In the spring of 1918, there was fierce fighting throughout the sector known as the Lys Salient. The Battalion was in and out of the front line as it was needed, often being moved at short notice. John would have had very little time to get to know his men. He must have relied heavily on the non-commissioned officers in his platoon and his platoon commander.
|The map shows the approximate line of the Western Front, with the general location of the Lys Salient.|
|The Google Maps image shows Pacault Wood with the canal to the south. The left flank of the battle was Riez du Vinage, which can be seen in the north-west corner of the image.|
On the 20thApril 1918, the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Pacaut Wood. That night John lead an aggressive patrol with the purpose of testing the enemy’s lines, gathering intelligence and snatching a prisoner if possible. He returned with a prisoner from the German Army’s 471st Regiment. This was something about John that we never knew. He was only twenty years old. It must have been intensely exciting, hugely important and utterly bloody terrifying all at once. he must have been so relieved to get back to the British lines in one piece having done a decent job, got a prisoner and not made a hash of it.
The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Pacaut Wood, capturing two wounded prisoners. In the words of the regimental history, April 21st was “relatively quiet”, but what that means in the reality of the Western Front one can only imagine. C Company pulled back across the canal in preparation for the next day's main assault.
On April 22nd, the Battalion launched another attack on the Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of Pacaut Wood and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The front line had been drawn back to the canal to allow for a heavy trench mortar (9.45 inch mortar) barrage along the southern edge of the wood. This meant that the Hampshires would have to recross the canal by footbridges laid for the purpose by the . Stokes mortars (3 inch trench mortar) and machine guns (Vickers .303) were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of gas if the wind was favourable. During the briefing, troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being allotted its own objectives, D company on the right, A Company in the center, B company on the left with C company in support dug in along the southern bank of the canal. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was attached to one of the infantry companies to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold.
Troops assembled at 05.00 and zero hour was 05.15am. It would have just got light. The artillery barrage that accompanied the start of the advance alerted the enemy and the Hampshires took casualties from German counter battery fire at 05.18 as they stormed across the foot bridges. This particularly hit A Company. They incurred many casualties including their commanding officer and many NCOs. The rest of the attack went forward well. D company came under heavy machine gun fire as they neared their objective. I think that it was at this point that John was wounded. He was hit twice in the same legs, machine gun bullets passing through the flesh of his calf muscle and through his thigh. Mercifully, the large blood vessel in his thigh was not ruptured or he would have died in minutes. 2/Lt. Abbott pushed two Lewis guns forward to deal with the enemy machine gunners and this allowed two platoons to move up on his right and get established on the objective within zero plus 25 minutes. B Company had secured their objective five minutes earlier, having met no resistance. A Company had regrouped and linked back up with the companies to their right and left by 05.40.
At 09.00, a platoon from C Company was called up to fill a gap that had developed at a cross-roads between A and D Companies. This platoon was lead by Captain Causton. They encountered heavy resistance from machine guns and Captain Causton was killed, but the platoon pushed forward to over-run the machine gun unit and attack a reinforcing party who were coming up to bolster the German defences. Most of the German soldiers were killed. When the platoon was at their objective, they extended their flanks by bombing (throwing grenades). But A Company were still struggling to make their objective.
|The map is taken from a war diary that now forms part of the Regimental History. It shows a very rough plan of the intentions of the Regiment before the battle began.|
At 07.00 an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.
At 11.00 the German machine gun fire began to slacken, but shell fire increased along the canal bank and at 13.30 Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. By early afternoon the whole line was connected with A Company still slightly short of their objective. The Germans put down a heavy barrage with rifle and machine gun fire without much effect.
At 17.30 the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. As dusk fell the counter-attack was beaten off with accurate rifle fire and machine gun fire from the Hampshire’s Lewis guns. A Company were still bogged down, so twelve men were detached from C Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as C Company were themselves suffering heavy casualties on the canal bank. If the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance throughout the night. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day by the Somerset Light Infantry and “The Duke’s”. They marched back to their billets in Lannoy.
The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, which was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of their Operation Georgette offensive. Pacault Wood was a highly successful operation. Over 70 prisoners and several machine guns had been taken and the captured territory facilitated further advances at Riez du Vinage on the Battalion’s left flank.
John was taken to an aid station. Family legend has it that he was so badly wounded that he was going to be left with the other no-hopers outside the tent to die peacefully. However, a brother officer grabbed my unconscious grandfather's arm and refused to let him go saying, "Cleggy's with me! He stays with me!" So John was not left to drift off, he was taken further back behind the lines and thence to England. By the Armistice on 11th November he was in a convalescent home in Devon, recovering from his frightful wounds. He survived his wounds and went on to serve with the Hampshires in Turkey, Egypt and on the North-West Frontier of India where my mother was born. He served in the Second World War in England, North Africa and Italy and left the Army as a Lt Colonel.
Hampshires paid a high price for their success. During the attack on 22nd April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. Twenty-two NCOs and privates were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing. These last unfortunate men were probably lost during the artillery barrages, there being nothing left of them to find. May God have mercy upon their souls. The words of Laurence Binyon's poem "The Fallen" have never been bettered, the fourth most famous stanza reads:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
James Daly’s blog https://dalyhistory.wordpress.com
Vol.2 Regimental History, C.T. Atkinson. April 22nd 1918
Thanks to Lt. Col. HDH Keatinge OBE, Curator, Royal Hampshire Regiment Association, Serle’s House, Winchester. 2011.