The Battle of the Lys
- “The line held by the 25th Division was some 7,000 yards in length and was in front of Ploegsteert Wood, in touch on the left with the 19th Division on the River Douve, then following the River Lys round to the N.W. Of Armentiéres, where the line linked up with the 34th Division. On the right of the divisional sector for about 6,000 yards the German trenches lay on the far side of the River Lys; in front of Deulemont and Warneton they crossed to the British side of the river and then curved round the lower ground in front of Messines and Wytschaete, held by troops of the 19th Division. The river here was about 20 feet wide. The sector between the Lys and the Douve was held with the 75th Brigade on the right and the 7th on the left, the 74th being in Divisional Reserve, and on the morning of the 9 April the Brigade line had the 8th Border Regiment on the right, the 11th Cheshires on the left and the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment in support.”
At 11am on the morning of 9 April information came through of an attack on the divisions on the right, holding their section of line near Armentiéres, which resulted in the British defences being smashed and enemy occupation taking over almost as far Givenchy. The 74th Brigade was ordered to move out to Steenwerck where they were placed at the disposal of the 34th Division to provide extra support where the defences were at that time quite vulnerable. Whilst there seemed to be action on this section of the front there did, however, appear to be no sign of anything happening on the 25th Division's front. There was still no sign of an impending attack until the following day at 5am when a German bombardment began with the usual intensity to strike hard and fast with high explosives and gas as their weapon. After forty minutes of bombing the air was filled with a mist that ensured little visibility, and therefore, was used in their favour to cross the river and attack the British line.
Each of the Companies were commanded as follows:
- A Company – Second-Lieutenant Allan
- B Company – Captain Coxon
- C Company – Captain Bently
- D Company – Captain Dawson
The mist continued to hinder visibility as further German troops advanced across making their way towards the front held by the 75th Brigade, eventually breaking through the thinner parts of the line on both flanks of the 8th Border Regiment, who at this time were slowly being surrounded along with the 11th Cheshires. 'A' Company of the Borders had more or less been cut off, however, 'B', 'C' and 'D' Companies managed to withdraw to the reserve line. Soon after a further retreat was ordered when the reserve line was surrounded, the 8th Borders along with troops of the 11th Cheshires moving back to a line west of Lebizet. On the morning of 11 April it was reported that German troops were seen grouping opposite the reserve line near Grey Farm and by 11am an attack was forced upon the fronts of 7th and 75th Brigades just west of Ploegsteert Wood. The strength and effectiveness of the advancing enemy in this sector seemed to continually thwart any British retaliation and so without causing unnecessary loss of life, another withdrawal was ordered to the Trench Line at Le Rossignol, which was held until nightfall. Lieutenant Strong and about 40 men of the 8th Border Regiment did, however, manage to capture a German machine gun and fill in a gap in the line about Brune Gaye sometime during the afternoon. The Battalion then fell back to Connaught Road sometime at dusk after receiving orders to evacuate the Nieppe Salient. Here they dug in. Although there was enemy action of sorts on the Brigade front as a whole, the localised front of the 8th Borders had not seen any particular action. By 2pm a further retirement to Korte Pyp was made and the new line was reorganised. As stated in the 25th Divisional history regarding this day:
- “the line now ran roughly N. and S. in front of Neuve Eglise, with the 75th Brigade on the right, the 100th (of the 33rd Division) in the centre, and the 148th Brigade on the left, the 7th Brigade being in support W. of the Village. The batteries of motor machine guns were supporting the centre in Korte Pyp......Lieutenant-Colonel Birt, D.S.O., 8th Border Regiment, won a bar to his D.S.O. for his fine leadership and great personal courage when in command of his Battalion. Captain Bently, Lieutenants Duggan and Strong all received the M.C. For their services during the battle. Company Sergeant-Major Gent, when his officers had become casualties, took command of his company, which he led with great ability, and he and also Sergeant Grayston received decorations. The two cooks, Private McGuinness and Stafford, and Private George of the Sanitary Squad won Military Medals for their capture of a German aeroplane and its pilot, which was forced to descend and would have got away again had it not been the enterprise of these three men. Private Jones and Todkill were conspicuous throughout for their courage as stretcher-bearers, and both received a bar to the Military Medals.”
The night of the 12th and the early hours of the 13th seem to have passed by quietly and when the light was lifting in the morning sky, a heavy thick mist drew in. The actions of this day, as recorded in the 8th Border Regiment's war diary states that at:
- “about 6am a battalion on the right was seen retiring along the Neuve Eglise Road and soon after, under cover of the mist and a heavy bombardment, the enemy attacked in great strength and forced us back to the Neuve Eglise-Trois Rois Cabaret, where elements of the 75th Brigade group and the 19th H.L.I. Had already dug in and where a stand was made. Captain Coxon and Lieutenant Bott were both killed while making a counter-attack on the enemy's flank during the morning. Meanwhile, a position was being prepared from Crucifix Corner along the ridge in a N.E. Direction. During the attack and subsequent retirement, Corporal O'Connell, 8th Border Regiment, did excellent work with the Trench Mortar Battery, while Sergeant Graham, Lance-Corporal Bray and Private Hewitt distinguished themselves with their Lewis guns. All of these were decorated with the Military Medal as well as Private W.D. Jones for his gallantry as a runner.”
On the evening of the 13 April the 8th Border Regiment, along with their comrade battalions of the 75th Brigade, were positioned on the elevated ground south west of Neuve Eglise. Here they stayed for a further day and a half before being relieved at 2.30am on the 15th, when they marched to Boeschope, arriving there at 7pm the same evening and taking hut accommodation near Mont des Cats. By this time the 25th Division had been seriously weakened and was in dire need of some rest. It should be noted that the combined strength of both the 7th and 75th Brigades only amounted to some 600 men, a fraction of their original strength and less than the strength of a single battalion. The few in number of the 75th Brigade was formed into a composite battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.B. Allsopp. While in their huts, sleeping or trying to rest as best they could, the Battalion was bombarded, one of the shells exploded on a hut accommodating men of C Company. The effects were devastating and resulted in killing five and wounding 26 men. The Battalion, and in fact Brigade, was not having the best of times considering what the men had already been through. Fragile states of mind and views of battered bodies, especially when they are your comrades, did not help in the slightest when recuperation was so desperately needed. Whilst resting though, a draft of young men, some might even consider calling them boys, as many were only 19 years of age, joined the ranks of the Battalion along with Lieutenant Turnbull and Second-Lieutenant Mackie.
The Battalion remained here for about ten days before receiving orders to move out. On the 25 April they marched to Hougraae Cabaret where the 25th Division were given further orders to prepare themselves in readiness to support the XXIInd Corps; this they did and by the early evening of the same day they arrived in the area of Reninghelst where they found out that the enemy here had taken both Kemmel Hill (also known as Kemmelberg), and Kemmel Village respectively. The order received later that evening, at around 11pm, stated that they were to make a counter-attack, along with the French 39th Division, on both of these locations; the 7th and 74th Brigades up front whilst the 8th Borders in the 75th Brigade were to be in support. For some part, except for the challenging obstacle that was the Kemmel Brook due to it having flooded, the attack was generally successful, however, there were some failures to meet objectives. The troops found it difficult to keep up with the creeping barrage simply because the sodden state of the ground made movement across it demanding. On either side of the 25th Division there were little to no successes and even though there was a breakthrough by the next morning, it was decided that the enemy front formed a considerable dangerous salient and as result of this the Division was ordered to fall back to the Kemmel Beek. The British were not successful in taking Kemmel or the nearby hill. During most of the afternoon on the 26th time was spent in consolidating the battalion to reorganise them so as to hold the line. They remained there until the early morning of the 30th where they were relieved, Major H.G. Fraser joining the Battalion and assuming command. The following congratulatory message from the Commander-in-Chief about the action here states:
- “Please congratulate the 25th Division upon their very gallant counter-attack at Kemmel Village on the morning of the 26th inst. The courage, enterprise and resolution shown on this occasion after so many days of heavy fighting both on the Lys front and south of Arras reflect the highest credit upon all ranks.”
And the Divisional History also states:
- “The 8th Borders were especially successful in repulsing all attempts to get near their line......Of the 8th Borders Lieutenant Williams beat off four attacks with his platoon and Second-Lieutenant Darwell gained most valuable information with a patrol. Private Bell did useful work in bringing up ammunition during the attack; Private Roberts as a runner and Gelling and Hird as stretcher-bearers were all conspicuous for their gallantry.”
|8th Border Regiment Officer Casualties
|Capt. P.H. Coxon, MC
|Lieut-Col. C.W.H. Birt, DSO
|Capt. W.J. Isbister, RAMC
|Lieut. G.G.R. Bott, MC
|Major T.S. Wilkinson
|2nd Lieut. A. Cameron, MM (also wounded)
|2nd Lieut. F.C. Corley
|Capt. J. Dawson, MC
|2nd Lieut. J.W.A. Allan
|2nd Lieut. W.J. Crookson
|Capt. H.E. Williams, RAMC
|2nd Lieut. C.F. Hook
|Lieut. M.C. Clodd
|2nd Lieut. W.C. Preston
|Lieut. A.K. Lister
|Lieut. R. Strong, MC
|2nd Lieut. C.A. Watts
|2nd Lieut. J. Grellis, MC
|2nd Lieut. T.C. Vaughan
|2nd Lieut. H.T. Lay
|2nd Lieut. T.F. Middleton
|2nd Lieut. J.W. Rogers
|2nd Lieut. J. Gibson
|2nd Lieut. J.H. Mackie
|2nd Lieut. J.T.R. Varel
|Capt. C.W. McConnan (gassed)
The 8th Border Regiment was withdrawn from the Battle of the Lys and stationed in the general area of Poperinghe. Their next action would see them fighting in the Battle of Aisne.
References / notes
- Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.182.
- Both Private Jones and Todkill being mentioned in the Divisional History quoted in the 8th Battalion in the Battle of Messines chapter for their bravery, stating: "Privates Jones, Langley, Routledge, Crone, Bailey, Todkill, Wright and Singleton as stretcher-bearers were conspicuous for their disregard of danger in bringing in the wounded."
- The 25th Divisional History.
- War Diary of the 8th Battalion Border Regiment, 12th - 13th April 1918.
- Kemmel Hill was recaptured during the Fifth Battle of Ypres in the last few day of Septemeber 1918.
- The officers listed here as missing, with the exception of Captain Isbister, were eventually killed in action and are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.