Staffordshire's Territorials and the Assault on the Hohenzollern Redoubt 13th October 1915
"Over the Bridge of Death" - 137th Brigade's Attack
At 2.00 p.m., the leading battalions of 138th Brigade, 1/4th Leicesters and 1/5th Lincolns, began their assault on the West Face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Private S. Orpe, looked up over the parapet of the trench to watch their attack go in:
"As we looked over, men could be seen running across. These were the Lincolnshires and Leicestershires, as they charged first."
At the same time, the bombing parties, together with the first wave of assault infantry from the 1/5th North Staffords; "A" Company, (Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Guy Jukes Worthington) and "B" Company (Captain Reginald Johnson), scaled the trench ladders and climbed over the parapet. The men then moved through the pre-prepared gaps in the barbed wire in front of the trenches and out into "No Man's Land", where the officers ordered the men to lie down. The lead companies were then organised into extended order under the cover provided by the smoke screen.
At 2.05 p.m., the order to advance was given. One survivor recounted later how men of the battalion shouted "Potters For Ever!" as they scrambled up to begin the attack. The line then attempted to move forward in rushes. Private Harrison advanced with the first wave:
"A whistle blasted, and over the bridge of death we climbed and shouted. I got clear of our barbed wire and commenced to advance, rifle and bayonet fixed in one hand and spade in the other, under a terrific machine-gun fire, bullets whizzing past me in thousands. I got about one hundred yards and took a short rest; up again, but alas! a bullet hit my spade, glanced off and grazed the bone of my left eye slightly. It dazed me for about one minute, but I soon recovered myself, only to find that I was about thirty yards from the first German line. Now I had to make the best of my way back. I saw my left flank trench and made a dash for it, jumping clean into same, at which juncture I bandaged myself, still having the picture of the battlefield in my mind."
As the North Staffords began to move forward, a hail of machine gun and rifle fire swept through the ranks. Captain Worthington was hit in the thigh and later found that the copy of the New Testament he was carrying in the left breast pocket of his tunic had a bullet pass through it lengthwise and was fortunate to suffer no further injury. Worthington picked himself up from the ground and continued to carry on forward, but could only see a handful of men from his company. The small group ran towards a communication trench and jumped over it, before again lying down on the other side. No other troops could be seen in the vicinity, so they raced forward to another trench and jumped down into it. This proved to be a communications trench that had been dug by 9th Division during their brief occupation of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Captain Worthington also found several men from the South and North Staffords bombing parties, who were engaged in the attack on Big Willie, with which the trench was connected. One witness described seeing Captain Johnson standing on the parapet of the trench, waving his cane shouting, "Come on, "B" Company!" to encourage his men as they struggled over. He was wounded a few moments later, but was not seen alive again. Lieutenant-Colonel John Knight also climbed out of the trench with his men to lead them into their first attack. He was last seen falling after being hit in his side by a bullet.
|Lieutenant-Colonel John Hall Knight V.D. (1865-1915)
John Knight was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme and was educated at the town's High School and at Rugby. He qualified as a solicitor in 1888 and became a partner in the family law practice in 1894. Knight was clerk to the Newcastle Borough Magistrates between 1898 and 1902, and was secretary of the North Staffordshire Employers Insurance Committee. He joined the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the North Staffords in 1883, and became a Captain in 1889, taking command of "E" Company in Stoke. Knight was promoted to the rank of Major in 1901 and Lieutenant-Colonel and Honorary Colonel in 1908, taking command of the 5th North Staffords on its formation as part of the Territorial Force in April of that year. He had also been awarded the Volunteer Decoration. Colonel Knight was reported missing presumed killed after the attack on 13th October and is commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing, Panel 103 to 105.
The second wave; "C" Company, (Lieutenant (Acting Captain) C. R. Keary), and "D" Company, (Captain Harry Ridgway), followed the initial assault after a few moments. It was now Private Barlow's turn to climb from his trench:
"Up we scrambled, bullets whistling past our ears like hailstones. Off we started. The lad on my left dropped all in a heap without a murmur. About five more paces, the lad on my right dropped. Then they dropped all round me in twos and threes. I wondered when my turn would come, and what it would feel like when it did come. I had not long to wait. I had gone about 50 yards when bang: crack! Got it in the leg. Just throwing my arms up in the air - bang! - copped it again in the right upper arm. Down I go."
Private A. Preston was a member of "D" Company:
"When our Company got over, the first thing that met our eyes was the chaps lying in front, some dead and others wounded. It took me all my time to keep in touch with them, as they were mowing us down so fast with machine guns. I was just thinking to myself what Frank asked me for, when a bullet struck me in the calf of my left leg. I lay down and rooted myself in for safety and got my puttees off. I dressed the wound with my field dressing, and then I crawled back to our trench, which was full of dead and wounded who had been fetched in."
The advance of the second wave suffered the same fate as the first. The remnants of the two companies had reached no further than the communications trench. On assessing the situation and the state of the men after the harrowing ordeal of crossing to the position, the senior surviving officer, Major Charles Barke, decided that the 1/5th North Staffords would remain in the trench.
Two companies of the 1/5th South Staffords, together with Nos. 3 and 4 Bombing Parties from the battalion, were located in a communications trench to the east of Big Willie. The two companies had orders to wait for the first line of the 1/5th North Staffords to reach their position before advancing forward with them. The commander of "C" Company was able to observe that the 1/5th North Stafford's advance had been checked, and his men remained in the trench. However, Captain William Millner , the officer commanding "B" Company, was unable to see the developing situation and therefore continued with his orders. The Company then climbed out from the trench and lay in front of it; 7 Platoon at the front, 6 and 8 Platoons in the second line, waiting for the 1/5th North Staffords to arrive and link up with them. As they moved through the gaps cut in the barbed wire into the open, several men were hit by enfilade machine-gun fire from the Redoubt, and the German artillery began to shell the trench. Having suffered heavy casualties in this exposed position, the survivors were compelled to scramble back into the communications trench. Among the casualties still lying out in the open was Captain Millner. Private Fred Proverbs climbed back over the parapet in an attempt to rescue Millner. A shell killed both men while Proverbs was dressing Millner's wounds.
Men of "F" Company of the 5th South Staffords at Bow Steet Camp in 1912. "F" Company was based at Hednesfird and recruited from the town and nearby Cannock. On the reorganisation of Territorial Force Battalions to the four-company system, "F" Company became part of "B" Company of the 1/5th South Staffords. During the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt one office and ten other ranks from the Hednesford Territorials were killed, and a further ten men were wounded.
The second wave of the 1/5th South Staffords' attack, consisting of Battalion Headquarters, "A" Company and "D" Company, were positioned in the old British front line between Hulluch Alley and Border Alley. At 2.10 p.m., they attempted to cross over towards Big Willie to link up with the remainder of the battalion. A soldier from Walsall, Sergeant H. Smith, took part in this advance:
"Over the parapets we went, but no sooner did we show ourselves than we were subjected to heavy machine-gun fire. Men dropped left and right, but the others never faltered. After receiving a slight wound in the arm, I fell to one in the back. Comrades who witnessed the attack said they had never seen lads go into it better."
None of the officers and only a handful of men from the two companies managed to reach their comrades in the forward trench, most of the survivors retiring back to the trenches from where the attack had begun. Captain Leslie Cozens , the officer commanding "A" Company, was severely wounded during this attempt to advance and died the following day.
It was now the turn of the third assault wave to try to reach the first objective. The companies moved forward from their assembly trenches to the front line. "A" Company, (Captain J. H. Thursfield) and "C" Company, (Captain W. C. Parkes - wounded) led 1/6th South Stafford's attack following in the wake of the 1/5th South Staffords, while the 1/6th North Staffords forward line consisted of "A" and "B" Companies. These troops were also to suffer heavy casualties from artillery and machine gun fire as they tried to move forward on ground devoid of cover.
Lieutenant P. J. Slater, who was wounded during the attack, watched the advance from the battalion headquarters dugout of 1/6th South Staffords:
"It was wonderful seeing the great smoke-cloud along the front, and then five minutes before the bombardment stopped, the figures crawling over the parapet and lying down in front, as far as you could see either side. At the moment the guns lifted, all got up and began to run, or rather, jog. Then they all seemed to melt away."
About seventy men from the two forward companies of the 1/6th South Staffords had managed to reach as far as Point 57 of Hulluch Alley, where they linked up with the remnants of the 1/5th South Staffords.
The forward companies of the 1/6th North Staffords also came up against withering machine gun fire as they attempted to advance across the open ground. Company Quartermaster Sergeant Martin, a Uttoxeter man serving with "B" Company, gave a stirring account of their exploits to his local newspaper:
"Exactly at the appointed time the signal to advance was given, and Major Peach, who was in command of the company, was first out of the trench. Then the advance began across the open, the men moving as if on parade. The forward movement was well maintained, although men were falling fast for the first 300 yards, when Captain Bamford fell. He was last heard shouting "Come on, lads!" The first position was reached and it was won by the bulldog courage of the men, and was held with more than bulldog tenacity."
The reality of the situation was that while a few men from the forward companies had managed to reach the communications trench connected to Big Willie, most of the survivors were compelled to return to the trenches from where the attack had started. Major E. W. Peach , the officer commanding "B" Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, was wounded during the advance. In a letter written from a hospital in London, he recounted how he was rescued and taken to safety:
"I was hit early in the attack while leading my men, of whom I am very proud. They were as cool as if on parade, and charged at quick time. I had a fearfully painful time getting back about 300 yards in the open, crawling with my leg dragging behind, expecting to be hit again every minute. My servant Wilkinson stayed with me like a brick, and lifted up the barbed wire entanglements so that I could get under. Then he bound the leg with two pieces of board to stop it wobbling and carried me on his back for two miles to the Dressing Station, where Colonel Dent set my leg."
Two sections from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company had also advanced with the third attack wave of 137th Brigade. Although it had been intended that they would be carrying out engineering tasks related to consolidating any captured positions, the sappers now found themselves mixed up in the chaotic conditions of the first line trench as a member of the Company, Sapper Aarron Foster, recalled:
"When one of our chaps got hit, me and another chap bandaged him up as well as we could under rifle fire and shells, and we carried him into a trench, where he died. Just then a little bit of shrapnel hit me in the head, and then a shell came and knocked the parapet over me and scarred my face."
Second-Corporal Thomas Adams repaired the parapet of the fire trench in full view of the enemy, despite their trenches being only 40 yards away from him, until he was wounded by a bullet which fractured his right arm. For this act of courage, Adams was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal .
The fourth wave of 137th Brigade's assault consisted of "B" Company (Captain Ernest Cresswell -wounded and missing) and "D" Company (Captain W. A. Adam - wounded), of 1/6th South Staffords, and "C" and "D" Companies of the 1/6th North Staffords. They were ordered to move from their assembly trench to the front line as planned. However, due to the communication trenches being clogged with the dead and wounded from the previous attacks, they were compelled to advance across the open to reach the forward trenches. Sergeant Caleb Norton was with "C" Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, and described the events that followed in a letter to his brother:
"As soon as my platoon got over, I had Cpl. Fradley shot dead. The next I saw was Private Marsh badly bleeding. He asked me not to leave him. I called for stretcher bearers. Next I saw Captain Jenkinson shot through the leg. He fell and the stretcher bearers came to him, and they were also shot down. One was killed - Pte. Neville of my platoon - three were wounded. The next I saw was Staff Sergt. Platts and Kenney shot and several more.
I then advanced into the first line trench. I found about all the officers had been shot. I got my men together then rushed into the second line trench without losing a man in my platoon on the second rush. I think there was a great mistake in rushing the first time in short rushes. We lost a lot of men by doing so. A rush straight across would have been a success. We were all exposed to fire. I dropped into a shell hole. I stopped in the first trench for about ten minutes. I told the men to prepare to advance into the next line of trenches about two hundred yards away without halting and they did. I was very pleased to know all got across without a man getting hit."
Heavy casualties were suffered by the fourth wave as they moved forward across the open ground to reach the first line trench. On arriving at the front line, the remaining troops of the companies forming the fourth wave were ordered to remain in position to defend it against German counter-attacks. Sergeant Norton found that the front line was in a state of utter confusion as dead and wounded mingled together, making any further attempts to advance impossible:
"I then got an order from Colonel Radcliff to hold this trench. So this stopped us from advancing any further. Here I found us all mixed up with all sorts of regiments, South and North Staffords, Lincolns and Leicesters. We were having it very hot with bombs but we gave them more than they gave us. It was a fine bit of work to see young Schofield of my platoon running the Germans up the communications trench with bombs. I never expected him to come back but he did in an awful sweat - he had used all his bombs."
The Brigade's eight bombing parties were heavily committed throughout the attack and consequently suffered severe casualties. At 2 o'clock, No. 5 Bombing Party of 1/6th North Staffords commenced their attack up Big Willie and had managed to advance approximately thirty yards up the trench in an attempt to link up with 138th Brigade. The party got as far as a second trench block but as the casualties started to mount up, and under a fierce German counter-attack, the survivors were forced to withdraw back to the barricade from where they started. A second attempt was then made to advance up Big Willie by a bombing party from 1/5th South Staffords commanded by Lieutenant Hubert Hawkes. The bombers succeeded in pushing back the German defenders using both grenades and their bayonets. Eventually, the second trench block was reached and the 1/5th South Staffords began to consolidate their position, frantically pulling down the battered parapet of the trench to improve the barricade. A bombing party from the 1/6th South Staffords also arrived in Big Willie and was actively engaged in defending the position until virtually the entire contingent became casualties. Some bombers may have advanced further, but this could not be confirmed, as Major Law reported:
"I observed signalling from the 'Dump" for more bombs and S.A.A.; also later for reinforcements. At the time I took the signal to be from our advanced bombing line but I could not convince myself that they should have arrived there."
Private H. Holden, normally a member of "A" Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, was a member of No. 6 Bombing Party:
"At five minutes past two we all mounted the parapet, most of us feeling mad - some wild with thirst for German blood. Then I witnessed the most awful sight I ever saw in all my life. Hundreds fell before we reached the German lines and then didn't we let into them. I cannot describe what I saw, as I was too excited. Later we got reinforced, as almost all of our officers had either been killed or wounded. I got back into our own trench, thanking God "
At about 2.30 p.m., the Germans mounted a counter-attack against the trench block in Big Willie. Sergeant J. Beards and a section from "C" Company of the 1/5th South Staffords defended the barrier. Beards and his section became involved in a ferocious struggle to hold their position, both sides using their bayonets and throwing grenades. Lieutenant Hawkes, alerted to the dangerous situation at the barrier, brought forward a party of bombers to reinforce the defenders . A group of German infantry was seen trying to advance over the open ground in an attempt to cut off Sergeant Beard's party. 10 Platoon quickly lined the parapet of the trench and engaged the advancing Germans with rapid rifle fire. A Sergeant from Walsall witnessed the action:
"A few of the enemy found their way down an old communications trench, and got within ten yards of our barbed wire, from where they threw bombs. From our 'bay" we potted at them and bombed them out. Our trench was attacked on the left by the Germans, who were trying to force a barricade. We continued bomb-throwing until darkness came on. There was heavy and continuous artillery fire all the time."
Faced with this determined defence, and having taken several casualties, the Germans were forced to withdraw. After a brief lull, another attack was then made on the barricade in Big Willie. Sergeant Beards, assisted by Private W. Barnes, was again compelled to defend the position at bayonet point. Beards received a bayonet wound to the head during this encounter. The Germans were now advancing in strength down the remains of the trench and continued to shower Beards and Barnes with grenades. At about 4.00 p.m., the two men were forced to make a fighting withdrawal after Germans began to attack from three directions with grenades. No support was available due to heavy casualties among the bombing parties.
While the actions in Big Willie were taking place, carrying parties tried to bring up more supplies of small arms ammunition and grenades, but were hampered by the narrow communication trenches being clogged with casualties. There was a shortage of Mills Bombs available at the supply dumps and a wide variety of types, including rifle grenades and bombs without detonators or fuses, were sent up to the units of 46th Division. Most of these proved to be useless.
By 4 o'clock, the fighting on the 137th Brigade front had virtually ceased, with both sides conducting an artillery duel over the area. In the space of about ten minutes, the Brigade had been decimated and the remnants of the Staffordshire battalions had not made any significant progress against the defenders of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The ground in front of the first line trenches was littered with dead, dying and wounded soldiers. Among these was Private Joseph Barlow:
"There I lay flat, face downwards, wondering what would happen next. A few yards away lay seven or eight pals, some dead, some gone delirious. I felt more sorry for them than I did myself. I could not help crying and praying for the Lord to help them. You should have seen me digging a hole with my chin in the soft ground. I couldn't get low enough, the bullets were flying within an inch at times."
Several soldiers tried to rescue their wounded comrades, as Caleb Norton witnessed:
"Next I met Lance Corp. Mallett. He had been over the top and fetched in two wounded. I begged him not to go over again. He would not be persuaded by me. He went - did not go far before he was hit never to rise again. It was a case of several men throwing their lives away trying to save the wounded. But it was murder to go."
Norton's brother, Sergeant Sydney Norton , was also wounded during the attack but managed to crawl back to the trenches. He later recalled his experience in a letter to his wife in Fazeley:
"I crept about 200 yards on my stomach into a safe place where the stretcher bearers could get me expecting every minute was my last. As I was being carried away they were pinging away at us but Oh when I was in a safe place I prayed and thanked the Lord above. I could see him on my right and you and the children on my left."
The walking wounded were able to make their own way to the first aid post in Bart's Alley, but those who were more seriously injured had to wait in agony until they could be taken to the Collecting Station, as Sergeant Caleb Norton observed:
"I walked along the trench. I witnessed a terrible sight of men killed and wounded and no stretcher bearers to be found. Men were in awful pain. I dressed a lot of wounds and then sent them out of the trench. Them that could not walk had to lie in the trench in awful pain for twelve to eighteen hours or more."
Dusk had now begun to descend over the battlefield. Private Barlow, of the 1/5th North Staffords, had been lying wounded in the open for about four hours when he decided to try and reach the British trenches:
"After dark I thought I would risk my neck and try and get back to our trenches. I unbuckled my belt and gradually took all my equipment off (about ½ cwt.), and crawled on my stomach, keeping low and acting dead when their flare lights were up. Got to our barbed wire, crawling under it got my tunic fast; loosened it, got up and ran the other ten yards like a March hare, and plunged head first into the trench, wounds or no wounds. Then I started off as well as I could hobble, stumbling and striding over dead and dying."
Sadly, for some of the wounded their rescue proved to be too late, as Caleb Norton recalled:
"By this time it was getting dark, and I thought it was a good opportunity to get in some of the wounded we could. First we got in Capt. Jenkinson (Talbot helped). He lay in the open for several hours for it would have been certain death to have gone out to him. After a struggle we got him in. It was a case of being cruel to be kind. As he lay on the fire step, he asked for a doctor. We could not do anything, for there was not an ambulanceman to be found. We made him as comfortable as we could. I could see he had been hit again, for he had an awful wound in his stomach. I watched over him. I could see he could not last long. He lasted about an hour. Then we put him in a small disused trench close by. We covered him over."
Staffordshire men were also involved in the attack made by 138th Brigade on the West Face of the Redoubt. A detachment drawn from 1/3rd North Midland Field Brigade had been operating one of the 95mm mortars that were tasked with laying down smoke cover for the advancing infantry of the 1/5th Lincolns. Seeing that the infantry had suffered heavy casualties the detachment commander, Lieutenant Arthur Morgan , led his gunners forward to help. Several members of the party became casualties including Lieutenant Morgan, who was killed.
The 138th Brigade's attack had met with some success and had gained a foothold in the Redoubt. However, due to the failure of the Stafford's assault, their position was vulnerable and heavy fighting was to continue there for the next two days. At 4.45 p.m., two sections from 1/1st North Midland Field Company climbed over the parapet with the 46th Division's Pioneer battalion, the 1/1st Monmouths. Their task was to consolidate the positions taken by 138th Brigade. As the sections crossed over to reach the infantry they came under machine gun fire. Major Samuel Tonks, the officer commanding, Captain Patterson and one sapper were killed and a further four men were wounded before the sections reached the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Two more men from the Company suffered gas poisoning. At 7.00 p.m., the remainder of the Company began to dig a sap from the assault trenches to connect them with the West Face. Old sections of German trench were also opened and eventually linked with the sap. A telephone cable was then laid along the trench, allowing communications to be established with the troops located in the Redoubt.
The 2/1st North Midland Field Company, commanded by Major James Selby Gardner , had been placed under the command of Divisional Headquarters and was put in charge of operating a searchlight mounted on wagon. The searchlight was to be used to illuminate any counter-attacks the Germans might make once the position had been taken. Having manhandled the wagon into position, the operating detachment, under Lieutenant Frank Eagle, was in position by 4.00 p.m. and awaited further orders. The orders came an hour later and at 5.05 p.m. the searchlight was switched on for a minute's duration at five-minute intervals. The beam drew heavy machine gun fire from the Germans. As Major Gardner went up to the searchlight position to check on developments, he was wounded in the neck. The rest of the Company were used as carrying parties, bringing up petrol cans filled with water from Vermelles for the troops in the firing line to drink. It was recorded that the sappers took up some forty gallons of water to the front line. Sergeant Ernest Lester was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his leadership during the action. As well as rescuing several wounded soldiers from No Man's Land, he on one occasion waded waist-deep into a pool of water to recover an injured man . Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) Patrick Welchman of 1/2nd North Midland Field Company later received the Military Cross for rescuing wounded lying out in front of the trenches. His citation reads:
"Throughout the night and during the morning mist he worked continuously under difficult and dangerous circumstances, collecting and bringing in wounded from in front of our trenches. This is not the first time that Captain Welchman's name has been brought to notice for similar gallantry."
The remnants of 137th Brigade were split among several positions. One group remained in the communications trench near Big Willie during the night under trench mortar and machine-gun fire. The rest of the Brigade was still positioned in the first-line trench from where they had begun their attack and remained there throughout the night and the following day. Efforts were made to reorganise the defence of the positions in case of a German counter-attack by the surviving officers, as Major Law reported:
"All the men that that could be collected were pushed up to the fire trenches, which at times were very thin in places. About a dozen men were kept back for passing bombs up the communication trenches, which had become badly blocked with wounded."
Sergeant Caleb Norton recalled that:
"It was an awful night, foggy and damp. The enemy tried a counter-attack but were repulsed. At daybreak they continued to shell us. I found out that Sergt. Hayward had been hit by a shell but did not see him. All day long we stuck to the trench expecting a counter-attack, but it was an artillery duel all day long. About four o'clock we had news that we were going to be relieved at nine o'clock, but unfortunately did not get relieved until seven the next morning by the Guards."
On the morning of 14th October, Brigadier Feetham went up to inspect the trenches that were held by his Brigade. He informed the remaining officers that the Guards Division would relieve them that night. The Staffords had to wait until the following morning until the troops from the 3rd Guards Brigade took over from them.
As the men of the Guards Division filed into the trenches, Caleb Norton recalled the scene as the shattered remains of 137th Brigade withdrew. He also checked the body of his company commander, Captain John Jenkinson, to recover his personal effects:
"I shall never forget that Saturday morning when we left the trenches. The spectacle presented was that of a true battlefield. In a tangle of torn barbed wire were to be seen the scattered bodies of the slain - many of them being held up more or less in an upright position. This is where I saw the last of the Captain. I had the unpleasant job to search him. I had to take everything from him and make a list of things he had on him. I should have liked some of his things in remembrance of him but the only things I had was his collar badges and stars which I hope to keep in remembrance of him. Next we had the order to file out. I had to get to the rear and see every man what was left was out of the trench. The Guards took over duties. I should say I was the last man to see the Captain. I had a good look at him before leaving."
Sergeant Norton, together with the rest of what remained of the 1/6th North Staffords, reached Vermelles later the same day and was transported to billets near Sailly Labourse by London Omnibus. He later recalled that:
"They took us to a place the other side of Vermelles. We halted and had breakfast in a farmyard. Here we were visited by the General and the Prince of Wales. He said he was proud of us. We had done all that was expected of us."
Go to the next part of the story - "The Aftermath"
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Copyright © Andrew Thornton, January, 2000.
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