Captain Impey's War in Context - the Battle of the Hundred Days
Lieutenant Arthur Impey returned to France soon after the start of the major Allied counter-offensive of 1918 which would lead to victory on November 11. He had missed the German offensive of March 1918 and the first day of the new offensive which began on August 8 when Fourth Army attacked German positions east of Amiens and drove the enemy back towards the Somme battlefield. This represented the resumption of mobile warfare not seen since the first three months of the war.
On August 21, the day Impey arrived at the Artillery Reception Camp of 3rd Army at Doullens, Byng’s Third Army launched the Battle of Albert (August 21-31) over the old 1916 Somme battlefield. Third Army consisted at this stage of three Army Corps; IV, V, VI; Impey was with 17th (Northern) Division, V Corps. There was considerable gain of ground although there were difficulties crossing the swamp that was the Ancre valley. Other major attacks followed. He encountered the Wagon Line of his 79th Brigade ‘A’ Battery on August 23rd and the Battery itself near Engelbelmer on the following day. Englelbelmer was 8 kilometres north-west of Albert and was in Allied hands for the entire war. It was also the base of a Field Ambulance station. The battery had just returned to action after a short rest with the rest of the Brigade. His battery was equipped with six 18 pounder guns, the standard British field gun of the war with a range of over 7000 yards. An 18 pounder situated in Trafalgar Square could hit targets in Greenwich, Hendon and Putney. By evening on August 23rd Byng’s 12 Third Army divisions had advanced as much as three miles.
(b) BATTLE OF ALBERT
On the day he met up with the actual guns they were taking part in barrages fired to assist 17th Division (50 Brigade) in their crossing of the River Ancre to take Thiepval from both flanks. His battery provided six of the 144 field guns on the 8000 yard front. This was a calamitous day for 17th Division as they ‘went astray’ after early good work by the 10th West Yorks and 6th Dorsets, the former taking the Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts, notorious in 1916, before pushing through the ruins of Thiepval village. The two battalions were now supposed to advance due east towards Courcellete but, owing to the lack of landmarks, wandered south-east towards heaps of rubble and brick which had once been Pozieres. 52nd Brigade of 17 Division now joined the battle and were within 1000 yards of Courcellette when they were shocked to find that in front of them was not 50th Brigade but the enemy. Although a successful day it ended with a dangerous gap between 17th and 21st Divisions which the Germans were unable to exploit. The lack of landmarks given as a reason probably concealed the problems of adapting to the new open warfare.
On August 25 Impey went forward with Jimmy and revisited the “familiar landmarks” of the his own Somme battle – the Ancre, Thiepval village, Mouquet Farm and Grandcourt. He reported a personal buoyant, inspiring feeling for only the second time in the war as if this really was the beginning of the end; the other occasion was at Fricourt on July 1st 1916. He reported that nothing had changed except that “we were advancing into open warfare instead of being knee deep in mud and stuck fighting for the apparently impossible in endless rain with no cover”. The 17th (Northern) Division appears in Impey’s story throughout. He arrived in France in July 1915 at the same time as 17th Division after its formation in 1914 as a New Army Division. Indeed it is likely that Impey trained with 17th Division in 1914 and 1915 in Dorset and Hampshire as 78th and 79th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, were part of 17 Division from the outset. One brigade of 17th Division, 50th, was an assault formation on July 1 1916 alongside 21st Division and helped to take Fricourt with heavy losses. Early on July 2nd 1916 a patrol of 8th North Staffs, then part of 50 Brigade, entered Fricourt and took 100 prisoners.
17th (Northern) Division consisted of 50th, 51st and 52nd infantry brigades broken down into the following battalions…
10th Battaltion (Bn), West Yorkshires (50)
7th Bn, East Yorkshires (50)
6th Bn, Dorsets (50)
7th Bn, Lincolns (51)
7th Bn, the Border Regiment (51)
10th Bn, Sherwood Foresters (51)
10th Bn, Lancashire Fusiliers (52)
9th Bn, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment,West Riding (52)
12th Bn, Manchesters (52)
In 1918 the division was commanded by Major-General Philip Rynd Roberston (1866-1936). ‘Blobs’ Robertson commanded 1st Cameronians at the start of the war and in 1915 took over 19 Brigade. He took over command of 17th Division from Major-General Thomas D. Pilcher on July 13th 1916, the latter being sacked for failures on the Somme. Robertson was self-confident and willing to dispute orders. He upheld the standards of the pre-war Regular Army which he had joined in 1886; duty, discipline and military efficiency. John Bourne has described him as “a prudent, sensible and competent commander who hated war”.
On August 26 Arthur Impey was firmly back in the war as he went forward to reconnoitre for the battery towards Courcellette and Martinpuich; the latter had been captured by the 12th Manchesters on the day before. The battery at this stage was giving close support by barrage to the 17th Division attack with 51st and 52nd Brigades that day with the objective of Flers. Such attacks under the cover of the guns gave the greatest chance of success. The gunners were becoming experts in the quick barrage and in leapfrogging guns forward to guarantee continuous fire. On the same day Impey called upon a battalion headquarters and agreed to join the colonel with a section i.e. two guns for a dawn barrage. Throughout the day Impey worked closely to assist the infantry by silencing German machine guns in front of them, which were offering stiff resistance. They were in action near Eaucourt L’Abbye. At 1.30 a.m. the next day 50th Brigade ‘passed through’ and attacked Flers. The Germans now pulled back and 38th Division found Longueval evacuated on August 28 after it had been bombarded. On August 29 V Corps pushed its advanced guards eastwards towards Le Transloy. 51st Brigade occupied Flers and Guedecourt that day with little opposition. They continued further to a ridge 1500 yards beyond the latter. Two companies of the 7th Borders went forward another mile to the outskirts of Le Transloy but had no support so withdrew after dark.
In his history of 17th Division Atteridge comments upon the role of the artillery in supported the infantry battalions….
“It was the beginning of the exceptionally difficult and also exceptionally helpful work these batteries of the 78th and 79th Brigades R.F.A. did during the advance over the old Somme battlefields. Their ammunition supply was limited, the days of trench warfare when they could draw freely on huge dumps near at hand were over, and the arrangements for open warfare were only developing . Their support of the infantry advance was often so close as is seldom seen in modern war. Batteries and sections sometimes were actually in line with the Battalions with which they worked. They pushed so boldly forward that more than once, as day came, the gunners found themselves close up to the outposts, and took up improvised positions at short range. Officers and men passed the night in haphazard bivouacs, finding now and then shelter in old dugouts or ruined buildings. The horses were often watered at rain-filled shell holes”.
Robertson organised his three brigades, where possible, along the usual lines of one in the front line, one in support and one kept in close reserve, all rotating every two days.
On August 30th the whole battery was in a valley running north-east from Flers. Impey reached a crest and the fine view took in Gueudecourt below him, Le Transloy in front in the distance, Sailly-Sailleses, Morval and Les Boeufs on the right. Once again these were familiar places “seen and and hated in the winter of 1916”. 51st Brigade, however, failed to capture Le Transloy on that day or 52nd Brigade on September 1. At midnight a company of the 10th Lancashire Fusiliers were sent to take a cemetery about 500 yards south-west of the village. They lost direction in the dark and the attack miscarried. Another attempt at 4.20 a.m. failed. The main outflanking attack on Le Transloy also failed once again. There was temporary deadlock.
On September 2 the battery supported a further 17th Division attack on Le Transloy; 52nd Brigade attacked from the south with the 12th Manchesters and 9th Duke of Wellingtons whilst 50th Brigade attacked from the north with one company of the 7th East Yorkshires. The Germans now evacuated the village and the 6th Dorsets of 50 Brigade found only two German stragglers during mopping up operations. Later that day Rocquigny was also taken. That night there was a general German withdrawal opposite V Corps towards the line of the Canal du Nord.
By the end of September 3, Impey’s battery had advanced six miles ‘in pursuit’ that day with no casualties. By 3.30 p.m. 50th Brigade had reached the line of the Ericourt-Ytres Railway but could move no further because of German fire from the eastern bank of the Canal du Nord. Atteridge’s ‘History’ notes that the Germans had a specially annoying machine gun hidden in a copse on the margin of Valluhart Wood, east of the canal tunnel, until Major Marshall D.S.O. M.C., Impey’s friend from 78th Brigade, galloped one of his guns to the top of a hill at close range in front and, firing over open sights, silenced it in a few minutes.
On September 4th 50 Brigade crossed the canal as advanced guard; the 10th West Yorks took advantage of the ridge where the canal ran in a tunnel for six miles south-west of Havrincourt Forest. On the 6th units of 17th Division advanced through either side of the Fins gap and reached the formidable Equancourt trenches almost without opposition.
With the Australian capture of Peronne on September 1st and the Canadians breaking through the Drocourt-Queant line, an offshoot of the Hindenburg Line to the north, the German army had begun to pull back to the main Hindenburg Line. On September 6 the battery moved forward to a valley east of the Canal du Nord between Ytres and Equancourt. From September 12-26 the Allies fought a series of actions in the outer reaches of this formidable defensive position. On September 4th Arthur Impey looked back over the previous week..
“I have never had the feeling that we had driven the Huns from positions that they were prepared to hold to the last, rather to begin with on the Ancre. I think we anticipated their withdrawal by perhaps 48 hours. On our front, for instance, we have so far captured no guns. Later they fought bitterly at places it is true but, always, directly we had got enough Artillery to be formidable, they went back and sat waiting for us to come up and be shot at, as yesterday. It was all so different from the Somme where every inch was won at the price of blood that soaked it, where artillery fire never ceased and battle raged day and night. Advancing is good for morale but I should like to feel that we were dictating the speed of it and not the enemy. We press him and harry his retreat but we are not smashing him yet”.
Edmonds, in his relevant Official History of the War volume, also reflected at this point….
“There was among the older hands a certain amount of surprise and even bewilderment at the early successes; for in a few days the Armies had at a small cost traversed well known areas which in 1916 had taken months of arduous toil and heavy casualties to cross”.
From September 5 to 17 the battery was quiet as there was a relative lull in the fighting “with the line in front stationary, with no marked activity on either side”. Quiet still meant being shelled at long range, being subjected to gas attack and further danger from German aircraft as well as putting in some harassing fire of their own. There were small advances to straighten the line and to prepare for further action. On September 15 a German shell landed in the middle of the grazing battery horses, killing five and wounding eight. On September 7 Impey’s battery had moved forward to cross the Canal du Nord. On September 11th the 17th Division infantry they had been supporting were taken out of the line into Corps Reserve (after almost continuous fighting for three weeks) and the Brigade now came under the tactical control of the 38th Divisional Artillery. Since the crossing of the Ancre 17th Division had lost 479 men with 2386 wounded and 194 missing. 1303 German prisoners had been taken.
One of the preparatory actions against the German advanced positions took place around African Trench, part of the Hindenburg Line advanced works, on September 18 with the battery supporting a 38th Division attack as part of a wider attack with all three divisions - 17, 21 and 38). This was a prelude to the great battle for the Hindenburg Line, a ‘set-piece battle on a huge scale, elaborately prepared’.
On September 20 the 79th Brigade returned to its parent Division, the 17th (Northern Division). Impey was pleased by this news as “we come under our own CRA again thank goodness”. In other words the battery was now under orders from its own Artillery command. On September 22-24 the battery was near Gouzeacourt and Gauche Wood. On the 27th the battery supported a 5th Division attack on African Trench, which was changing hands on a regular basis, with a 7.00 a.m. barrage. Impey recorded…
“It was a beautiful day, all round the mist was lifting from the trees and valleys and in and out of the mist came the stabs of flame from hundreds of batteries, right, left, in front and behind, with the concentration of clatter, clack and bang that goes with a barrage on a big scale. It reminded me of July 1st 1916”.
(c ) BATTLE OF THE ST QUENTIN CANAL
During this attack towards the Hindenberg Line in one 24 hour period, September 28/29, British gunners fired 943947 shells, a record for the Western Front. Impey’s Brigade fired just over 47000 shells of different types (shrapnel, high explosive, smoke) during September with no deaths, and 26 wounded. Nineteen horses and eight mules had been killed.
On the day, 28th, the attack by 5th Division was not successful ‘on our front’ but was elsewhere with many prisoners; 17th Division had gone into reserve to rest. That night the Germans evacuated Gouzeacourt itself and African Trench. The battery supported a follow up attack on September 29, again part of a much wider attack by day which mobilized 1050 field guns and howitzers and 584 ‘heavies’. Whilst the battery was firing Impey went forward with Mac and two orderlies. They came across a trench and decided to follow it. It led to Gauche Wood…
“On entering the wood it became beastly, the nastiest sight I have ever seen. The trench was shelled all to pieces and the bottom and sides was composed was composed entirely of the shattered and decomposing remains of men, all of them ours, lying as they had died. For 500 yards one could hardly take a step without treading on them. Good shooting by the Huns and,as the trench was in direct enfilade, it must have been hell to hold and was our front line of two days ago”.
On September 30 Impey went forward, the Germans having withdrawn to the eastern bank of the canal during the night, and arrived at the road between Villers Guislans and Gonnelieu. He found an excellent OP where he could see Bantouzelle and the St Quentin canal with the Hindenburg Line behind which was looking ‘devilish stiff’. The next day he also noted the extensive barbed wire and deep trenches. The canal was “a fine waterway 40 yards wide and navigable for large barges” (Official History). The Germans had broken the bridges and commanded the west bank from their positions on the east bank.
Although Impey had been pleased to return to the support of 17th Division on September 20 on October 1st he wrote that “at the moment we’re supporting 21st Division so had no liaison to do, a great saving’. This illustrates the greater flexibility in the use of artillery in the final stage of the war. On that day it was clear that the Germans had evacuated the country west of the Canal de St Quentin on their divisional front.
On October 3 he went into the captured village of Gonnelieu which “like Villers Guislans was a pathetic sight’. As French villages were now being liberated, mostly for the first time in the war, he routinely reported on what he witnessed in them. At Gonnelieu there was “enough of walls and brick left to let one know there was once a village and that is all”. By the end of this day the 21st and 38th Divisions in V Corps front had reached the west side of the St Quentin Canal.
The Allied assault, particularly outflanking movements to the north and south, now triggered a German retreat on almost the entire British front. On October 4 the Germans withdrew from their defences east of the canal. The following day Impey witnessed this when he saw infantry patrols of 21st Division from his OP strolling across the open towards the Hindenberg Line “not a shot being fired at them, only a few shells falling right and left, but nothing heavy at all”; they then crossed two belts of wire and disappeared into an outpost trench. For Impey the lack of resistance was a ‘strange sight’ but one to be taken advantage of as it looked like there was the prospect of a big move. He decided to go ahead and find out how to cross the St Quentin Canal, which was in front of the Hindenburg Line.
Crossing major geographical obstacles during an advance presented its own problems. On his way towards Honnecourt his small party met ‘one of our own Sapper Majors…..coming back’ who told him that they going to put a bridge across the canal for heavy traffic but that it would not be finished for 24 hours. Impey was impatient to reconnitre ahead so took up the suggestion that the 21st Division were putting up light bridges towards Bantouzelle. It was difficult to get to the canal because of dykes running parallel to it to drain the marshy ground at the sides. He reached the canal which was in a deep cutting with “about 3 or 4 feet of beautiful clear chalk water”. After following the bank for about a mile he found the 21st Division sappers and a very keen and optimistic subaltern who promised a crossing by 3 p.m. that afternoon. They were also working at the lock gates at Bantouzelle but this would take longer. Sergeant Stuart was sent to look at the lock gates alternative whilst Impey returned to the battery. He explained that he was anxious to get forward with the luxury of a total absence of hostile fire. He returned to the ‘bridge’ in the early evening to find they had only made a footbridge. He went on to Bantouzelle to find the lock gates bridge would not be finished until after dark. Impey himself got across and went ahead to check on the roads which they would have to use when they could get across.
When he arrived at the main trench of the Hindenberg system he found that a Battalion headquarters was in a deep dugout. He was impressed by what he saw…
“I went down, quite 30 feet, and found a long gallery with little rooms opening out each side which ran, so they tod me, for hundreds of yards and, so far as they knew, was continuous right along the trench. It must have taken months and months to build and was safe against anything but an earthquake”.
Impey never liked taking risks so decided not to attempt a crossing with the battery in the dark. This was fully justified because when they arrived back at the lock gates early the next morning they found a temporary bridge but one gun in the lock and a half tipped over wagon partly blocking the way. Those on horseback crossed over leaving their own guns and wagons to wait for a clearer pathway.
He followed the main Cambrai road for a while and learned that the infantry battalion he was seeking to support were supposed to be somewhere near Montecouvez Farm. Later he learned that they had run into heavy machine-gun fire and needed help which Impey now provided after the battery had come forward. Impey described Montecouvez Farm, when he was able to get closer to it, as “large, with its outhouses and barns, as a baronial castle”.
The advance was now entering territory which had been in German hands throughout the war. There would be the unfamiliar sights of towns and villages showing no trace of shell fire; fields without craters; woods not reduced to mere branchless stumps of trees.
More infantry battalion support was needed on the following day, October 7, when ammunition supplies also had to be replenished. 36 wagon loads had to be brought up overnight from the position before the last. This meant negotiating the maze of barbed wire and trenches which formed the support system of the Hindenburg Line.
On October 8 Third Army resumed operations with zero hour at 4.30 a.m. Apart from the general objective of Le Cateau-Solesmes on the Hermann Line, some twenty miles away, it was important that the advance should keep pace with that of Fourth Army on its right. One particular difficulty was that the northern end of the Beaurevoir Line, a German reserve position about four miles to the rear of the Hindenburg Line, remained to be forced and, as a preliminary operation before the main assault, two divisions (38th and 21st) of V Corps carried out a night attack at 1.00 a.m.
That morning a barrage was fired by Impey’s battery and the right battalion was still supported. This was in support of an attack by 64th and 110th Brigades of 21st Division. Impey found a worried battalion commander whose ‘centre’ was being held up by machine gun fire coming from the woods and shrubberies of a chateau. This may have been the ‘Chateau des Angles’. The guns did their job and later in the day the whole of the chateau grounds were in Allied hands. 17th Division came back into the line after this which once again made Impey happy as “we shall once more come under our own CRA”. During that day’s attack Impey had noted that ‘our friends the Welshmen seemed to be holding up the right flank as usual’. This was a reference to the 38th Welsh Division, specifically 113 and 115 Brigades. This Division had been badly mauled in its assault on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme and did not return to action for over a year. Impey and the battery staff now went on ahead and came across a shallow German trench which had been hit by their morning barrage. There were “a few dead Huns left in it for luck, to show how well we did our job”. The group had pushed ahead for 3 ½ miles and the village of Walincourt lay ahead of them but still in German hands. Thus in the V Corps sector the Beaurevoir Line had been quickly overrun and the two divisions achieved an advance of about three miles, seizing three villages and two woods in the process. With the fall of the remaining section of the Beaurevoir Line the last established German defensive position had been breached, and it was now a matter of pursuit. The ‘break-in’ battle was over. The Beaurevoir battles were the final tough battles of the war although this was not realised at the time.
(d) THE PURSUIT TO THE SELLE/SECOND BATTLE OF CAMBRAI
On October 9 the battery went forward in support of 51st Brigade of 17th Division as the Germans had ‘disappeared’ once again towards the River Selle. During the night of 8/9 October they had retreated to the Hermann Position on the River Selle, which really only existed on paper and Cambrai was evacuated. Impey witnessed civilian scenes in Selvigny….
“…..here the scene was extraordinary – hundreds of old men and old women, young women and children, were flocking into the street, tricolours come from heaven knows where, were hanging from the windows of nearly every house. All were chattering, laughing, occasionally cheering, and passing round us, asking so many questions and so quickly that it was impossible to understand. Bunches of flowers were produced and given to everyone, the men grinning and making friends in the way peculiarly their own. I felt excited and happy and wondered where the devil
the Hun had got to and what I had better do next. Then two men came up to me very excited and told me the curee "'veut beaucoup parlez a un officer Anglaise”. So I was led away up a street towards the church, where stood a grimy unshaved, cheery old man in a cassock beaming through horn spectacles. He came up to me, pursed my hands, thanked me, blessed the British army, and said a lot of nasty things about the Bosch. But I hadn't time to wait long. I had to find out something so went back. I left the gun where it was, sent back a messenger for the rest of the battery to come on to that place and pushed on through the village, finding the cross roads in the centre blown up, only a huge crater remaining, the sides of all the adjoining houses having fallen in”.
The infantry had also captured Walincourt, Bertry, Clary and Caullery and had got into Montigny. A battalion commander informed him that the infantry were not going further that afternoon as ‘his men were done’. Impey reflected that “they had advanced about six miles with some pretty heavy fighting and heavy casualties”. Before returning to the battery Impey’s advance party received hospitality from a family of eight in a cellar. They were told that the previous four years of occupation had been ‘hell’.
“All their livestock had been requisitioned, all their fowls, most of their furniture and in return always paper insults and sneering promises to pay”.
Impey failed to note a tactical deviation on the initiative of Lieutenant-General ‘Tiger’ Shute (1866-1936), V Corps commander. Bourne describes him as an “exceptionally aggressive commander, a renowned front line general, an extremely demanding superior and something of a martinet”. He knew that the country ahead was untouched by war and had no sign of trench or wire so 33rd and 17th Divisions, which had passed through 38th and 21st Divisions, detailed composite forces as advanced guards, each including a whole brigade of field artillery. There was to be no barrage but batteries moved forward close behind the infantry to support when required. Shute believed that this method led to a faster infantry advance than when a protective barrage was employed. Although 51st Brigade of 17th Division was one of the advanced guards it was accompagnied by Impey’s colleagues in 78th Brigade RFA. Additional artillery were needed when the infantry were held up for four hours by German artillery and machine gun fire from Clary and Montigny. This may have included the 79th. Atteridge claimed that the “first man of 17th Division to ride into Walincourt was a gunner officer pushing forward with a one-gun detachment to find a line on which to bring up his Battery” which refers to Arthur Impey as his account of Selvigny follows. This cannot, however, be substantiated from the diary itself.
That night Impey slept on his first proper bed and his first roof since August 21st. He turned in with the expectation of another big advance on the following day, a pursuit to the line of the River Selle. Pursuit was a novel experience in terms of warfare since 1914 – the mud and horror of the trenches had been left behind.
On October 10 Impey’s battery pushed forward towards the River Selle in close support of the 50th Infantry Brigade, which had passed through the 51st, who encountered little opposition at first. He crossed the main Cambrai railway and entered Inchy. Once again happy French civilians were to be found….
“Here I caught up the rear companies of our Infantry again and, arriving at the village, the scenes of the day before were repeated. The Huns had left 3 hours only, and the people simply could not believe their eyes. They flocked out, cheered and waved flags. Again tricolours appeared like magic from the windows. An old man caught hold of my stirrup leather and ran along side. The Bosch was going back to Mauberge he said. There were no trenches in front but ‘Prenez garde to Le Cateau’,…….I left him behind still shouting and gesticulating, only to pass through more and more crowds of people, all happy, smiling and cheering but I didn't like the look of Inchy, shells were falling just outside the town. It was quite a big place, a most tempting target, evidently within range and I hurried on feeling it was only a matter of a very short time for the place to be heavily shelled. A bad lookout for all those people”.
Going ahead with Sergeant Tot Impey could make out Neuvilly and the deep valley of the River Selle and also see a German train moving at Solesmes to the north where he believed he was watching “the whole Hun army in that sector in full retreat” despite the fact that “On our front the Hun had retired very quickly pushed by our attack yesterday. We had followed right on his heels and our infantry were in contact but on our left, his right, he hadn’t gone back so far, by 3 or 4 miles”. Impey had advanced at least six miles in three hours and it was still the morning. He was not aware that the 50th Brigade was stopped by heavy German fire when between 600 and 1000 yards short of the river and were caught on a forward slope and took many casualties. At 11 a.m. he spotted gun flashes coming out of a hedge behind the road from Neuvilly to Solesmes. He opened fire with three guns to each of the two German guns that were there and let off 400 rounds of high explosive at 5000 yards range. He believed that he had put the German gun section out of action but was disappointed that no ammunition had exploded. The battery now spent the afternoon sniping at odd parties of Germans and ‘chasing ammunition wagons along the roads’. His work for the day was still not complete because the battery was now needed at 5 p.m, with others, to fire a creeping barrage to support the third Brigade which had passed through the others and was to attack the ridge of high ground the other side of the river as part of a four division attack under barrage with the support of all their field artillery and four batteries of heavy guns. Companies of West and East Yorks infantry of 50th Brigade managed to cross the Selle north of Neuvilly and took the railway embankment, the main German line of resistance. However, the position was untenable without support on either side so at 9 p.m. they withdrew to the western bank.
The next morning, October 11, Impey received a telephone call from Brigade to tell him to transfer from A to command C Battery as Acting Major to replace Mac who had been wounded. He spent the rest of the day settling in near Inchy disturbed only by German harassing fire. He noted that the war of movement had stopped for the moment with the infantry holding half of Neuvilly but behind it the River Selle and the high ground the other side looked a ‘tough proposition’. There would now be a prolonged fight for the demanding crossing of the Selle at Neuvilly.
(e) BATTLE OF THE SELLE
At 1.00 a.m. the next morning complicated orders appeared for an attack on either side of Neuvilly from 5.30 a.m by the 9th Duke of Wellingtons and 12th Manchesters of 52nd Infantry Brigade supported by a creeping barrage. The greater part of Neuvilly was occupied but counter-attacks forced them back, including back to the western side of the Selle. Impey believed that this attack was a ‘complete failure’ with heavy infantry casualties. The 79th Brigade War Diary thought differently – it was deemed a ‘partial success’ and ‘our troops finally held the line of the River Selle after suffering heavy casualties’. That day 52nd Brigade suffered over 1000 casualties. Outposts which were pushed across the river did enable the engineers to construct bridges. The 10th West Yorks established three such outposts south of Neuvilly which enabled 93rd Field Company, Royal Engineers, to construct four footbridges and three ‘light’ bridges. Deadlock followed.
There was now a seven day logistics driven pause for consolidation - bringing up ammunition and rations – and tactical adjustments before the second major assault on the Selle on October 20th; a period marked for ‘C’ Battery by incoming German harassing fire, being gas shelled and restocking with ammunition.
On October 15 Impey commented upon ’10 more cases of flu’. More followed and weakened the manpower available to the battery.
Impey described the climax of the Battle of the River Selle on October 19 and 20….
“Orders were for a frontal attack on all the high ground the other side of the river, with final objective 3000 yards back. Battery commanders to go forward as soon as the situation permitted to reconnoitre the Bridges the Sappers were throwing across the river during the night for tanks and guns - a pretty sticky job for the sappers as the river was the front line at present. The whole show looked like being sticky as the position was a very strong one indeed and the Huns had had lots of time to dig themselves well in and put up wire. Turned in at midnight to get as much sleep as possible.
Barrage opened at 2.00.a.m. A good deal of retaliation at first and the heavies on our left got some shells right into them and some of their ammunition went up with a great flare. There was a thick mist and you couldn't see an inch .The first news came through about 7.00. that 1st objective had been gained all along the line, so at 8.00 when our barrage was finished, I went forward with S to reconnoitre. Easy going at first but, as we got near the river, it was nasty. The mist prevented seeing anything. Shells were falling in and all round Neuvilly and right in front High Velocity shells kept on whipping in. As one couldn't see where they were falling one couldn't satisfy one's craving choosing what one felt was the safest route.I didn't like it a bit but there was nothing to do but go on and, presently, I made out the river and followed a tank that was ploughing its way through the marshy ground and evidently making for a bridge. The Huns hadn't found the bridge, anyhow the shells were falling right over and well short. We watched the tank over. He did it very well. The bridge, of iron girders, was just broad enough to take him with a slope down a sticky bank, then a bend right on the bridge, and another the other side and up the bank there. He just slipped down the bank, stopped, altered direction, slid over the bridge, not an inch to spare
anywhere, stopped again to change direction and then up the muddy slope and he disappeared into the mist, again seeming to move by some invincible power, perfectly under control and uncanny to watch. I found from the Infantry that they were hung up on the 2nd objective so, as there didn't seem much chance of getting forward at once, and I had got all the information I wanted about the bridge, I returned to the battery and found orders that we were not to move forward till ordered but that the 2nd objective was gained, a very fine bit of work by the infantry. I was definitely ordered not to move but await further orders. At 4 o'clock had orders to rebombard the 3rd objective but information was very meagre as to what had happened on our right and left”.
This 2 a.m. surprise attack by a full moon without a preliminary bombardment was carried out by 50th and 51st Infantry Brigades as part of a larger scale attack by 17th and 38th Divisions on V Corps front. They could now use 18 footbridges across the river. The leading companies of the East Yorks and Dorsets were able to form up on the east bank of the river before zero hour.
On the following day Impey was able to ride across the same bridge mentioned in his account above and up onto the high ground which had been attacked. Again he left a description of what he found….
“It was obvious that the taking of the high ground had been a magnificent piece of work. Just the other side of the river was a well concealed trench with wire in front and it was full of dead Huns. The slopes of the hill were covered with wire and the railway had been dug into and consolidated. Farther up and near the top was a sunken road with wire in front and machine gun posts dug in all along. It was a horrible sight - quite 150 Hun dead lay around, all bayoneted. There were very few of our dead. How our fellows had ever got there to do it was more than I could understand. They could have never done it in daylight as the field for machine-gun fire was perfect. But having got there they had made no mistakes. In the sunken road it was just the same, each machine gun pit was full of dead, bayoneted where they had served the guns. There was no mistaking that we had won a real victory this time, everywhere were signs that the Huns meant to stay. He had even begun to dig deep dugouts in places and proper communication trenches, whilst the amount of wire was astounding, considering the comparatively short time he had had to get it out. He meant to stay and give battle and he had a magnificent defensive position with the Selle river in front of him, 6 ft deep in places and everywhere necessary to bridge. We undoubtedly took him by surprise but that didn't detract in the least from the splendid performance of our infantry. lt was the best thing I had ever seen them do and for the first time since August I had the feeling as I looked around that we had driven the Huns from a position they had intended to hold at all costs. Voluntary withdrawal doesn't leave 200 dead lying on a forward slope with good trenches, well concealed behind and good wire in front”.
The attack had gone according to plan, with complete success, against a very strong position. Byng congratulated 17th Division on its work. Impey found a new battery position with Ovillers in front and the guns now crossed the River Selle and joined him. There was only sufficient respite to bring up fresh ammunition and a new barrage was needed to support the infantry on October 23 when the attack by 21st Division (64th and 110th Brigades), also by moonlight at 2.00 a.m, was successful despite Impey’s confused picture on the ground which was not helped by an inaccurate map location given over the telephone. This was part of a general attack by V Corps with five objectives over 9500 yards. The fifth objective was not taken but the advance was over three miles.
On the next morning a barrage was fired for an hour and a half in support of 33rd and 21st Divisions, the ‘advance guards’ of V Corps, and then, when there was sufficient daylight, the battery moved forward to the other side of Ovillers on the road to Vendegies. Ovillers by daylight was a ‘pathetic sight’ with every house hit and civilians who looked ‘scared, dirty and worn out’. Impey pushed on into Vendegies with Sergeant Jessup…
“which was full of civilians, who seemed very cheery in spite of the fact that the place had been heavily gassed during the night and was pretty badly knocked about. In particular the church tower had been completely blown to pieces by the Huns, blowing half one side of the church away with it, hard to justify as it would have been no good to us as an OP”.
Once past Ovillers Impey noticed a change in the landscape. Open, treeless country and rolling upland, devoid of cover but which gave good forward observation, was now replaced by highly cultivated small fields and orchards, all with high, thick, hedges and well-timbered. The leaves still on the trees did not help observation. In 1944 this would have been similar to the bocage of Normandy. Impey did, however, manage to pick out Poix du Nord (which could not be shelled because it was full of French civilians), the Forest de Mormal, Englefontaine and Le Quesnoy church. The battery was now 65 men short because of the flu and casualties. This was significant number given the usual full establishment of about 198 men. By the end of October 24th the infantry had reached the Forest of Mormal.
A day later, October 25, Impey returned to the battery for lunch after reconnoitring ahead and received an order for the battery to pull back 15 miles to Clary for a rest and refitting. This was part of a general 3rd Army pause before the next offensive which would give the troops a hard-earned rest from night marches and early morning attacks. Three days later he flew over the front line for an hour. The plane flew right up to the edge of the Forest de Mormal, a prospect which sent ‘cold shivers down my back’. “It was thick, dense, evil-looking and vast”. Mormal was a forest of oak and beeches, about nine miles in length from north to south and from three to four miles broad.
He now had the time to reflect on the way the war was going…
“I found it encouraging to think that the Huns were at bay. They had the will but not the power to stop us. I was still convinced the withdrawal on August 19th was intentional but the pace had become too hot. To begin with they dictated the speed. Tactically now we did and the evidence of it was things like this line of posts abandoned almost without a fight and the guns they had been forced to abandon. We were beginning to gather the real fruit of the Battle of the Selle river”.
The following day the Brigade returned to the front. After a two day lull Impey was ordered to reconnoitre new battery positions in front of Poix du Nord on November 1. He found a position about 1000 yards north-east of the town. November 2 was devoted to bringing 3000 rounds of ammunition up to the new position. This was a difficult task as the roads often had to be avoided because of German shelling. This was part of the build-up to a big Allied attack using 17 divisions on November 4 by First, Third and Fourth Armies covering thirty miles between Valenciennes and Oisy on the River Sambre.
(f) BATTLE OF THE SAMBRE
He was now transferred back to ‘A’ Battery, this time in command. His new battery played a full role in the big attack and joined in firing on points of resistance and roads in the Forest of Mormal in support of 52nd Brigade, despite having ten men wounded by German shelling during the pre-dawn barrage. This had happened when Impey had been 150 yards away from the guns but he had not noticed what had taken place because of the roar of guns all around him. No gun was lost and no-one was killed from ‘A’ Battery (Mac had two fatalities) but Impey confided to his diary that these events had given him the “wind up very badly”. This was “worse than I ever remembered feeling before”. “I had been sick with fear”. Impey’s small reconnaissance group passed through Englefontaine, which was ‘smashed up badly’ and then came to the edge of the forest. He returned to the battery and a barrage was fired at the forest roads to hamper the retreating Germans. Impey returned to the forest and identified a new position for the next day. On Impey’s front 17th and 38th Divisions had led the attack with great success, even exceeding their objectives in places. Farndale later wrote…
“It is interesting to note that by last light the infantry adjusted their positions to a given line so that the barrage for the next day could be calculated from it – a great step forward in artillery-infantry co-operation”.
The infantry supported by Impey’s battery faced considerable resistance upon entering the forest. In the centre the 9th Duke of Wellington battalion suffered casualties of 13 officers and 226 other ranks. The 51st Brigade passed through and took their forest objective without difficulty. The 50th Brigade reached the third objective west of the Locquignol clearing but fire prevented further progress in daylight. In late morning a patrol of the 10th West Yorks found Locquignol itself evacuated by the Germans.
On November 5 Impey, one officer and four signallers went forward and passed the position which the battery would take up. They went along the forest roads to Locquignol and found Infantry Brigade HQ in the Foresters’ Institute. The infantry were meeting little or no opposition and artillery support was not needed at that time. Impey sent a message back for the battery to come up as far as the village. His route ahead was blocked by a huge crater which had been blown at a stream at the east end of the village so he was forced to take a three mile detour through the forest before rejoining the main road.
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