“1 cannot tell you how grieved I am for the loss of your splendid battalion” 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
On the 11th July 1916, the 17th Battalion had been relieved and marched to Bois Celestins.
A draft of ten new troops had arrived to replenish the ranks on the 10th July. Further drafts of 131 and 438 Other Ranks arrived in the next two days and 244 further men arrived on 14-16th July. Many of these men were from Manchester and the north west, but a large contingent arrived from other parts of the country including men from the Royal Berkshire Regiment. The thread of the City Pals Battalion was then lost and a further draft of 144 troops arrived later in the month. The Division acknowledged “The South country reinforcements did not mix well with the men from the North, and many Officers and men were complete strangers to one-another.”(Michael Stedman – Manchester Pals) See Royal Berkshire Regiment men attached to 17th Manchesters
Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood took over command of the 17th Battalion on the 15th July. He had been transferred from the Royal Sussex Regiment. Following a short stay in billets at Daours and Vecquemont, the 90th Brigade troops subsequently returned to Bois Celestins, followed by Happy valley 0n 20th July and then Mansel Copse. Orders issued by the new Adjutant Robert Mansergh record the distribution of Orders to Captain Fearenside as A Company O.C. Major Macdonald with Lieutenants Charles Sadler and Whittall held command of B,C and D Companies respectively.
In the period of 90th Brigade’s absence from hostilities, Trones Wood had been taken and held by men of the 18th Division on 14th – 15th July.
At 01.00 am on the 24th, July, the Battalion left Mansel Copse and returned to their 1st July assembly trenches at Cambridge copse; moving to the old front line system at Talus Boise at 07.50 to 10am. The day before, men of the 19th Manchesters and 21st Brigade had carried out the first unsuccessful attempt to advance the British lines into the fortified village of Guillemont, two miles east of Montauban. This failure of the attack had been noted in 90th Brigade War Diary.
For the next five days, the Battalion was based in the former British front line east of Talus Bois. On 26th-28th July the Brigade Diary notes night time working parties were sent to dig assembly trenches between Bernafay and Trones woods. The Royal Engineers 201st Fd Coy War Diary notes that trenches were originbally 3 ft deep and the 17th Battalion increased the depth to 4’6″ to 6 ft between 10pm on 26th and 2am the next morning. The men returned at 10pm the following evening to widen the same trenches, which had only been 18″ wide. Final preparations and reconnaissance was being made for the next assault on Guillemont. The attack on the fortified village provided another severe prospect for the 17th Battalion and the men knew of the disaster faced by the 19th Battalion earlier in the week. Guillemont was situated almost three quarters of a mile east of the new British line just east of Trones Wood.
The open land to the village had no cover from the machine gun posts in the village and the prospect of further enfilade fire from the north and south. The artillery positions in Longueval had recently been silenced by the South Africans and Scottish Battalions of the 9th Division’s costly victory in the village and Delville Wood. However, the proposed advance by the troops of 30th and Division was open to artillery fire from Guillemont and surrounding batteries. The attack was planned for the 30th July.
A Company was ordered to support the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers who were to attack the village from the east side of Trones wood at 4.45 am on 30th July. The other Companies were to follow if necessary. The 18th Manchesters were to simultaneously assault the northern section of the village from the top end of Trones Wood and the 16th Battalion was in reserve. To the south, the Liverpool Pals of the 89th Brigade would assault, with the French infantry attacking the front beyond. The men of the 2nd Division would assault north of the Manchester Battalions and RSF.
In the afternoon of 29th July, the Brigade began to assemble for the assault. The 17th Battallion were joined in the old British Front Line by 90th Brigade Machine Gun Company and Trench Mortar Battery. At 9.30pm, these units began to move up to the assembly trenches on the East side of Bernafay Woods, that had been prepared by the men over the previous few days. The 17th Battalion approached these positions via Glatz Redoubt and the west side of the former briqueterie. As the Battalion approached Glatz Redoubt, they faced a heavy bombardment. The Brigade Diary noting “…casualties…by enemy shells…inconvenience and…confusion from…gas shells.” They donned gas helmets and finally arriving at Assembly positions at 10pm. 90th Brigade War Diary indicates the men were allocated as Brigade Reserve.
Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood’s report for the War Diary states that “There was considerable delay in taking up our positions, several small parties having missed their way owing chiefly to the mist and the darkness of the night and that fact that, at about 11pm, the enemy fired all round the wood a very large number of gas shells, both poison and lachrymatory. This was kept up incessantly till about 4am.” This entry is courtesy of John Hartley (JH) and his site http://www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/hartley/jh.htm
Captain Edmund Fearenside was in command of A Company for the assault. His messages to Brigade Headquarters provide a vivid picture of events. Courtesy of http://www.themanchesters.org/ Captain Fearenside, “Under Fire” At 12.20am he reported
“OC Kitty (The 17th Battalion Nickname) Lt Miller killed, 2Lt Owen rather gassed. 2Lt Holt does not appear to have turned up yet, but almost all of the Company is present in so far as can be ascertained. I cannot check them owing to the heavy shelling. We lost touch a good deal on the way up. Numbers of gas shells are coming over. Can you get a stretcher up for Lt Owen ?. I cannot get hold of mine”.
At 1.10am, the bombardment of the assembly trenches and approaches continued. Captain Fearenside reported to Brigade
Confirming my E F. Miller killed, Owen gassed, Holt (with 1 section) still missing. Stretcher badly needed for Owen. I don’t know where any bearers are. Have been along trench to some extent- it takes time and morale of Men is very fair, but the continued stream of gas and other shells is having a rather weakening effect”
The journey to assembly trenches was perilous. Troops made their way through the inky black mist and debris in Trones Wood, with gas masks and constant bombardment. The Official History recounts observations of an unnamed Officer; thought to be Captain Fearenside. “Our troubles began early. When my Company [Probably A] got as far as Glatz Redoubt…about 10 o’clock the enemy started a very heavy bombardment with phosgene gas shells, the first occasion I believe on which they were used….We sustained a number of casualties but finally arrived at our assembly trenches at 2-45…Lieut. M. Miller being killed I took charge of the left half-company deployed on the north side of Montauban – Guillemont Road…” Reports concerning the Trones Wood assault indicate Lieut. Ralph Marillier Miller had been OC of III Platoon. As such, Arthur Bell’s Platoon would have been charged with following the assault of the 2nd RSF on the north side of the road to the village from the corner of Trones Wood.
Lt Col Grisewood’s report continues “At 2.40 am, The Battalion was in position, but nothing had been seen or heard of the 2 Coys of ELSIE (Probably 16th Battalion) who should have been on our left as supports to the attack and it was not until 4 am, just as the attack was beginning, that 2 Machine Guns and 2 Trench Mortars were in position, the remainder having lost their way; after some hours, four other machine guns and three more trench mortars arrived.”
90th Brigade orders required all units to be in position by 3.30am. The Machine Gun Company and Trench Mortar Battery had also suffered from the bombardment as they had struggled to reach their assembly positions next to 17th Manchesters. Guns were destroyed and other units became lost in the mist and gas shelling. As a result these teams had not arrived in time to support the initial assault by the 18th Manchesters and 2nd RSF. Supported by carrying parties of 130 men from the 23rd Manchesters the gun and mortar teams reached their positions by 5.00am.
The Men from the 17th had 45 minutes to wait for Zero hour when they were informed that an aeroplane had spotted the enemy massing in a sunken road running behind the Village and the attack was to start at once. Dawn was just breaking and a thick mist enveloped the battlefield. The main German defences were occupied by men from the 104th Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR) which had been reinforced the day before by a Battalion of 38th RIR.
Captain Fearenside reported to Battalion “Kitty – Lt Holt has reported with about 30 Men who are mixed, with B and some of D (Companies). Will reorganise as soon as it is light”.
At 4.45 am, men of the 18th Manchester and 2nd RSF went over the top to commence the assault on Guillemont. In the twilight of dawn, surrounded by thick mist, the RSF troops made good progress alongside the main road and entered the village. The Scots had advanced with two Companies at the front in extended order with the remaining Companies following in two further waves with gaps of seventy five yards between.
The Brigade Diary notes that the 2nd RSF reached the centre of Guillemont by 5.45am. They met up with a party from the 18th Battalion and waited for the barrage to lift to positions beyond the church. They then advanced to the east of the village, where they faced a counter attack from the area of the cemetery. Finding no support on either flank, they consolidated positions.
This progress is verified by the German 104th RIR records. This indicates the British advance was initially held up at the German line held by 22nd RIR, but then broke through at the sunken road, to the south of the village. The records also confirm the British besieged the eastern perimeter of the village and putting the HQ of the 22nd RIR out of action.
A Captain of the 18th ordered Lieutenant Murray of the 2nd RSF to return to Brigade to request further artillery support towards the cemetery. When returning to the village, he passed a newly manned German defensive position at the quarry. The rear two Companies of 2nd RSF had been holding positions on the West side of the village, south of the quarry. Following the report of Lieutenant Murray, these troops were moved up to the east of Guillemont in support of the forward detachments.
The German positions at the station and quarry had held progress of the 18th and subsequent 16th Battalion assaults.
Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood reported “About 4.45 AM in accordance with your instructions A & C Coys were sent to the forward assembly trenches [East of Trones Wood] a MG [Machine Gun] with instructions to get into touch with ADA [2nd RSF?]. At 5.45am the 17th Manchester received orders to reinforce the attack led by the 18th Manchesters to the west of the village and 2nd RSF in front.
Captain Fearenside reported at 5.50am
“OC Kitty – Have advanced to certain trenches which appear to me too much south and too little east of Trones. Reconnaissance forward has so far produced no others. Will try again. These are very shallow. Owing to mist, orientation is very difficult. I seem to be 100 yds due south of Trones. No knowledge of happenings in front”.
Communication within the Battalion was hampered and it was not until 7.15 that A Company received the ordered to re-enforce the attack. They immediately moved forward together with some men of C Company. Meanwhile B & D Companies took over the advance assembly trenches. A Company advanced round the Southern edge of Trones wood until they reached the Montauban-Guillemont road. Following the path of the 2nd RSF, the Company advanced to the village.
Subsequent notes that are unattributed, but almost certainly Captain Fearenside’s recounted “ Our orders were that “A” Coy was to support the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, who were to attack the village. Dawn was just breaking, but there was thick mist everywhere. The Company moved forward in artillery formation, round the south end of Trones Wood until we reached the road. We extended on both sides of the road towards the village – about 1,000 yards away. We moved forward until we arrived at a thick barrier of wire, lining the bank of the sunken road, which we found impossible to penetrate. We moved along it to the right until we came to an opening where the Montauban/Guillemont Road cuts through it.”(John Hartley)
The 2nd RSF had successfully advanced through the village. As found by Lieutenant Murray, the tunnels and dugout had enabled the German defenders to re-man the forward defences, particularly at the quarry and railway station.
Nothing could be seen of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, but at the corner of a crossroads, a machine gun of the Machine Gun Corps, the only one still operating out of a total of 28 which had been sent up for the attack was being commanded by a badly injured Officer who believed that the 2nd Royal Scots were on the other side of the village. Considerable rifle and machine gun fire was opened up at the party at short range. A bombing party attempted to move forward but was forced to fall back under a counter attack.
By 7.45am two companies of 17th Battalion led by Captain Fearenside, had been ordered to reinforce the 18th Battalion and made contact with the 16th and 18th Manchesters as the troops tried to breach the German defences to the west of the village. The Brigade War Diary notes the men gained a footing in the west edge of the village and attempted to
The unknown reporter from the 17th Battalion recounted “We experienced considerable attention from the enemy, rifle fire being opened on us at quite short range. I took a bombing party forward but had not proceeded far when the Germans counter-attacked and caused us to fall back.” (JH)
Later in the morning at 9.25 Captain Fearenside provided a further message to Brigade. The situation for the Manchester troops was perilous and their RSF colleagues were isolated on the other side of the village. “OC “Kitty” – Situation both on right and left in Guillemont obscure. Appears to be some withdrawal on right at present. Cannot advance northward owing to enfiladed rifle and machine gun fire from quarry, which should be shelled. Have my Men, at present in Park Lane (SW), but it is not a good place. No room in the trenches, now full of Ada and some Muriel (Other Battalion nicknames). Artillery support much needed. No news from Company to our east”.
Communication with Brigade HQ in Trones Wood was becoming impossible, due the German bombardment of the British rear positions. Colonel Grisewood wrote “As soon as the attack commenced, the enemy put a barrage along the west side of Trones. This was continuous and, at times, intense.”
Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood’s report in the War Diary notes that “Portions of A & C Coys succeded in reaching the village of GUILLEMONT, and Capt Fearenside made a gallant attempt to bomb the Quarry a strong point from which heavy machine gun fire was being kept up. This failed. Meanwhile, there was very little cover obtainable no other troops were in sight with which to co-operate and the men were becoming much shaken.”
The anticipated presence of the 2nd RSF troops cut off to the east of the village dissuaded the British artillery from further support, apart from the western approaches to Guillemont. This allowed the German machine gunners and snipers a free reign to pick off the Manchester Battalions. The approaches to Trones Wood were also covered by a curtain bombardment, preventing further support for the British troops and making any form of communication almost deadly. The supporting B and D Companies of the 17th Manchester were held back at Trones Wood.
During this period the 18th Battalion’s CSM Evans was recognised by the award of a subsequent Victoria Cross. Following the demise of two previous runners, George Evans ran the gauntlet of machine guns and artillery to deliver messages back to Brigade. The former Scots Guardsman and Boar War veteran then returned to his men at Guillemont. His citation concluded “…great bravery and devotion to duty and always a splendid example to his men”
With the lack of supporting troops, artillery barrage and unprotected on either flank, the 17th Battalion was forced to withdraw. They gradually made their way to the south west, arriving at trenches close to Arrow Head Copse. Major MacDonald had been holding this section of the front line with the 17th Battalion’s reserve troops.
The Brigade War Diary identifies just one Company of the 2nd RSF had been found near the Church. These men were ordered to withdrew with the rest of the Brigade. They had no means of supporting the remainder of their Battalion which was dealing with the German counter-attack on the east side of the village.
The German defenders had brought up reinforcements from Combles to the West, noting a Lieutenant Roeler of 104th RIR commanding a “brilliant” sweep through Guillemont from the railway. The records also show further reinforcements arriving from Ginchy in the north west. In the absence of British artillery barrage to on the fringes of the village, the Germans cleared the southern section of the village.
Colonel Grisewood’s War Diary report continued “It was decided therefore to retire and what remained of the two coys returned to the line held by the Brigade running from ARROW Head Copse and some 200 yards east of Trones Wood. Here was found B and D Coys and small parties of the other units of the Brigade.” 90th Brigade War Diary confirms the postion where the remains of the 17th Battalion gathered at 10.00am with Major Macdonald and “…6 weak Platoons…”.
This trench is shown on the plan above, mid way between Trones Wood and the village. It also marks the position of Guillemont Road Cemetery where eight men from the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers are buried along with Frank Woodward from 18th Manchesters. All of these casualties are recorded as 30th July and represent a very small proportion of the respective Battalions’ losses.
The CO’s report continued “Communication was extremely difficult and could only be obtained by runners. I had only 3 signallers and one instrument with me, the remainder having been wounded or dispersed and missing on our way up. It was not until nearly midday that I could obtain any information of the whereabouts of the various Companies or their progress. I was in touch with ADA by runners but could not obtain communication with any other battalion.”
Earlier attempts at communication had been fruitless “Early in the afternoon, I received information that portions of all 4 Coys were in the trenches E of Trones Wood and acting under Col Walsh. During the afternoon, small patrols were sent out to try to get information about MURIEL and ELSIE but without result”
“About 10pm, an officer reported that he had been shelled out of the front trench, E of Trones Wood and forced to retire with some 70 – 80 men. Only 12 arrived with him, the rest have disappeared on the way. No touch has been established with any troops on our left and thus it seemed likely that a very considerable gap existed in our line. I collected all available men remaining at HQ and all the men I could find at the TM [Trench Mortar] Battery – about 80 in all. They went forward in two parties with 3 officers and held the line pending the arrival of re-enforcements. By this time, some five machine guns were available and these also were disposed so as to deal with any possibility of the enemy breaking through the line.”
Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood’s report end with the withdrawal:-
It would appear that D Company of the Fusiliers and about one-third of A Company reached the east side of Guillemont village, and that B and C Companies were on the western face. The officer commanding D Company, Lieutenant Murray, forced his way back to headquarters about noon to explain that without immediate support the battalion would be cut off. He himself had been right through the village. But there were no adequate reserves available, and soon nothing could move and live on the ground between Guillemont and Trônes Wood. Everywhere, except in the Scots Fusiliers sector, the attack had failed, and the battalion had to pay the price of its lonely glory. Colonel Walsh could do nothing except hold the trenches east of Trônes Wood till he was relieved on the early morning of 1st August.
The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers went into action with 20 officers and 750 men. Of these, 3 officers and 40 other ranks, chiefly headquarters staff, remained with Colonel Walsh at the close of the day, and later nearly 100 others dribbled back through another brigade. The rest of the battalion was dead, wounded, or in captivity. The total casualties were 683. Nine officers fell—Captain C. N. J. Kennedy, Lieutenants W. L. Harris, W. S. Lomax, and G. H. W. Blackman, Second Lieutenants A. V. Morrison, R. H. Ashton, H. L. Atkins, G. B. Duncan, and D. P. Irving—and 15 other ranks; 8 officers and 618 men were wounded or missing. It was a disaster which was as splendid as a victory, for the battalion had done the task entrusted to it and suffered not for its faults but for its prowess. Major-General Shea, of the Thirtieth Division, wired to Walsh that day: “1 cannot tell you how grieved I am for the loss of your splendid battalion, and, above all, for those left in Guillemont; but they did grandly, and all that men could do.” And in his report on the operation he wrote: “It is evident that the Scots Fusiliers fought in a manner which was in keeping with the high tradition and unblemished record of that fine regiment.” Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding the Fourth Army, in his order of 1st August, spoke thus of the attempt on Guillemont: “Though they were not successful in retaining the possession of Guillemont after they had so gallantly captured the greater part of the village, I am satisfied that they did all that was possible.”
The Battalion was relieved at 4.30am on 31 July by 9th Battalion, Liverpool Irish Regiment and moved back to Mansell Copse and then Happy Valley.
17th Battalion casualties at Guillemont were 5 officers and 274 other Ranks (of whom 48 were fatalities.)
The men of the 2nd RSF and 18th Battalion were not so fortunate. Finding themselves isolated and surrounded, they fought on to be obliterated or taken prisoner by 3pm. The action finished the two Battalions’ fighting strength with many men being lost forever. The Brigade War Diary reported 633 2nd RSF casualties, of which 546 were missing in Guillemont. The Brigade War Diary notes that “Very few of the 18th Manchesters returned.” A total of 764 men were killed, wounded or missing. This included 468 men attached to the Battalion from eighteen other Battalions, particularly the Lancashire Fusiliers. CSM Evans had stayed with his men and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Dulman Camp.
German records confirm the capture of numerous British prisoners, including 2 Officers and 80 Other Ranks. The cost to the Germans was also significant. The Second Battalion of 104th RIR suffered especially, with 2 Officers and 9 men dead, 2 Officers and 44 men wounded, and 7 missing. Between 21st and 31st July, it lost 10 Officers and 419 men.
Private P J Kennedy was one of the 18th Battalion survivors. In his letter to Ken Smallwood of 15th November 1976 (IWM P321) he summarised events, losses and an explanation of the number of men commemorated at Thiepval.
“The German fire was so heavy that no help or supplies could reach them [18th Manchesters & 2nd RSF]. Two companies of the 17th Manchester’s managed to reach us but suffered heavy casualties. It was a gallant attempt, but it failed to relieve the situation. The Scots fought to the last cartridge – none of them ever returned. Our battalion and the 17th fared little better – the dead and missing who fell in the advance lay in No Man’s Land till 15th September, six weeks later.”
From Happy valley the 17th Battalion entrained for Berguette and a month well earned rest.
The Month of July had taken a heavy toll on the Battalion. A total of 23 Officers and 820 other ranks were killed wounded or missing. Of the original volunteers of September 1914-few remained and it now contained a mixture of Men from outside of Manchester. Many of the bodies of the Men killed in the July battles were never recovered and still lie on the Battlefield, their names commemorated on the Thiepval memorial to the missing. The injured Men were evacuated to England. Some were patched up and returned to fight in France-others were so badly wounded that they never fought again. The battalion went on to fight another day.
2nd Lieutenant Alan Holt summarised the assault and withdrawal in his letter home on 1st August.
“At 4am on Sunday morning, we attacked the village of G…….., but unfortunately did not capture it as the Bosche had massed a lot of fresh troops there with the special object of attacking us and winning back some of what he has lost.
I got up to the village in the mist with my men without any casualties but after spending three hours there and losing a lot of men, we were ordered to retire. It was then daylight and the mist had lifted. We had to walk back over 800 yards of open ground and how I got back I don’t know; very few of my men did as we were swept by two machine guns. I got a machine gun bullet through the sole of my foot, another through the holster of my revolver, also a piece of shell which went through the holster and smashed the handle of my revolver on the way. Just as we were leaving the village, I was hit in the back with a small piece of shrapnel, but it is nothing serious and I was able to carry on till the Brigade was relieved on Monday morning. The doctor took the piece out yesterday and I am on duty as usual – more the worse. Some luck, what! We are going back into rest now and it will be some way back as we are going by train.
How I long for a little peace and quiet and to see you all again. Many thanks for your letter, Pa. Please excuse writing as I am doing it on my knee sitting on a box.” (Courtesy John Hartley)
III Platoon Casualties
The 17th Battalion casualty list of losses for men killed, wounded or missing in the three battles are shown below where the men who died form part of the total losses. See CQMS Frederick William Jones
Assault Losses Deaths
Montauban 350 104
Trones 196 31
Guillemont 274 46
TOTAL 820 181
In the context that these losses amounted to almost of the fighting strength of a Battalion, there were some very fortunate troops remaining – and some less fortunate troops drafted into the Battalion in mid-July must have been wounded or killed at Guillemont. It remains surprising that only one loss can be identified from the Heaton Park Roll.
Primary school teacher Lewis Charles Brownjohn lost his life at Guillemont, aged 26. The pupils of St. Lukes School in Longsight will have mourned his loss, along with his parents, John and Annie Brownjohn. Born in St. Giles, Oxford, Lewis had been living at 2 Lansdowne Road, Crumpsall in 1911. Identified as a Lance Corporal on the Heaton Park Roll, Lewis had been promoted to Sergeant by 30th July. He has no known grave and is commemorated at Thiepval.
Records indicate that A Company were part of the leading men in the 17th Battalion assault. They were in the second wave of the attack and Captain Fearenside’s reports indicate limited opposition until they reached the village defences. However, the losses on the day reflect the continuous artillery barrage and rigorous defence from the German infantry. There are limited records of men being wounded in the Somme offensive – none of which illustrate injuries for III Platoon men at Guillemont. Therefore, the relatively few losses from III Platoon remains a mystery.
The bravery of the 17th Manchesters was recognised with the award of a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) to A Company’s OC, Captain Edmund Fearenside. His citation reads “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led two companies of re-enforcements over some 1800 yards of open ground swept by machine gun fire into a village. He rallied his men and organised a further attack. He displayed the greatest coolness and courage.”
Following the July assaults recognition was also given to the hard and dangerous work undertaken by the stretcher bearers. 8323 Sergeant Ernest Wallwork was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for such bravery.