A brigadier in France 1917-1918

A Brigadier in France relate la Grande Guerre de la grande retraite allemande de 1917 à l'armistice de 1918 à travers le témoignage du général de brigade Hanway Robert Cumming, commandant de la 91e brigade d'infanterie de la 7e division britannique. Cette brigade prend part aux principaux combats de la fin de la guerre, notamment l'assaut sur Bullecourt en 1917 (bataille de l'Artois) et la défense de la Somme en mars 1918.

En avril 1918, suite à l'attaque allemande sur la Lys, le général Cumming est envoyé avec ses troupes dans le secteur de Zillebecke et de Locre, ou il subit les derniers efforts de l'armée impériale pour s'emparer d'Ypres. C'est principalement ces trois semaines de combat dans le secteur des monts des Flandres qui sont relatées ici. Hanway Robert Cumming survivra à la guerre. Il sera tué quelques années plus tard par les indépendantistes irlandais du Sin Fein.

Une version complète de A Brigadier in France est disponible en téléchargement auprès de la bibliothèque de l'Université de Toronto.



The 4th Battle of Ypres

The 21st Division came out of the fighting described in the previous chapter considerably knocked about and with greatly depleted numbers, but with their moral and confidence unshaken. Although they had been obliged to make a retrograde movement, it had been carried out with steadiness and discipline, the front had remained unbroken and there was no doubt that heavy losses had been inflicted by them on the enemy. New drafts of men were quickly forthcoming to fill the vacancies but these were of course comparatively raw, and to a certain extent untrained, although good material if time could be given to let them settle down and be properly organised and trained with their battalions. This respite was, however, from force of circumstances not procurable. The Division was sent straight from the Somme to the 2nd Army and eventually to the Ypres area where another Boche attack commenced, and fighting of the fiercest description took place shortly after its arrival.

The Division was handicapped severely by its inability to train and test the harassed battalions of the Brigades. They nevertheless rose nobly to the occasion, and throughout one of the biggest battles which entailed a considerable amount of movement it was wonderful how the recently joined recruits fell into the scheme of things, acting and fighting like veterans in maintaining the already high reputation of the Division. Both the 62nd and 64th Brigades were detached to other Divisions for certain purposes shortly after the fighting started, and it was not till towards the end that the 62nd Brigade returned. In the meanwhile the Division was made up of Brigades from other Divisions which were attached toit for varying periods, the 21st Brigade, the 39th Division Composite Brigade and the 89th Brigade being used for this purpose at different times.

On the afternoon of April 1, the 110th Brigade left Allonville and marched to Amiens. where it entrained that evening and proceeded to a place in the 2nd Army Area appropriately called Hopoutre and thence marched to Locre. It was far from being a pleasant journey. In the first place the Boche airmen had been making a target of the St. Roch station in Amiens, where they entrained, and while the entrainment was in progress it was quite on the cards that the station might be bombed from the air at any minute. When the Brigadier's train came to start something went wrong and it was kept for three hours in the station before finally getting under way. That time of waiting was rather trying, as there seemed to be no particular object in waiting in such a very exposed place and an accurate attack would bave been disastrous. However there was nothing to be done, and eventually the train moved of, to every one's great relief, the airmen not paying a visit that night. The discomfort of these railway journeys was intense; the rolling stock used for the purpose was by no means first class and a journey of thirty-six hours in a filthy carriage of a suburban train type was no luxury. Apparently the trains were used to such an extent that any idea of cleaning them was impossible. On this occasion the carriage was so filthy that all hands had to set to to clean it as best they could before starting. In these circumstances the Brigade H.Q. mess-corporal, the admirable Eldridge, always surpassed himself by producing meals in the most extraordinary way; how he did it was always a marvel to every one. On arrival at Locre Brigade H.Q. were quartered in a little bouse near the hospital which a few weeks later became part of the battle area, with the usual result of reducing it to a heap of ruins.

On April 4 the 21st Division relieved the 1e Australian Division on the Wytschoete-Messines ridge with the 62nd and 64th Brigades in the line and the 110th Brigade in reserve at Fairy House, to which place they moved on the 4th. On the 7th however the Division was relieved by the 19th Division and was ordered to take over the Menin road sector East of Ypres, from the 49th Division. The Brigade moved therefore to La Clytte on the 7th, and to Quebec Camp on the 8th. While this latter move was in progress the Brigadier and his Brigade Major went by motor-car to reconnoitre and made arrangements for relieving the 48th Brigade in the line. They round the H.Q. of this Brigade in a series of huts just North of Zîllebeke Lake on Warrington Road and the Brigadier, General Green Wilkinson, turned out to be an old friend of South African War days. Here arrangements for the relief were worked out and all details with regard to the defence of the sector explained and discussed.

There was no time that day actually to reconnoitre the line, but the commanding officers of the battalions, together with the company officers of the battalion actually taking over the front line, were sent to reconnoitre with the respective battalions which they were to relieve. Everything was very quiet and peaceful - but it was not to remain so for long. On the following night, the 9th/10th, the Brigade took over the line, the 6th Leicesters, now commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Chance (5th Lancers), relieving the 5th York and Lancs. Regt. in the front line on Tower Hamlets ridge, the 8th Leicesters in support at Zillebeke Lake and the 7th Leicesters in reserve at Scottish Wood. A battalion of 22nd Corps troops, composed of Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Cyclists, were already in the line in the right subsector of the Brigade front and became attached to the Brigade. The more up to the line was carried out by light railway which saved the troops a very long march, and was a great help in every way. The relief went off without incident during the evening and, owing to the able arrangements of the I48th Brigade, was completed before midnight.

The forward system of the line held by the Brigade comprised a fairly well-developed though irregular trench system East of the Basseville Beke on Tower Hamlets ridge as far as the Menin Road on the left battalion front.

On the right it consisted of a line of posts West of the Basseville Beke which connected up with the outpost line of the 9th Division on the right, North of the canal. A support line ran in rear along the spur overlooking the Basseville Beke valley. The marshy ground in this valley formed a serious obstacle against any attack from the East, but it also precluded any direct junction between the left and right subsectors may disadvantage partially met by a system of signalling across the valley. The morning of April 10 practically saw the commencement of the 4th Battle of Ypres.

The enemy commenced on this day that pressure which led up to the violent attack culminating in the taking of Wyschaete and Messines and later Mt. Kemmel, threatening the Scherpenberg and the Mont des Cats, with Hazebrouck as the objective - the capture of which would bave necessitated the evacuation of Ypres. The thrust which started to the South of the salient eventually spread Northwards, the most Northerly portions of it finally reaching the Southern defences of Ypres itself between Zillebeke Lake and Voormezeele. It was a tierce and long-drawn-out struggle, and as the enemy penetrated deeper into the line further South, it became necessary to retire and change front on the Northern part of the line, with Ypres as the pivot. These movements were by no means easy as they had to be carried out under constant and heavy artillery tire and entailed constant vigilance and very hard work on the part of the troops, in the face of an enterprising and active enemy. The battle finally culminated in a violent effort on the enemy's part to straighten out the salient he had formed and make ground Northwards, with which intent he attacked in a North-Westerly direction from Wyschaete towards Ypres ; the final phase lasted all through the 27th, 28th, and 29th of April, and ended on the line Hill 60--Voormezeele--Ridge Wood.

This critical attack was successfully resisted with very heavy casualties to the enemy, and practically ended the battle as far as this part of the front was concerned. On the morning of the 10th (the day following the relief of the 49th Division) the enemy, in conjunction with his operations further South, started heavy shelling of the battery positions round Zillebeke Lake and all the roads and tracks leading to the front line. The support battalion was in an exposed situation in a hut camp near the lake, so, partly to obtain shelter for them and partly as a precautionary measure, they were ordered to more up to dug-outs in Observation ridge--Tor Top and Canada tunnels. The Brigade H.Q. itself was not in a very happy position, being exposed in huts on Warrington Road in the centre of the shelled area. They bore with it for some time, but the following day after several high velocity shells had corne very near and one had pitched within ten yards of the mess but (luckily in a shell hole full of mud and water), the Brigadier decided that it was time to more, and shifted Headquarters to the data which tan along the West side of Zillebeke Lake, where a certain amount of shelter could be obtained, although even there it was more moral then material ; however it was a decided improvement. The Divisional Pioneers were in occupation of these shelters at the rime, but with the greatest good will gave up a sufficient number of them to accommodate the party; Colonel Weyman, who commanded them, was particularly helpful and unselfish in assisting to carry out the change. There had always been a particularly good understanding with the Divisional Pioneers since the time when during the Somme Battle they became part of the Brigade for a short while.

On the night of the 21th/22th, the 7th Leicesters relieved the 22nd Corps composite regiment in the right subsector. The composite regiment went back to Scottish Wood in reserve, but the following day were taken away and sent to another part of the front, this reducing the Brigade to three battalions again, a loss of strength which at that particular moment could ill be afforded. On the same night (11th/12th) the enemy attempted to raid an isolated post of the 6th Leicesters, but the attack was beaten off and a sergeant of the 393rd Regiment was left dead on our wire, which was a very valuable identification. Nothing of importance happened during the next two days, but big things were taking place further South and the news was grave concerning the progress of the enemy's attack. On the 15th orders were received to withdraw the line from the forward positions to a line South of Zillebeke Lake, running just North of French Farm to Convent Lane, connecting on the left with the 6th Division, the right being continued to Snipers Barn by the 39th Division Composite Brigade attached to the Division. The new position to be taken up was organised on the Brigade front as an outpost zone and a main line of resistance, the former consisting of the line already indicated, with supporting points in the rear, and the latter being the old G.H.Q. line running parallel with the road from Shrapnel Corner to Kruistraat Hoek. This latter was an old line which had been dug in I917 and had now partially fallen in and required digging out; but still it was there, which was something. The outpost defences had to be constructed, and there was much to be done, but very little tlme to doit in.

The withdrawal was carried out that night (15th/16th), the two front line battalions, the 7th and 8th Leicesters, gradually vacating their positions after dark, and quietly and carefully retiring through two companies of the 6th Leicesters under Major Burdett, who were left as a rearguard on Observation ridge from Tor Top to Mt. Sorrel; this rearguard remained in position until the new line had been dug and organised for occupation. The same night work was started on the new line and was continued night and day until it was completed. Two companies of the 6th and 8th Leicesters were detailed for the purpose and worked with such a will that the line was ready for occupation by the night of the 17th/18th , a very creditable performance. It was then taken over by the 7th and 8th Battalions who occupied the whole system in depth, two companies in the Outpost Zone and two companies in the G.H.Q. line. Meanwhile the two companies of the 6th Leicesters, which were eventually reinforced on the night of the 20th/21St with the remaining two companies of the battalion, had held the rearguard position on Observation ridge till the 23rd, when they were relieved by the 7th Battalion who continued to hold it till they were ordered to withdraw on the 26th. The holding of this isolated position was a very trying and arduous duty, entailing incessant watchfulness and care on the part of all concerned. It was only a skeleton force, scattered over a wide extent of front in small posts with practically no support. It was really a colossal piece of bluff to cover, in the first instance, the construction of the new line; but it was continued for some time longer as it prevented the enemy from gaining a commanding bit of ground from which observation of the whole area was possible. It proved a most successful device, as the enemy advanced very slowly and cautiously towards it, and it was hot until the 1th that he pushed forward and established a general line in front of it. Thence forward the line was very little molested, except by sniping and trench mortaring (which rendered communication between the posts impossible in daylight), and by an unsuccessful raid on the right post on the night of the 20th/21st, which was beaten off with apparently heavy casualties to the enemy ; but he was able in the darkness to remove his wounded.

The situation on the 23rd was rather a curious one on this portion of the front; the 6th Leicesters were holding the forward outpost line, immediately in front of the main line sector held by the 6th Division West of Zillebeke Lake. The continuation of the outpost line on the right from Mt. Sorrel to the Eikhof Farm, South of the Canal, was held by the 21st Brigade with two battalions in front and one in reserve, and behind the line was the sector of the new line astride the Canal from French Farm to Convent Lane, held as already described by two battalions of the 110th Brigade. The enemy's artillery action during the whole of this time was very violent and continuous, a large amount of gas shell being used which caused a considerable humber of casualties and prevented the troops getting any rest or sleep. Although still only on the fringe of the battle which was raging further to the South, and although no actuaI infantry action had as yet materialised, still the strain of the constant shelling and the watchfulness required from the liability of attack at any moment was beginning to have its effect on the personnel, who were getting very tired and worn out. No relief was possible but the men, weary as they were, stuck it out manfully and when the actual attack did take place, showed that their stamina was equaI to the occasion.

On the 26th Brigade Headquarters moved from Zillebeke Lake to Walker Camp, about a mile to the West of Dickebusch. It was merely a hut camp round a ruined farm house with no protection except that which was afforded by the standing walls of the house, into which "elephant" shelters protected by sand bags had been introduced, which gave a sense of security and protection against splinters, but could not have withstood a direct hit. Here Headquarters remained for the test of the time, but as more and more guns took up their position all round it in the vicinity, and of course attracted the enemy's tire, it was not a healthy place of residence, and the Brigadier thought that he was much safer and quieter when he was forward in the line than he was at his own Headquarters.

On the 26th the enemy, after a very heavy bombardment, commenced an attack on a line roughly North-West from the direction of Wyschoete and Kemmel and drove the line held by the 39th Composite Brigade and the 9th Division, to which the 64th Brigade was attached, back to the West of Kruistraat and Kemmel Village, causing the 39th Brigade to form a defensive flank from St. Eloi to Ridge Wood. The 62nd Brigade the same morning was moved up to a position of readiness and during the evening sent one battalion to reinforce the 39th Brigade in Ridge Wood, the remaining two battalions continuing the defensive flank to Hallebast Corner. The 62nd Brigade Headquarters and the 39th Composite Brigade Headquarters were accommodated in Walker Camp, which became considerably congested in consequence.

On the 26th the enemy extended his front of attack Northwards and drove in the 21st Brigade, capturing the Bluff and the Spoil Bank. It was in consequence of this acquisition of commanding ground that the 7th Leicesters were ordered to withdraw from Tor Top and retire into Brigade reserve near Hanover House. The situation otherwise remained the same from Voormezeele southwards, although the enemy constantly developed attacks against Ridge Wood and its vicinity which was the scene of some very desperate fighting at close quarters.

On the night of the 27th/28th the 39th and 62nd Brigades were relieved by the 89th Brigade, and the same evening shortly after dusk a large enemy raiding party about 250 strong surprised and surrounded Lankhof Farm and the four posts East of it. One officer and twenty men fought their way out but the Company Headquarters at Lankhof Farm and about seventy men were missing. The enemy maintained his hold on the position, which stood on higher ground than the adjoining posts, in spire of a counter-attack by a company of the 7th Battalion sent up to eject them. The Ioss of this part of the line was a very serious one and prcvented the relief between the 89th Brigade and the 110th Brigade in that part of the line from Lock 8 to Vimy Post.

On the 28th the enemy attacked Voormezeele, and a desperate fight took place for its possession. The village was taken and retaken twice before it finally remained in Boche hands. After capturing the village, the enemy proceeded to work Northwards up the trench leading to Lock 8, by means of bornbing parties which eventually captured Lock 8 by 7 p.m. and occupied Vimy post. Owing to this more a cornpany of the 6th Leicesters with one platoon of the 7th Leicesters were obliged to throw back their flanks on both sides of the canal between Lock 8 and the Iron Bridge. The fighting on this day was carried on at close quarters with bayonet, bomb and rifle, and was controlled and carried out chiefly by the junior officers of the battalions concemed with great dash and skilI. The local situation was constantly changing and required individual action in carrying out the general scheme without waiting for definite orders; and the training which they had received for this purpose bore fruit here.

The artillery activity of the enemy, which had been gradually increasing in its intensity, culminated on the 29th in a terrific bornbardment of the G.H.Q. line, Bedford House area, Ridge Wood, and all battery positions and approaches to the line. This bombardment started about 3 a.m. and at 6 a.m. the infantry assault started; this was chiefly concentrated on Ridge Wood and the G.H.Q. line as far as Kruistraathoek cross roads, and a subsidiary attack also developed on the outpost line along the Canal from Lock 8. The gap caused by the loss of Vimy post and Lock 8 became increasingly dangerous, so the Brigadier during the morning ordered the withdrawal of the company holding the Canal between Lock 8 and the Iron Bridge, and arranged for a new defensive flank to be formed running from the Iron Bridge across to Bellegoed Farm, which in this way linked up the Bedford House-French Farm line with the G.H.Q. system. This latter operation was carried out by one company of the 7th Leicesters, the supporting battalion, and another from the same battalion was used to relieve the right ftank company of the 6th Leicesters in the G.H.Q. line, who had sustained a continuous bombardment mixed with heavy gas shells for two days and had also been strongly attacked, their casualties being particularly heavy and the men dead beat from want of sleep. The tighting round Ridge Wood and its vicinity was of a particularly tierce character, the enemy renewing his efforts again and again ; but the 89th Brigade, assisted by well placed machine guns and with the skilful co-operation of the artillery, successfully beat off all attacks and inflicted very severe losses on the enemy.

At 2.30 p.m. the enemy assembled to attack the Iron Bridge, having probably noticed the withdrawal of the post in front of it. The attack was finally broken up and dispersed by combined artillery, machine gun and rifle tire, but hot before a considerable amount of hand-to-hand bomb and bayonet work had taken place in the canal bed itself. Splendid work was done here by officers and men alike of the companies of the 6th and 7th Leicesters concerned, and they left their mark on the enemy to such purpose that the attack was not renewed. The 8th Leicesters on the Ieft, as far as French Farm, were also attacked in some force, but had no difficulty in defeating the attempt which was the extreme Iimit of the attack. The fighting, which had lasted all day, gradually died down about dusk and the night was quiet except for the usual shelling, but even that was not of the intensive character it had been.

During the night of the 29th/30th a company of the I4th Northumberland Fusiliers (Divl. Pioneers) and the 126th Co.R.E. assisted the Brigade in digging and wiring the new line between the Iron Bridge and Bellegoed Farm, which thus became properly consolidated and constituted a grave menace against any attack from the direction of Voormezeele against the G.H.Q. line.

The 30th passed quietly. The enemy did not renew his attacks, and there was a considerable diminution in the shell fire during the day ; and this full continued during the night when the 58th Brigade relieved the 110oth which withdrew to near Busseboom. The relief, although very late, was carried out without incident and with no casualties, and the outpost line was handed over intact. It was nearly 3 a.m. before the Brigadier and his Brigade-Major Ieft their Headquarters, the relief having been reported complete. They were not sorry to see the Iast of it, as it had proved a most unpleasant refuge. They were both tired and weary to the verge of breaking point as the Brigade had been in action for practically three weeks, from the 10th to the 30th.

Although not actually fighting during the whole time the strain on the state had been very severe, and the last three days especially had been a period of strenuous activity with little sleep and constant anxiety. They stumbled along the dark muddy road for about a mile to where the motor-car awaited them on the beside of a little farm house, the cellars of which had been converted into a field dressing station. There they round the car, but at first nothing would induce it to start, which was trying to overstrained nerves as it was by no means a sheltered spot and had been heavily shelled the day before. However, they eventually got away and a short run over a very bumpy road brought them to their new abode. During the run in the darkness, it was curious to see how narrow and deep the salient appeared. The Boche very lights seemed to be going Up from every quarter and the gap through them appeared astoundingly small when seen in this way. Something to eat and drink was ready for them on arrival, and finally a sleep in a more or less comfortable bed, with the additional joy of being able to get into pyjamas--the first time for three weeks !

The battle continued for a short time longer, but not with the same intensity. The force of the attack had been spent and never revived. Further South the German advance was brought to a halt in no uncertain manner by the 1st Australian Division at Meteren. French reinforcements were rapidly pushed up and the line was stabilised; Wyschoete, Messines and Kemmel remained in Boche hands, but the Scherpenberg and the Mont des Cats were stiI1 intact. They never succeeded in getting nearer to Ypres than the outskirts of Ridge Wood and the village of Voormezeele, and the line remained where the Brigadier had left it. The Boche remained in the salient he had created, much to his own detriment, until he finally withdrew in the last phase of the war. This attack had cost him very dearly, and except for a slight gain in territory in a most desolated and unpleasant area he had hardly benefited at all.

The practical lessons that could be learnt from this battle were not of a very obvious character in thls portion of the front. There had been a certain amount of manoeuvring which was of extreme value in giving officers and men alike great confidence in themselves and the true infantry weapon--the rifle. The vogue of the bomb had passed, never to return, it was hoped. It showed what a necessity there was for continued training in musketry of all kinds, and in the proper tactical handling of the Lewls gun. What little training had been carried out in the way of teaching the young officers how to handle their platoons had borne fruit an hundredfold and showed that this was the right foundation for future training.


Crédits photographiques

Portrait de Hanway Robert Cumming issu de l'ouvrage.