The British Campaign in France (march 1917)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
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The British Campaign in France. Chapter XII. The Battle of Richebourg-Festubert is the 12th article, published in march 1917, in a series of 21 articles written by Arthur Conan Doyle serialized in The Strand Magazine.
- 1 Editions
- 2 Illustrations
- 3 The British Campaign in France
- 3.1 Chapter XII. The Battle of Richebourg-Festubert
- 3.1.1 The New Attack
- 3.1.2 Ordeal of the Twenty-Fifth Brigade
- 3.1.3 Attack of the First Division
- 3.1.4 Fateful Days
- 3.1.5 A Difficult Situation
- 3.1.6 Attack of the Second Division
- 3.1.7 Attack of the Seventh Division
- 3.1.8 British Success
- 3.1.9 Good Work of the Canadians
- 3.1.10 Advance of the Forty-Seventh London Division
- 3.1.11 The Lull Before the Storm
- 3.1 Chapter XII. The Battle of Richebourg-Festubert
- in The Strand Magazine (march 1917 [UK]) (1 map, 3 ill.)
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916-1920, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. [UK])
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916, George H. Doran Co. [US])
- in The British Campaign in Europe (1914-1918) (november 1928, Geoffrey Bles [UK])
The British Campaign in France
Chapter XII. The Battle of Richebourg-Festubert
(May 9th - 24th.)
The New Attack — Ordeal of the Twenty-Fifth Brigade — Attack of the First Division — Fateful Days — A Difficult Situation — Attack of the Second Division — Attack of the Seventh Division — British Success — Good Work of the Canadians — Advance of the Forty-Seventh London Division — The Lull Before the Storm.
Whilst this desperate fighting was going on in the north, a very extensive operation had been begun in the south, a great attack being made by the First Army with the direct purpose of breaking the German line, and the indirect one of engaging their troops and preventing them from sending help to their comrades, who were hard-pressed by the French near Arras. In this secondary purpose the movement was entirely successful, but the direct gain of ground was not commensurate with the great exertions and losses of the Army. For some days the results were entirely barren, but the patient determination of Sir John French and of Sir Douglas Haig had their final reward, and by May 25th, when the movement had been brought to a close, there had been a general advance of six hundred yards over a front of four miles, with a capture of ten machine-guns and some eight hundred prisoners. These meagre trophies of victory can, however, hardly be said to compensate us for the heavy and unavoidable losses, which must generally, in the case of the attack, be heavier than those of the defence, save when the former has an overwhelming preponderance of artillery.
The New Attack
This important attack was made upon May 9th over a front of about ten miles from the Laventie district in the north to that of Richebourg in the south. In the case of the northern attack it was carried out by Rawlinson's Fourth Corps, and was directed upon the sector of the German lines to the north-west of Fromelles at the point which is named Rouges Bancs. The southern attack was allotted to the Indian Corps (Willcocks) and the First Corps acting together. These two efforts represented the real foci of activity, but a general action was carried on from one end of the line to the other in order to confuse the issue and hold the enemy in his trenches.
Both in the north and in the south the special attack was opened by a sudden and severe bombardment, which lasted for about forty minutes, This had been the prelude to the victory of Neuve Chapelle, but in the case of Neuve Chapelle the British attack had been a complete surprise, whereas in this action of May 9th there is ample evidence that the Germans were well-informed as to the impending movement, and were prepared for it. Their trenches were exceedingly deep, partly vulnerable to high explosives but immune to shrapnel. None the less, the bombardment was severe and accurate, though, as it proved, insufficient to break down the exceedingly effective system of defence, which was based upon barbed wire, machine-guns, and the mutual support of trenches.
Ordeal of the Twenty-Fifth Brigade
The attack in Rawlinson's northern sector was confided to Lowry Cole's Twenty-fifth Brigade, supported by the remainder of the Eighth Division. This brigade consisted of the 1st Irish Rifles, 2nd Berkshires, and Rifle Brigade, 2nd Lincolns, and a Territorial battalion — the 13th London (Kensingtons). The latter regiment was given a special task, which was to seize and hold a considerable mine-crater upon the Left of the line. The rest of the brigade were ordered at five-thirty to charge the German trenches, which was done with the greatest dash and gallantry. Through a terrific tire of rifles and machine-guns the waves of men rolled forward and poured into the trench, the 1st Irish Rifles and the 2nd Rifle Brigade leading the assault. It was found, however, that further progress could not be made. As the men sprang over the parapets to advance upon the second line they were mowed down in an instant. Long swathes of our dead marked the sweep of the murderous machine-guns. The Brigadier himself, with his Brigade-Major at his heels, sprang forward to lead the troops, but both were shot down in an instant, Lowry Cole being killed and Major Dill badly wounded. It was simply impossible to get forward. No bravery, no perseverance, no human quality whatever could avail against the relentless sleet of lead. The Kensingtons in their crater had the same experience, and could only hold on in imperfect cover and endure a most pitiless pelting. For a long day, until the forenoon of the tenth, the ground which had been won was held. Then, at last, the bitter moment came when the enfeebled survivors, weakened by thirty-six hours of fighting and fiercely attacked on all sides, were compelled to fall back upon their original lines, The retirement was conducted with a steadiness which verged upon bravado. "These God-like fools!" was the striking phrase of a generous German who observed the thin ranks sauntering back under a crushing fire, with occasional halts to gather up their wounded. The casualty figures show how terrific was the ordeal to which the men had been exposed, The Irish Rifles lost the extraordinarily heavy numbers of nine officers killed, thirteen wounded, and four hundred and sixty-five men out of action- The total of the 2nd Rifle Brigade was even more terrible, working out as twenty-one officers and five hundred and twenty-six men dead or wounded. The figures of the 2nd Berkshires and of the 2nd Lincolns were heavy, but less disastrous than those already quoted. The former lost twenty officers and two hundred and sixty-three men, the latter eight officers and two hundred and fifty-eight men. The 24th Brigade (Oxley), which had supported the 25th, and had also reached the first trenches, endured losses which were almost as disastrous. The 2nd East Lancashires lost nineteen officers and four hundred and thirty-five men, the 1st Sherwood Foresters seventeen officers and three hundred and forty-two men, the 2nd Northamptons twelve officers and four hundred and fourteen men, the 5th Black Watch eight officers and one hundred and forty men. The losses of the Twenty-third Brigade, which remained in support, were by no means light, for the Scottish Rifles lost twelve officers and one hundred and fifty-six men, while the 2nd Devons lost. seven officers and two hundred and thirty-four men. Altogether the Eighth Division lost four thousand five hundred men, a single brigade (the Twenty-fifth) accounting for two thousand two hundred and thirty-two of these casualties. Deplorable as they are, these figures must at least show that officers and men had done all that could be attempted to achieve the victory. When it is remembered that these were the same battalions which had lost so terribly at Neuve Chapelle just two months before, one can but marvel at the iron nerve which enabled them once again to endure so searching a test.
It has been stated that the Kensingtons were given a separate mission of their own in the capture and defence of a mine-crater upon the left of the British line. They actually carried not only the crater, but a considerable section of the hostile trenches, penetrating at one time as deep as the third line but reinforcements could not reach them, their flanks were bare, and they were at last forced to retire. "It was bitter and damnable!" cries one of them out of his full heart. It was with the greatest difficulty that the remains of the gallant band were able to make their way back again to the British line of trenches. Nine officers were killed, four wounded, and four hundred and twenty men were hit out of about seven hundred who went into action.
This attack and bloody repulse was the first stage of the Battle of Richebourg. At the same hour the Indians and the First Corps had advanced upon the German lines to the north of Givenchy with the same undaunted courage, the same heavy losses, and the same barren result. The events of May 9th will always stand in military history as among the most honourable, if unsuccessful, of the many hard experiences of the British soldiers in Flanders.
Attack of the First Division
In the case of the Indians, the attack was checked early and could make no headway against the terribly arduous conditions. Their advance was upon the right of that of the Fourth Corps, already described. Farther still to the right or south, in the region of Richebourg l'Avoué, was the front of the First Division, which was fated to be even more heavily punished than the Eighth in the north. In this case also there was a prelude of forty minutes concentrated fire — a period which, as the result showed, was entirely inadequate to neutralize the many obstacles with which the stormers were faced. During the night the sappers had bridged the ditches between the front trenches and the supports, and had also crept out and thrown bridges over the ditches between the two lines. The Second Brigade (Thesiger), consisting of the 1st Northamptons, 2nd and 5th Sussex, 2nd Rifles, 1st North Lancashires, and 9th Liverpools, attacked upon the right — indeed, they formed at that moment the extreme right of the whole British Army, save for the Forty-seventh London Division, in trenches to the south. The weather was bright and clear, but the effect of the bombardment was to raise such a cloud of dust that two men from each platoon in the front line were able to carry forward a light bridge with which they gained a line about eighty yards from the enemy's parapet. The instant that the guns ceased the infantry dashed forward, but were met by a withering fire. The 1st Northamptons and 2nd Sussex were in the lead, and the ground between the armies was littered with their bodies. In a second wave came the 2nd Rifles and the 5th Sussex, but human valour could do nothing against the pelting sleet of lead. The wire had been very imperfectly cut , and it was impossible to get through. The survivors fell back into the front trenches, while their comrades lay in lines and heaps upon the bullet-swept plain. The 5th Sussex Territorials had their baptism of fire, the first and last for many, and carried themselves like men. A line of German machine-guns was posted in a position almost at right angles to the advance, and it was these which inflicted the heaviest losses. Hardly a single man got as far as the German parapet. At six-twenty the assault was a definite failure.
On the left the Third Brigade had kept pace with the Second and had shared its trials and its losses. The van of the charging brigade was formed by the 2nd Munsters with the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The 1st Gloucesters and 1st South Wales Borderers were in close support. Their attack was on the German line at the Rue des Bois, three hundred yards away. They reached the trenches, though Colonel Richard of the Munsters and very many of his men were killed. This was the third Munster Colonel (Charrier, Bent, Richard) to be killed or disabled in the war. The men surged over the parapet, Captain Campbell-Dick standing on the crest of it and whooping them on with his cap as if they were a pack of hounds. He fell dead even as they passed him. The trenches were taken but could not be held, as there were no supports, and the assault had failed on either side. Under cover of a renewed artillery fire the survivors came slowly and sullenly back. Once more, and for the third time, the 2nd Munsters were reduced to two hundred rank and file. Three officers emerged unhurt from the action.
A second attack was ordered for midday, the regiments being shifted round so as to bring the supports into the front line. It was soon found, however, that the losses had already been so heavy that it was impossible, especially in the Second Brigade, to muster sufficient force for a successful advance. The First Guards' Brigade (Lowther) was therefore brought to the front, and, after a renewed bombardment, at four o'clock the two leading battalions — the 1st Black Watch and the 1st Cameron Highlanders — rushed to the assault over the bodies of their fall en comrades. It is on record that, as the Highlanders dashed forward, a number of the wounded, who had been lying in the open since morning, staggered to their feet and joined in the charge. It was a desperate effort, and the khaki wave rolled up to the trenches, and even lapped over them in places; but the losses were too heavy, and the advance had lost all weight before it reached the German line. At one point a handful of Black Watch got over the line, but it was impossible to reinforce them, and they were compelled to fall back. At six o'clock the survivors of the First Brigade were back in their trenches once more. Late the same night the Fifth Brigade of the Second Division was brought up to take over the line, and the remains of the First Division were withdrawn to the rear.
The losses of the Second Brigade were seventy officers and one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three men, which might have been cited as possibly the highest number incurred in the same length of time, had it not been for the terrible figures of the Twenty-fifth Brigade upon the same fatal day. The other two brigades of the division were hard hit, the total losses of the division amounting to nearly five thousand men. If the loss of the Indian Corps be included, the total number of casualties in this assault cannot have been less than from twelve thousand to thirteen thousand men ; while the losses to the enemy inflicted by the artillery could not possibly have approximated to this figure, nor had any advantage been obtained, as already stated, save that the attack may have diverted pressure from the French advance near Arras.
There are few single periods of the war so crowded with incident as from May 7th to 9th. In the north the second Battle of Ypres was at its height. In the south the Battle of Richebourg had begun. But a third incident occurred upon the earlier date which struck the civilized world with a horror which no combat, however murderous, could inspire. It was the day when nearly one thousand two hundred civilians, with a considerable proportion of women and little children, were murdered by being torpedoed and drowned in the unarmed liner, the Lusitania. Such incidents do not come within the scope of this narrative, and yet this particular one had an undoubted military bearing upon the war, since it hardened our resolve, stimulated our recruiting, and nerved our soldiers in a very marked degree, while finally removing any possibility of peace based upon compromise. No such crime against civilians has been committed in deliberate warfare since the days of Tamerlane or Timour the Tartar; yet it is dreadful to have to add that it was hailed as a triumph from one end of Germany to the other, and no protest appeared in the German Press, to such depths of demoralization had this once Christian and civilized nation been reduced.
A Difficult Situation
To return to the situation in Flanders, it is impossible not to admire the tenacity of Sir John French under the very difficult circumstances in which he was now placed. His troops at Ypres were still fighting with their backs to the wall. Their position on May 10th was precarious. The only reinforcements they could hope for in case of disaster were from the south. And yet the south had itself received a severe rebuff. Was it best to abandon the attack there and reassume the defensive, so as to have the men available in case there should come an urgent call from the north ? A weaker general would have said so, and accepted his defeat at Festubert. Sir John, however, was not so easily to be deflected from his plans. He steadied himself by a day or two of rest, during which he not only prepared fresh forces for striking, but got the measure of the enemy's power at Ypres. Then it was determined that the action should proceed, but that it should be directed to the more southerly area of the British position, where it would be in closer touch with the French and receive some support from their admirable artillery.
The centre of the British movement was still at Richebourg l'Avoué, but the direction of the advance was modified. It had already been shown that the passage of open spaces under machine-gun fire was difficult and deadly by daylight, so it was determined that night should be used for the advance. Several successive nights were unfavourable, but the days were spent in a deliberate artillery preparation until the action was recommenced upon May 15th. In the interval the Second Division had taken the place of the First in the Givenchy sector, and the Seventh Division of the Fourth Corps had been brought round from the Laventie district, and was now upon the right of their comrades of the First Corps. The Canadian Division was brought up in support, while the Indian Corps still preserved its position upon the left. The general line of attack was from Richebourg by the Rue des Bois, and so south in front of Festubert.
Attack of the Second Division
The advance was made by the Indians upon the left and the Second Division upon the right at eleven-thirty on the night of May 15th. The Indians were held up, and maintained from that time onwards a defensive position. When it is remembered that the Meerut Division had suffered heavily at Neuve Chapelle, that the Lahore Division had been very hard hit at Ypres, and that there was only a limited facility for replacing the losses of the native regiments, it is not to be wondered at that the corps had weakened. The Second Division, however, would take no denial. The attack was in the hands of the Fifth and Sixth Brigades, with the Fourth Guards' Brigade in support. It was to sweep over the ground which had been the scene of the repulse of the 9th, but it was to be screened by darkness. Soon after ten o'clock the men passed silently over the front trench, and lay down in four lines in the open waiting for the signal. At eleven-thirty the word was passed, and they advanced at a walk. The front line of the Fifth Brigade was composed of the 2nd Worcesters upon the left, and the Inniskilling Fusiliers (taken from the Twelfth Brigade) upon the right. The leading battalions of the Sixth Brigade were the st Rifles, the 1st King's Liverpools, 1st Berkshires, and upon the extreme right two companies (A and B) of the 7th King's Liverpools. Flares were suddenly discharged from the German trenches, and a ghostly flickering radiance illuminated the long lines of crouching men. There were numerous ditches in front, but the sappers had stolen forward and spanned them with rude bridges. The German fire was terrific, but the uncertain quivering light made it less deadly than it had been during the daytime. Very many fell, but it was insufficient to stop the determined rush of the British infantry. The rifles could not hold them back. and sweeping jets from machine-guns could not kill them fast enough; nothing but Death could hold that furious line. In three minutes they had swarmed across the open and poured into the trenches, killing or taking all the Germans who were in the front line. The end Worcesters on the left were held up by unbroken barbed wire, and were unable to get forward; but all the other regiments reached the trench, and cleared it for a considerable distance on either flank, the bombers rushing along it and hurling their deadly weapons in front of them. The remainder rushed down the communication trench and seized the second line of defences some hundreds of yards behind the first. On the morning of Sunday. May 6th, the Second Division had gained and firmly held about half a mile in breadth and a quarter of a mile in depth of the German trenches, There was an open plain in the rear between the advanced regiments and their supports, which as the Light grew clearer was so swept by German fire that it was nearly impossible to get across it. About eight-thirty in the morning the remainder of the 7th King's Liverpool, with some of their comrades of the 5th King's Liverpool, endeavoured to join the others in front, but were shot to pieces in the venture. During the whole of the morning, however, single volunteers kept running forward carrying fresh supplies of bombs and bandoliers of cartridges for the men in front. The names of most of these brave men are to be found in the casualty lists, and their memory in the hearts of their comrades.
Attack of the Seventh Division
Four hours after this successful attack by the Second Division, at three-thirty on the morning of Sunday, May 16th, another assault was made by the Seventh Division some miles to the south, just north of Festubert. The attack was made by the Twentieth Brigade (Heyworth) upon the left and the Twenty-second (Lawford) upon, the right. The 2nd Borders and 2nd Scots Guards led the nosh of the Twentieth, supported later by the 1st Grenadiers and and Gordons ; while the 1st Welsh Fusiliers and and Queen's Surrey were in the van of the Twenty-second, with the 2nd Warwicks, 8th Royal Scots, and 1st South Staffords behind them. The famous Seventh Division has never yet found its master in this campaign, and the Seventh Prussian Corps in the south could make no more of it than the Fifteenth had done in the north. The eager infantry swept over the whole section of the German position, carrying trench after trench. The surprise at this portion of the line seems to have been complete, and the ground gained was twelve hundred yards both in breadth and in depth. Some hundreds of prisoners were taken — more than a hundred by a single bombing party of nine men led by Sergeant Barter, of the Welsh Fusiliers. The Germans rallied finely, and the Scots Guards, who had advanced with a fury which outdistanced their comrades, lost nearly a whole company. The numbers of the fallen were very great, and the murderous nature of the fighting may be judged from the fact that of the leading regiments, Colonel Wood, of the Borders, Colonel Gabbett, of the Fusiliers, Major Bottomley, commanding the Queen's, and Colonel Brook, of the 8th Royal Scots, were all killed or mortally wounded. The 1st Grenadiers came up in support, as did the 7th London, and the ground gained was consolidated. All day on May 16th a desperate and very effective bombardment was opened by the heavy German guns upon the new lines both of the Second and of the Seventh Divisions; but the infantry clung desperately to what they had gained, while waiting for supports in order to make a further advance.
On the night of May 16th the Germans made a counter-attack, which pushed back the extreme apex of the ground gained by the Seventh Division. All other points were held. The British had now cut two holes in the German front over a distance of about three miles, but between the two holes, into which the heads of the Second and Seventh Divisions had buried themselves, there lay one section of a thousand yards inviolate, strongly defended by intricate works. and machine-guns. Desperate endeavours had been made by the Second Division upon the 16th to get round the north of this position, but the fire was too murderous, and all were repulsed. At half-past nine in the morning of the 17th the attempt was renewed from both sides, with a strong artillery support. On the north the Highland Light Infantry and the 2nd Oxford and Bucks made a strong attack, while on the south the Twenty-first Brigade pushed to the front. The 4th Camerons, a Gaelic-speaking battalion of shepherds and Billies, kept fair pace with the veteran regular regiments of the brigade, and lost its gallant Colonel Fraser. Gradually the valiant defenders were driven from post to post and crushed under the cross-fire. About midday the position was in the hands of the British, three hundred survivors having been captured. After this consolidation of their front the two attacking divisions drove on together to the eastward, winning ground all the day, but meeting everywhere the same stark resistance. Farmhouse after farmhouse was carried. At one point a considerable body of Germans rushed out from an untenable position ; but on their putting up their hands and advancing towards the British they were mowed down to the number of some hundreds by the rifles and cannon of their comrades in the rear. South of Festubert the thick spray of bombers and bayonet-men thrown out by the Seventh Division into the. German trenches were making ground all day, and the enemy's loss in this quarter was exceedingly heavy. The 57th Prussian Regiment of Infantry, among others, is said to have lost more than two-thirds of their numbers during these operations.
By the evening of Monday, May 17th, the hostile front had been crushed in for a space of over two miles, and the British Army had regained the ascendancy which had been momentarily checked upon May 9th. If a larger tale of prisoners was not forthcoming as a proof of victory, the explanation lay in the desperate nature of the encounter. The sinking of the Lusitania and the murders by poison-gas were in the thoughts and on the lips of the assaulting infantry, and many a German made a vicarious atonement. At the same time, the little mobs of men who rushed forward with white flags in one hand, and, in many cases, their purses out-stretched in the other, were given quarter and led to the rear, safe from all violence save from their own artillery. There were many fierce threats of no quarter before the engagement, but with victory the traditional kindliness of the British soldier asserted itself once more.
On the evening of the 17th the men in the front line were relieved, the Fourth Guards' Brigade taking over the advanced trenches in which the 1st King's and other regiments of the Fifth and Sixth Brigades were lying. The Guards had to advance a considerable distance under very heavy fire to reach their objective, and there is a touch of other days in the fact that the Bishop of Khartoum stood by the trenches and blessed them as they passed. They lost many men from the terrible artillery fire, but they were able to extend and to consolidate the line. All day of the 18th the Guards held the front line, until relieved at midnight of that date by the advance of another division.
The 18th saw the general advance renewed, but it was hampered by the fact that the heavy weather made it difficult to obtain the artillery support which is so needful where buildings have to be carried. It was upon this date that the two hard-working and victorious divisions, the Second and the Seventh, were reinforced, and eventually relieved, by the Fifty-first Highland Territorial Division and by the Canadians, the guns of the two regular divisions being retained. The operations, which had hitherto been under Munro, of the First Corps, were now confided to Alderson, of the Canadians. At this time the general level of the advance was the road which extends from La Quinque to Bethune. An attack was made that night by the 14th and 16th Canadian battalions, gaining some ground in the direction of the orchard.
Good Work of the Canadians
The change of troops did not entail any alteration in strategy, and the slow advance went forward. Upon the night of May 20th-21st the Canadians continued the work of the Seventh Division, and added several fresh German trenches to the area already secured. From Richebourg to the south and east there was now a considerable erosion in the German position. The first objective of the Canadians was an orchard in the Quinque Rue position, which was assaulted by the 16th Canadian Scottish (Leckie), after a gallant reconnaissance by Major Leckie, of the same regiment. The Canadians were thrust in between the 3rd Coldstream. Guards, of the Second Division, upon their left, and the 2nd Wiltshires, of the Seventh Division, upon their right. The orchard was cleared in most gallant fashion by Captain Morrison's company, and a trench upon the flank of it was taken ; but the Canadian loss was considerable, both in the regiments named and in the Royal Canadian Highlanders, in support. Another Canadian battalion, the loth, had attacked the German line a mile to the south of the orchard, and had been repulsed. A heavy bombardment was organized, and the attempt was renewed upon the following day, two companies of the loth, preceded by a company of grenade-throwers, carrying four hundred yards of the trench at a very severe cost. it was partly recaptured by the Germans upon May 22nd. while part remained in the hands of the Canadians. Several counter-attacks were made upon the Canadians during this day, but all withered away before the deadly fire of the Western infantry.
On May 24th the Canadians were attacking once more at the position where the 10th Battalion had obtained a partial success upon the 22nd. It was a strongly-fortified post which had been named "Bexhill" by the British. The assault was carried out at daybreak by two companies of the 5th Battalion, under Major Edgar, with a company of the 7th British Columbians in support. Before six o'clock the position had been carried, and was held all day in face of a concentrated shell-fire from the German guns. It was a terrible ordeal, for the brigade lost fifty officers and nearly a thousand men, but never their grip of the German trench. On the same night, however, another Canadian attack, delivered by the 3rd Battalion (Rennie) with great fire and energy, was eventually repulsed by the machine-guns.
Advance of the Forty-Seventh London Division
This long-drawn, straggling action, which had commenced with such fury upon May 9th, was now burning itself out. Prolonged operations of this kind can only be carried on by fresh relays of troops. The Forty-seventh London Territorial Division was brought up into the front line, and found itself involved at once in some fierce fighting at the extreme right of the British line near Givenchy. The Forty-seventh Division (formerly the Second London Division) was at this date the only London division, since the regiments which composed the First — the Artists, Victorias, Rangers, Westminsters, etc. — had already been absorbed by regular brigades. The division, commanded by General Barter, consisted of the 140th (Cuthbert), 141st (Thwaites), and 142nd (Willoughby) Brigades. On the evening of May 25th the latter brigade, which occupied the front-line trench, was ordered to make an attack upon the German line opposite, whilst the 18th Battalion, of the 141st Brigade, made a strong feint to draw their fire, The first-line regiments were the 23rd and 24th, of which the 23rd, upon the left, had some three hundred yards of open to cross; while the 24th, upon the right, had not more than a hundred and fifty. Both regiments reached their objective in safety, and within three minutes had established telephonic communications with their supports of the 21st and 22nd Battalions. The capture of the trenches had not been difficult, but their retention was exceedingly so, as there was a ridge from which the German machine-guns commanded the whole line. Each man had brought a sandbag with him, and these were rapidly-filled, while officers and men worked desperately in building up a defensive traverse. Three German attacks got up within ten yards of the 24th, but all were beaten back. The German bombers, however, were deadly, and many officers and men were among their victims. The 21st Battalion had followed up the 23rd, and by ten-thirty they were able to work along the line of the German trench and make good the position. All day upon May 26th they were exposed to a very heavy and accurate German fire but that afternoon, about 4 p.m., they were relieved by the 20th London Regiment, from Thwaites' 141st Brigade. The line was consolidated and held, in spite of a sharp attack on the afternoon of May 28th, which was beaten off by the 20th Battalion.
Whilst the London Division had been thrust into the right of the British line, the Canadian infantry had been relieved by bringing forward into the trenches the dismounted troopers of King Edward's and Strathcona's Horse, belonging to Seely's Mounted Canadian Brigade, who fought as well as their fellow-countrymen of the infantry — a standard not to be surpassed.
The Lull Before the Storm
From this time onwards there was a long lull in this section of the British line. The time was spent in rearranging the units of the Army, and in waiting for those great reinforcements of munitions which were so urgently needed, It was recognized that it was absolutely impossible to make a victorious advance, or to do more than to hold one's ground, when the guns of the enemy could fire six shells to our one. In Britain the significance of this fact had at last been made apparent, and the whole will and energy of the country were turned to the production of ammunition. .Not only were the old factories in full swing, but great new centres were created in towns which had never yet sent forth such sinister exports. Mr. Lloyd George threw all his energy and contagious enthusiasm into this vital work, and performed the same miracles in the organization and improvisation of the tools of warfare that Lord Kitchener had done in the case of the New Armies. They were services which his country can never forget. Under his energy and inspiration the huge output of Essen and the other factories of Germany were equalled, and finally far surpassed, by the improvised and largely amateur munition workers of Britain. The main difficulty in the production of high explosives had lain in the scarcity of picric acid. Our Free Trade policy, which has much to recommend it in some aspects, had been pushed to such absurd and pedantic lengths that this vital product had been allowed to fall into the hands of our enemy, although it is a derivative of that coal-tar in which we are so rich. Now at last the plants for its production were laid down, every little village gasworks was sending up its quota of toluol to the central receivers. Finally, in explosives as in shells and guns, the British were able to supply their own wants fully and to assist their Allies. One of the strangest, and also most honourable, episodes of the war was this great economic effort, which involved sacrifices to the time, comfort, and often to the health of individuals so great as to match those of the soldiers. Grotesque combinations resulted from the eagerness of all classes to lend a hand, An observer has described how a peer and a prize-fighter have been seen working on the same bench at Woolwich ; while titled ladies and young girls from cultured homes earned sixteen shillings a week and boasted in the morning of the number of shell-cases which they had turned and finished in their hours of night-shift. Truly it had become a National War. Of all its strange memories none will be stranger than those of the peaceful. middle-aged. civilians of sedentary habits who were seen eagerly reading books upon elementary drill in order to prepare themselves to face the most famous soldiers in Europe, or of the schoolgirls and matrons who donned blue blouses and by their united work surpassed the output of the great death factories of Essen.