind the main wave of attacking troops. The intention of this was, when the moment was right, to advance through the 8th Division and take over the advance from them but due to the unforeseen in any battle, the attack was held up and the advance could not continue, therefore the 25th Division was not required. Even though the Division did not get as far as the front line, the 8th Border Regiment still suffered some casualties.

The following day, 1st August, was terribly miserable with appalling weather all day. The 25th Division was holding Westhoek Ridge and Bellewaard Ridge. The elements were just as much the enemy as the strong fighting force who were entrenched opposite only a few hundred yards away. Due to casualties, the Companies of the Battalion were commanded as follows:

A Company – Captain Smith;
B Company – Lieutenant Birnie, M.C.;
C Company – Captain King;
D Company – Captain Duggan.

Although the Battalion was not actively involved in offensive operations at this time they were, however, in the line of fire of shelling causing some more casualties. On the 17 August the 25th Division was relieved for a short time and withdrew to the areas of Eecke and Steenwoorde. Then, back at Ypres on the 1 September, the Division took over a portion of the front consisting of Stirling Castle, Glencorse Wood and Westhoek Ridge. Here they remaining for about a week where much work was done in consolidating and improving the British defences. After this short stint the 25th Division was relieved by the 47th and moved to its new location in the area of Béthune where the Division spent three weeks in training. The 8th Border Regiment had various other moves throughout October and then on the 6 November 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end. The Borders were at La Préol in the Bassée Canal Sector, and as Colonel Wylly states in his general view of the end of this battle:

all that was hoped of it had not achieved, due mainly to the continuance of unfavourable weather; but our new armies had proved themselves, the enemy's morale had suffered enormously and we had taken, since the end of July, over 24,000 prisoners and nearly 1,200 guns of varying calibres.[13]

Trench raid documents (6th-12th Nov 1917)[edit]

The Third battle of Ypres had officially ended on the 6 November 1917, however, the 8th Border Regiment found themselves involved in a trench raid that took place on the night of the 10/11 November.

See also[edit]

References / notes[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.137.
  2. Four men died 30/5/1917 all buried at Kandahar Farm: Edward Wray (241861 Pte.); William Porter (25718 Pte.); Matthew Irving (17321 Pte.) & John Bostock (33275 L/Sjt.)
  3. One of the wounded men could have been Robert Willock (1501131 L/Cpl.), of Castle Street, Kendal, Westmorland. Born 1890. Clerk. Parents George Harrison Willock & Isabel. Brother of Martha. Buried at Bailleul Cemetery.
  4. Messines is the French spelling of Mesen.
  5. There should be two references to the Steenbeek mainly for the purpose of covering both streams of the same or similar name. The Steenebeek (with the extra -e- in the middle) is the stream that runs from Peckham Farm (just west of Wijtschaet) and continues down between Mesen (also know as Messines) and Wulverghem southwards to the Douve river. The Steenbeek (without the -e-) flows northwards through St. Julien, past Langemarck and eventually becomes the St. Jansbeek. Hopefully this distinction clarifies things, however, the image depicting the Steenbeek above is not the same as the one the 8th Borders were involved in crossing; it is shown here as an example of what the Steenebeek at Wulverghem may have looked like then. For further details see this topic, which goes into more detail and provides a selection of maps to help visualise the area.
  6. The 25th Division in France and Flanders, pp. 50-51.
  7. 7th June 1917, C Company was commanded by Captain Dawson.
  8. 7th June 1917, D Company was commanded by Lieutenant Johnson.
  9. 7th June 1917, A Company was commanded by Lieutenant Healy.
  10. 7th June 1917, B Company was commanded by Captain Coxon.
  11. A Heliograph, which is used by signallers usually to send reflected sunlight in Morse code.
  12. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.140.
  13. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.155.