8th Battalion in the Second Battle of the Somme
The build-up to the German Attack
For the 8th Border Regiment the year 1917 was coming to an end. After spending three weeks training at Béthune, the month of November passing them by, they moved to the Somme area, arriving at Achiet-le-Grand where they, and the entire 25th Division, became part of IVth Corps. The winter had turned cold and harsh and during this time the 25th Division relived the 3rd Division in the Quéant Sector, which was located due south of Bullecourt. The Division, mainly due to an unsatisfactorily protected front line, was given the task of ensuring that their particular piece of front line conformed to the standard and more. It was here that they worked hard on digging a continuous front-line trench system that connected all the sporadic posts and communication trenches to form something that would stand up to a full-on infantry attack. Wire, and plenty of it, was erected providing an impenetrable line, unless cut by enemy bombardments, and the communications trenches were linked to the reserve lines. This task, however, proved most challenging at times when they were faced with bouts of hard frost, which caused the ground to set like concrete making digging virtually impossible. When the frosts thawed, and usually quite suddenly, the ground again made situations difficult when trenches collapsed, sometimes becoming impassable. Their work was cut out for them and the bitterly cold French winter did not make things any easier.
A few weeks had passed by before the 25th Division was relieved by the 6th, moving to Savoy Camp not far from Achiet-le-Petit. It was here that the 8th Borders, and the entire 25th Division, remained in reserve whist the front was held by the 6th and 51st Divisions respectively. The IVth Corps, whose front at this time was roughly 12,000 yards, was holding the line with small posts and Lewis guns. Some parts of the line were better than others, mainly by way of communication trenches running between the different trench systems in the area. Others did have this luxury even though they were generally well protected with wire entanglements, however, the dangers concerning the lack of communication trenches was unavoidable, especially with a German offensive brewing and becoming more evident each day.
The Offensive Begins
It was almost a certainty that, during the early days of March, the Germans were going to attack sometime soon. Preparations were made to move the 74th and 75 Brigades of the 25th Division into strategic positions to deliver counter-attacks if such were needed, mainly in the event that the German infantry were successful in breaking through the British lines. The 8th Border Regiment, attached still to the 75th Brigade, marched to a forward position at Biefvillers, just north-west of Bapaume; the 74th Brigade in position north-west of Fremicourt in close support of the 51st Division. It was shortly after both brigades were positioned that any such counter-attacks were deemed impossible and as a result of this decision, the various different battalions of the entire 25th Division were used bit by bit to reinforce the other front-line divisions when and wherever they were needed most, usually dictated by the action and requirements therein at the time. The German attack commenced on the 21 March 1918 at 5am opening with a heavy-gun bombardment on the supply depots, railheads, ammunition dumps and camps towards the rear. Both the 74th and 75th Brigades were ordered to move up in close support of the 6th and 51st Divisions respectively. The 7th Brigade went in to Corps Reserve near Fremicourt. As Colonel Wylly states on the action of the day:
- “The Battalion was placed at the disposal of of the G.O.C. 16th Brigade, and was thus disposed in readiness to counter-attack N. of Vaulx Wood in the Vaulx-Morchies Line; “A” Company, Captain Birnie, on the right, then “B”, Lieutenant Reed, “C”, Lieutenant Allan, with “D”, Lieutenant Duggan, in reserve. The counter-attack was duly delivered and reached its objective by 3.10pm, but was unable to get any further, as the enemy wire was uncut; Lieutenant Reed was mortally wounded in this attack. The enemy in this sector of the front was now driven back and the position of the Corps line seemed to be secure; but later the Germans appeared to be getting round the left flank from the direction of Noreuil, and “D” Company of the Battalion was ordered up to the sugar factory at Vraucourt to form a defensive flank to the left. Here Lieutenant Bell, Sergeant Bowman and Private Stewart did excellent work when sent forward to reconnoitre; later in the day Lieutenant Bell was wounded and Private Stewart killed.”
The first day of the attack, considering the action that had taken place, was considerably favourable, however, in strategic positions at Vaulx and Maricourt Woods were pockets of German infantry that could not be moved. The evening set in and, like any other in battle when the guns had stopped, was spent in reorganising and preparation for the next day's attack, which duly came at 7.30am. At Vaulx Wood the 8th Border Regiment was surrounded on three sides by the closing enemy and, with seemingly unbeatable odds for a duration of four hours, A, B and C Companies of the Battalion managed to hold their positions against very heavy fire. Here they stayed as long as they could but when their right flank was seriously under threat, the division to their left had retired and when communication had been severed they had no other choice but to retire to safer ground along the Vaulx-Fremicourt Road. It was here that they were reorganised, yet those gallant men who decided to stay and fight did so to the very end; Second-Lieutenants Oakden and Fentiman along with 24 other ranks lost their lives holding the enemy off as long as they could. Also on this day Second-Lieutenats Dowdall, McTavish and Warwick were killed while Captain Birnie, Lieutenant Gandolfo, Second-Lieutenants Lightfoot and Sandwell were wounded and Second-Lieutenant Fryer was missing.
It was stated in the Divisional History that regarding men of the 8th Border Regiment:
- “Good work was done by Sergeant MacDonald, Lance-Corporal Stee and Privates Varty and Westbrooke with the Lewis guns. Sergeant Taylor, when all the officers of 'B' Company had become casualties, took command of 'B' Company, reorganised them, and during lulls in the battle produced a piccolo on which he played popular tunes to put new life into the weary men! Sergeant Ives took charge of 'A' Company later on, and with Corporal Pickup did splendid work in reorganising and encouraging the men. Sergeant Crayson, Corporals Wise, Carr, Sewell and Burkin did excellent work in bombing attacks, and Privates Lawless and Porter as battalion runners never once failed in their duty. The former displayed the greatest courage in carrying an urgent message over ground swept by machine-gun fire, though 5 other runners had already become casualties in former attempts to do the journey. 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. Lance-Corporal Duckworth, in charge of carrying parties, kept up a steady supply of ammunition.”
These gallant actions have been recorded and remembered through history and it is clear that the 8th Border Regiment, along with their comrades of the 75th Brigade and 25th Division as awhole did excellent work in their part of the Second Battle of the Somme. Only two days after the opening of the German offensive, the Battalion was relived and subsequently went back to Savoy Camp where they rested for a short period before being moved the short distance to Béhagnies-Sapignies, a couple of miles west of Vaulx and Fremicourt. Upon arrival they were ordered to move to the ridge and then dig in. Their next main action sees them back at familiar ground in the area of the French/Belgian border near Armentieres and the Battle of the Lys.
References / notes
The writing of this history would not have been possible without reference to: The Border Regiment in the Great War (book) by Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B., Gale & Polden Ltd, 1925. ISBN 1847342728