The 1st Bn. KSLI at Morteldje Estaminet


The 21st-22nd April 2006 will be the 90th anniversary of a little known about attack made by the 1st Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. It was a very small affair, that paled into insignificance when compared to the large battles that were to follow. So why did the Battalion get a mention in Haig’s daily communiqué for this attack? Possibly it was down to the sheer determination shown by the troops who made the attack in appalling muddy conditions.

On 15th April 1915, the 6th Division started to take over the 20th Division’s line, which ran from the canal near Boesinghe to trench B17 near Algerian Cottage. This part of the line had been fought over many times, and during the winter it had been impossible to keep a continuous front line; those trenches that did exist had low parapets and were not that bullet-proof, with little wire in front. At this time there were few dug-outs or communication trenches. The 1st K.S.L.I. took over Camp “E” (formerly Camp “A”) in Wood “A30”, and next day marched to Reserve positions on the canal, and at Chateau des Trois Tours, 700 yards west of Brielen, and Work L.2., 800 yards north of Brielen.

German attack on Morteldje Estaminet

The Germans had intermittently shelled the front line at Morteldje Estaminet throughout the 19th April, becoming intense at 5 p.m. At 7 p.m. a green rocket rose from the German lines, and their bombardment then lifted to Clifford Tower, Vicar Lane and The Willows. German infantry swarmed from their trenches and captured the following trenches:-D.20, D21, the Ducks Bill, Willow Walk, S.18 and S18a from the 8th Bedfordshire by 8.30 p.m. The 2nd York and Lancs. were ordered from the canal bank to the support line, whilst the K.S.L.I. troops at Chateau des Trois Tours, and Work L.2 moved forward to join those already stationed at the canal. At 2 a.m. on the 20th a company each from the 2nd York & Lancs and 8th Bedfords, launched a counter-attack. The York & Lancs. company got into D.21 and D.20 but could only hold on to the left part of D.21. The Bedfords on the right, thought that they had re-captured Willow Walk and S.18a but they had in fact mistaken part of Gawthorpe Road for their objective. Patrols reported that the Germans still held the captured trenches in strength. Another counter-attack by the York & Lancs & Bedfords was planned for 10 p.m., the K.S.L.I. carried up supplies and ammunition to these battalions, however the attack was cancelled so that a thorough bombardment could be carried out. Meanwhile the York & Lancs relieved the Bedfords from B.16, B17.a and support trenches during the night.

The bombardment for the new counter-attack started at 8 a.m. on the 21st, and during the day groups of Germans were seen retiring towards High Command Redoubt but later in the afternoon were seen to return. The 1st K.S.L.I. received orders to carry out the counter-attack, with three sections, to start at 10 p.m. The attack would be covered by three barrages, the first starting at 10 p.m. along the line south end of Turco Farm to Junction on D.20-21 and lasted five minutes. The second barrage fell along Willow Walk-S.18.a. lasting for fifteen minutes, the third lasting five minutes along Duck’s Bill-Morteldje Estaminet. But none of the three sections who were carrying out the attack got to their start lines on time due to the darkness of the night and the torrential rain that was falling, which made the ground very slippery. The forward Artillery officers soon realised the situation and liaised with the K.S.L.I.

Captain Collins’ “B” Company proceeded via Boundary Road to its start point, a track running north-west from the right end of Clifford Tower. The right section's objectives were S18.a. and Morteldje Estaminet. It attacked at 10.45 p.m. with 75 men plus five sappers in two waves, under 2nds Lt. R. C. Norton and E. H. Hannah. (Two platoons were left in reserve in The Willows.) They soon came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from S.18 causing several casualties, including Captain Collins and 2nd Lt. Norton wounded. On arrival at S18.a. no Germans were found and at once communication was established with the York & Lancs at Algerican Cottage. A bombing party under C.S.M. Evans, proceeded to the left to try and connect with “A” Company in the centre; they cleared the trench as far as the southern end of Willow Walk but could not find “A” Company, who were still struggling to get to its start line. Two bombing posts were established here and a listening post was put about thirty yards out in front. Also a Lewis gun was set up in the centre of this trench, while a third bombing post was established on the road near Algerian Cottage. At this point Captain Collins, decided not to proceed with the attack on Morteldje Estaminet because the British Artillery were still shelling it. “B” Company then dug-in on the line of S.18.a., which was now non-existent.

One hundred men of “A” Company, plus ten sappers, under Captain T. C. Hall, were in the centre. They proceeded to their start line, a hedge south-west of Turco Farm, via Boundary Road, The Willows, Knaresboro Castle and The Pump Room, but did not arrive until 1 a.m. Captain Hall decided to wait for “C” Company on the left , who were also struggling along the same route to get to their start line between the Junction of S.20 and the communication trench running down to the Pump Room and the left section of D.21. A greater part of “C” Company's two attacking platoons had became detached before arrival, so Lt. Fox returned to The Willows, where he had left his reserves, and collected and armed more men.

Both sections finally attacked at 2 p.m. “A” Company, whose objectives were Willow Walk and the Duck’s Bill, came under heavy rifle fire on passing Turco Farm. Captain Hall was wounded at this point and several men fell and were suffocated in the mud during the advance. Some confusion was caused, due to the fact that the Germans had dug a new trench about thirty yards in front of Willow Walk, the Germans retired on the approach of “A” Company and none were found in occupation. This new trench was later named Shropshire Trench. A few Germans were found in Willow Walk and bayoneted, and several others were shot as they retired back to their main line. Willow Walk had been badly knocked about and “A” Company consolidated what remained of it. Then Lt. Johnston and twenty-five men with a Lewis gun continued on and captured the Duck’s Bill at about 2.30 p.m., without loss.

“C” Company’s objectives were to establish a post of ten men at the Junction of D.20 and D.21, and a post of fifteen men at the junction of S.20 and Canada Trench. They were held up a little by wire near S.20, and after crossing this they came under heavy rifle fire from D.20. and D.21. The Junction of these two trenches was seized and a post set up. 2nd Lt. F. L. Platt established a post at the junction of S.20 and Canada Trench. The ground up to D.20 was deep in mud, and the only way for the troops to move forward in places was to crawl on hands and knees, throwing their rifles in front of them. About twenty to thirty Germans retired on the approach of “C” Company and only a few Germans were found in the trench, these were killed. Communication could not be established with the York & Lancs company in D.21. Lt. Fox reconnoitred the German front and found it strongly held  He was fired at owing to the approach of dawn, at which point he retired.

Meanwhile at the Duck’s Bill, Germans were seen massing near No. Man’s Cottage for a counter-attack, also British shell fire was falling short near the Duck’s Bill. Lt. Johnston decided to withdraw his men to the north end of Willow Walk, and reported the massing Germans. Fifteen minutes later the Germans attacked but were easily driven off by Lewis gun fire. Lt. Johnston was tireless in his efforts to beat off the counter-attack and to strengthen his section of the line. To save time he was always moving about in the open. As dawn was breaking he refused to go to into the trench, saying that he would do so once it got too light but unfortunately he was shot through the heart by a sniper. Lt. Johnston had written several humorous verse sand prose for Punch and these were later made into a book called “At the Front”.  Lt. R. L. H., Green then took charge of “A” Company.

Also at daybreak the Germans attacked “C” Company from a north-easterly direction.  They got to within thirty yards of D.20 but they were disorganised and easily driven off with bombs and rifle fire. The Germans had also tried to work their way down a sap near the junction of D.20 and 21, this to was driven off, and a block built about twenty yards up the sap. A machine gun was found in this sap and later handed to the York & Lancs. on relief. “A” Company had also spotted about thirty Germans with a machine gun in S.18. A bombing party forced them to retire towards Morteldje. “B” Company on the right immediately opened fire on them and it is thought few made it to their own line. The machine gun could not be found, and it was hoped that it would be found later as it was believed not to have been taken by the retiring Germans. The Battalion decided not to occupy S.18, because any movement in this trench may have been mistaken as Germans and fire opened on them, and communication with “B” Company in S.18a was impossible by daylight.

During the operation “D” Company, who were in reserve, had moved from the Canal Bank to The Willows, encountering some shelling en route, arriving at 11 p.m. The Willows itself was intensively shelled, especially between 2 and 3 a.m., causing several casualties. One platoon under 2nd Lt. H. T. Colbourn was sent to Battalion Head Quarters in Vicars Lane, near the junction with Clifford Tower, where it remain throughout the 22nd. Twenty-five men under 2nd Lt. R.W. Taylor, were sent to help “C” Company dig-in, they had lost most of their shovels in the mud during their attack. 2nd Lt. Taylor did not receive his orders until it was growing light, and consequently this party were seen as they passed Turco Farm and were shelled by field guns, luckily only suffering two casualties. This party remained with “C” and “A” Companies until the Battalion was relieved.

An intercepted German communiqué, asserted that they had evacuated the Morteldje trenches because of the wet and that they had no intention of retaining these trenches. Seeing that the Germans had no intention of retaining these trenches, they had gone to a lot of trouble in the two days that they had been in occupation to strengthen their gains. They had dug a new trench, fitted all the captured trenches with iron loopholes every few yards, numerous stores of bombs were found and four communication trenches had been dug back to their main line. A lot of work for trenches they did not intend to retain, they also launched several counter-attacks against the K.S.L.I.

Many acts of bravery took place during the night of 21st and the following day. Some were recorded in the national newspapers. Sadly no names were given but here are some of those acts of bravery mentioned in the papers.

One private, after being wounded in the knee, crawled into the captured trench and refused to leave because he thought there was insufficient strength to hold it. He helped repulse two counter-attacks, and only left thirty-six hours later on a stretcher. Another private held one of the saps single-handed against one of the counter-attacks. One of the officers had continued to direct the operation, while his arm was hanging by a thread. Considerable time and effort was spent in extricating and tending the wounded from the mud. A private of the R.A.M.C., attended about forty men in the open under fire, being wounded in the head himself, he then went on to organize parties to round up any isolated wounded left in the mud. One of the sergeants spent two hours digging a wounded man out of the mud in daylight, being sniped at the whole time. A L/Cpl spent six and a half hours getting a wounded man back a distance of 600 yards to the Aid Post in The Willows. He had carried the wounded man at first, till wounded himself in the shoulder, then he dragged and heaved him through the mud, all the time under fire, arriving in a total state of exhaustion. One unfortunate man had remain stuck in the mud undiscovered until the morning of the 25th April.

The German retaliation had been intense, and the Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Luard was severely wounded by a shrapnel bullet in the head, from the last shell of this retaliation at about 7 a.m. The Medical Officer, Captain Ingram, conveyed him at once to the dressing station at Essex Farm, and later he was moved to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station, where he died on the 24th April. The rest of the 22nd passed fairly quietly on the Battalions front, although the Canal Bank, Wilson’s Farm and La Belle Alliance received some shelling, also it continued to rain heavily throughout the day. During the night one company of the 8th Bedfords relieved troops of the 2nd York & Lancs in B16 and 17a, so that the York & Lancs could then relieve the 1/K.S.L.I. On relief the Battalion proceeded to Camp “E” in Wood A.30.

As already mentioned the 1/K.S.L.I. were mentioned by name in the Commander-in-Chief’s communiqué, and congratulatory messages were received from the Army Commander, General Plumer, Lord Cravan the Corps Commander, and the G.O.C. of the 6th Division.

The Brigade General also conveyed the following to Major Murray, who had returned to the Battalion to take command on the 23rd April.

“The Brigadier also wishes you to say to the Battalion, that in his opinion the action of the night 21/22nd April will rank very high among the many glorious exploits of the Battalion in the past, that its success is due to the careful arrangements made by Lieuenant Colonel Luard, to the gallant leading of the officers of the Battalion, and to the high standard of discipline, soldier-like conduct and personal gallantry which prevails throughout all ranks of the Battalion."

The Corps Commander, Lord Cravan, wrote the following to Mrs. Luard:

“I do not think any battalion was ever set a much more difficult and necessary task, yet in inky darkness, over shell-destroyed ground, in pouring rain, the K.S.L.I. went straight to their work, and under your husband’s splendid and gallant direction once more secured the safety of the left of the British line.”

He also made the following remark:

“A magnificent feat of Arms, and troops who could do this are to be entrusted with anything."

Phillip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph, wrote:-

“It was not a great action in which they were engaged. It was nothing more than the re-taking of a captured trench, and in this war such incidents will hardly find a record. But the marvel of it was first the courage of the men, a courage unrivaled in its difficulties, and carry it through to success by sheer will power.”

During the above operation the 1/K.S.L.I. had captured eight prisoners, and one machine gun. It had killed and wounded numerous Germans but its own losses were considerable. The War Diary records twenty-two other ranks were killed, six were missing, and 135 wounded (eighteen of these remained at duty.)

Officers Killed or wounded

Lt. Colonel Luard, Edward Baurryau, D.S.O., died of wounds on 24th April, aged 45. Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, V.A.23.

Lt. Johnston, Alec Leith, Killed 22nd April aged 26. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.Q.19.

2nd Lt. Hitchcock, Cyril Augustus, Killed 22nd April aged 22. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.K.3.

2nd Lt. Hazard, Charles Piper, missing 22nd April (killed) aged 28, Essex Farm Cemetery, II.G.6.

Captain Collins, H. S., wounded 22nd April.

Captain Hall, T. C., wounded 22nd April.

Lt. Bruce, R. W., wounded 22nd April.

2nd Lt. Norton, R. C., wounded 22nd April.

2nd Lt. Colbourn, H. T., wounded 22nd April.

Other Ranks killed on the 21st April 1916 (from "Soldiers Died in the Great War")

7673 L/Cpl. Best, Walter, aged 32. Menin Gate Memorial.

7682 A/Cpl. Coxall, John, Menin Gate Memorial.

20142 Pte. Fisher, John Robert, aged 34. Menin Gate Memorial.

18917 Pte. Holloway, Ernest John, Essex Farm Cemetery, II.K.4.

16050 Pte. Ingham, James, aged 32. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.K.5.

10165 L/Cpl. Jones, Thomas Willam, aged 23. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.P.17.

Other Ranks killed on the 22nd April 1916 (from "Soldiers Died in the Great War")

3959 Pte. Biggs, Noah, Menin Gate Memorial

16008 Pte. Burton, John, aged 22. Menin Gate Memorial.

17401 Pte. Cale, John, aged 38. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.P.16.

15991 Pte. Cheetham, Henry, Menin Gate Memorial.

19092 Pte. Davies, Rowland Hugh, aged 19. Menin Gate Memorial.

10265 Pte Edwards, James Andrew, aged 22. Menin Gate Memorial.

5883 Pte. Ellis, Frederick, Menin Gate Memorial.

17674 Pte. Goodwin, Frank Richard, aged 33. Essex Farm Cemetery, II.P.13.

18172 Pte. Jones, Robert, Essex Farm Cemetery, II.P.3. (C.W.G.C. records date as 24th).

6296 L/Cpl. Jones, Thomas, Menin Gate Memorial.

18443 Pte. Knowles, Sidney Walter, aged 20. Menin Gate Memorial

7859 Pte. Reese, Frank John, aged 33. Menin Gate Memorial.

17000 Pte. Roberts, John, Essex Farm Cemetery, II.I.5.

10039 Pte. Teague, Arthur Willie Tyler, aged 22. “D” Coy. Menin Gate Memorial.

7758 A/Cpl. Thomas, Henry, Menin Gate Memorial.

16776 Pte. Watson, James, aged 23. Menin Gate Memorial.

6621 Pte. Wilkes, Samuel Joseph, aged 18. Menin Gate Memorial.

Other Ranks Killed/Died of Wounds on the 23rd April 1916 (from "Soldiers Died in the Great War")

18196 Pte. Holton, Harry, Essex Farm Cemetery II.I.6.

12543 Pte. Shingle, James Enoch, aged 42. Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery VI.D.5.

9837 L/Cpl. Tart, William, Menin Gate Memorial.

More of the wounded may have died at later dates.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Annette Burgoyne.

Annette Burgoyne is the author of "The 6th Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry"

Copyright © Annette Burgoyne,  13th April, 2006.

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