1/7th, 1/8th, 2/7th and 2/8th Worcestershire Regiment
The Second Line Territorials enter the Battle
On the right of the 48th (1/1 South Midland) Division, the 36th (Ulster) Division had successfully captured the enemy’s front line system, and gained the line of the Steenbeek from ‘Border House’ to ‘Pommern Redoubt’ in the south. The 61st (2/1st South Midland) Division relieved them and on the night of the 17th August the 2/7th and 2/8th came under fire. The 2/8th took over the right of the Brigade line; while behind them the 2/7th occupied the old British front line. Apart from light casualties casued by intermittent shell-fire the sector was quiet for several days and they were relieved on the night of August 20th/21st.
On August 23rd they moved forward again, and the 2/7th took over the front line. On the previous day the 184th Brigade had attalcked and a fierce struggle had raged, woith alternate attack and counter-attack, round the German blockhouses among the water-logged shell-holes. They had made a short advance, capturing Somme Farm on the left and Hindu Cott on the right, but in the middle Aisne Farm was still in German hands. It was against this fortress that the 2/7th Worcesters were deployed.
The first attack was made on the evening of the 24th August. A platoon of ‘B’ Company tried to get to the strongpoint but were stopped by withering fire. ‘A’ Company relived them and prepared to attack. So at 11pm the next night (August 25th/26th) the attack was mande, as part of a general assault. On the tight the Scots of the 15th Division twice charged their target, Gallipoli Farm, but were beaten back with heavy loss; on the left it was a smiliar story agains Schuler Farm. At Aisne Farm a platoon of ‘A’ Company reached the enemy’s defences and fought their way in, only to be driven out again with heavy loss
Preparations for the battle by the 2/8th
The failure to take these strongpoints made a concerted assault necessadry and the following day (August 26th) was devoted to preparation. After dark the 2/7th swapped places with the 2/8th. During the night Captains Pritchard and Godsall led their men forward some 200 yards and established new positions amid the shell-holes; and then orders were received. Two platoons of ‘D’ Company, led by Captain Pritchard, would attack Gallipoli Farm, in conjunction wiht the Scotsmen on the right. ‘A’ and ‘B’ and the remainder of ‘D’ Company, would attack Aisne Farm and the surrounding defences.
The First Line prepare for the battle
A mile northwards, similar dispositions were made by the Worcesters of the 48th Division. The line here had not changed since the 20th August. On the 25th and 26th both the 1/7th and 1/8th had come into the line side by side, holding the line from Hillock Farm to beyone the Triangle.
Their attack in preparation was intended to break the enemy’s main line of defence beyone the Langemarck road, a stroing position defended by the outost fortresses of Springfield and Vancouver. The former lay just to the right of the 8th Battalion front; the latter was near the line of junction between the two Battalions, but at the time its exact position had not been located.
That night (August 26th/27th) was one of heavy rain and intense darkness, broken only by the blaze of bursitng shells; for the ene,y kept up a heavy and continuous bombardment of the British forward lines. At 1.55pm the British artillery laid an intense barrage and all along the lines the men pushed forward through the mud – the 1/8th had ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies attacking, and the 1/7th had all but ‘C’ Company in the intial attack.
The attack of the 1/7th and 1/8th Worcesters
The exact location of the enmy was hardly known. In the wilderness of shell-holes many German machine-gun posts had been estableshed; and as soon as the barrage had passed those machine-guns came into action and opened fire. Struggling thourhg the mud, th eplatoons of the 1/7th and 1/8th Worcesters pushed forwards. The ordered line broke up as the platoons proceeded to deal with one machine-gun post after another, and the attack disintegrated into a series of fierce little struggles among the shell holes. At one point an attacking platoon was stopped dead by fire from a string concret fort. The platoon commander, 2nd Lieut. Willis, re-orgainsed his men and led the forweard. The blockhouse was skilfully encircled, rushed and stormed. When 2nd Lieut. Willis was killed Sergt Wheeler took command of the platton and bravely led them on. (Willis was awarded the Military Cross and Wheeler was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal).
Further to the right, fierce bursts of machine gun fire from Springfield Farm enfiladed the attack and held it up. In the centre the unlocated defences of Vancouver gave similar trouble. Between those two points the leading platoons of the 1/8th Worcesters nearly reached the enemy’s main line of trenches; but the lack of success on the flanks brought them to a standstill.
To the right the 143rd Brigade had similarly been held up. Springfield Farm was the principal cause of trouble. Colonel Carr (commanding 1/8th Worcesters) took the opportunity as darkness fell and sent forward ‘D’ Company from his reserve to take the farm in flank. Led by Lieut. Ryan Bell ‘D’ Company pushed forward, attacked the farm from the north and captured it after a fierce struggle , in which the brave young leader was mortally wounded.
On the left the 1/7th Worcestesr had gained no greater success. Knee-deep , and some times waist deep in the mud, the troops advaced through the shell holes, but it was impossible to keep up with the moving barrage. As the shells passed, the enemy snipers and mmachine gunners opened fire from every side. On the right flank of the Battalion Cat Wallace led ‘A’ Company forward most gallantly. The attack had passed beyond the defences of Vancouver Farm and was nearing a concrete fort beyond it when two German snipers rose from a shell hoes close at hand. They shot Captain Wallace and a corporal who rushed to his assistance. Sergeant Marchant, endeavouring to assus his officer was wounded, but at the same moment Sergeant Cooper succeeded in shooting both Germans.
Murdereous little fights of this kind were taking place all along the line, while the ground was swept by machine-guns from the front and also from hte left fland where the defences of Vielles Maisons had replused the 11th Division. Dusk fell in driving rain, and the floundering troops dug in as best they could. Except in the centre around Vancouver the two Battalions had everywhere gained ground, but at heavy cost. A greater success was not physically possible, for movement either forward or backward was a matter of the greated difficulty.
The attack of the 2/8th Worcesters
At Aisne Farm, the 2/8th attacked at the same time, but with no greater success. The forward platoons had lain out all morning in hell holes which the pouring rains had converted into slimy ponds. They had been unable to move from those shell holes, for the ground was under direct observations from the enemy’s position and was swept by fire. It is difficult to conceive more dispiriting circumstances. Nevertheless at 1.55 pm the Territorials advanced with fine spirit.
The little groups of fighting men struggles out of their water logged pits and ploughed forward throguh the miud. So many of them slipped and fell in that wilderness of shell holes that most of the rifles became clogged with mud and could not be fired; but the attackers went forward with the bayonet as their only weapon. Try as they might, they could not keep up with the barrage even though it had been set at 100 yards per twenty minutes and the fire of German machine guns struck them on front and flank. Before Aisne Farm could be reached the attakc was brought to a standstill. Captain H L evers was conspicuous by his contempt of danger. Although wounded early in the attack he continued to lead his men onward, cheering and encouraging them throughout the day; but his soldiers were shot down all around him and soon it was clear that success was impossible against the machine guns of Aisne Farm.
Further to the right D Company’s platoons nearly reached Gallipoli Farm. The Scotsmen of the 15th Division had been held up and Captain Pritchard tried to help them by wheeling his line to the right and taking the enemy in flank; but the attempt failed with heavy loss. By nightfall it was clear that the attack had failed, and orders came to dig in. On the northern flank some little ground had been gained, and Springfield Farm, at leaaat, was in our hands; but further south the line was little further forward than at the the start. The weather and the Flanders mud had defeated the attack, not the enemy.
The losses of the three battalions
The losses were severe – about a third of the fighting strength in the case of all three battalions.
1/7th Worcestershire – 1 officer killed and 5 wounded; 99 other ranks killed or wounded (including Pte J S Cutter).
1/8th Worcestershire – 7 officers killed and 3 wounded; 101 other ranks killed or wounded
2/8th Worcestershire – 3 officers killed (including 2/Lt R L Hancock) and 5 wounded; 138 other ranks killed or wounded (including Cpl A S Bray, Pte H G Saunders and Pte R G Spawton).
The 2/7th Worcestershire remained in reserve but lost 1 officer and 20 other ranks from shell fire.
The Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant of the 1/8th Worcesters described the battle thus: “The weather runined all chances of success. In our worst tour we went up thorugh a terrible storm of wind and rain and a darkness that could be felt to occupy a secret trench and attack from it. In such weather it took many hours to cover the six miles or so, but we occupied it about midnight. It was only three and a half feet deep and nearly full of water. There we had to squat in the water, covered by a cloth, until one o’clock in the afternnon, unable to speak aloud or stir or smoke. So still we lay that the enemy never suspected us, and at the signal we crawled out stiff and sodden and floundered on to the objective. It was purely bayonet work, for of course, by this time we had scarcely a rifle that would shoot.
“Of all our battle experiences this was definitely the grimmest and most dreadful… Black was the dominant shade. Flats and low swells of black mud, hideously pitted everywhere, reeking of shattered corpses whose blackened, putrid faces and bloated limbs protruded from their oozy lairs. Their were a few dark stumps of trees, flooded brooks trickled from red shell hole to inky slime pit, bitter wind and unsparing rain pouring from low sable skies. The incessant roar of barrages creeping to and fro like questing monsters, casting aloft sootier soil and mangling dead and living alike, howling of shells and squels of bullets that spirited continual death from indiscernable ambushed in the featureless waste, and horrible black. cold nights leave on the memory on dreadful puctire of soaked blackness and cold gloom. And through this sombre Hell, lost in its vastness, appearing and disappearing again, … tiny groups of men, incredibly mired, white with fatigue and hunger, despair in their souls and haggard faces, murder in thier bitter hearts and blazing eyes, staggered and waded along, dying and slaying, drowning in the mud, weeping, cursing, fainting, but advancing still.”
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Stacke, Capt H. FitzM The Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War Kidderminster 1921
Corbett, E C The War Story of the 8th (Territorial) Battalion Worcester 1924