Thanks to Mr Paul Greenwood, who wrote and gave us this texte
When war broke out in August 1914 Territorials (i.e. part-time volunteer soldiers) from the West Riding were in Summer camp and were immediately put on a war footing. The 1st/6th Duke of Wellingtons from Craven formed part of the 49th (1st/West Riding) division, and within two months recruiting began to form a second line division to provide replacements and drafts for the 49th.
This eventually became a division in its own right .... the 62nd (2nd/West Riding) with the emblem of a pelican as its shoulder flash. It was, however, to be many months before the 62nd was sent to fight in France .... so long, in fact, that it became known among its members - all volunteers - as "The Lost Sixty Second".
The Division had the normal structure for the period of three brigades, their brigadiers working under the direction of a divisional commander. They were the 185th (West Yorkshire Regiment) comprising the 2/4th, 2/5th, 2/7th and 2/8th battalions, raised from York, Leeds and Bradford -the latter wo being known as the Leeds Rifles), the 186th (Duke of Wellington's) recruited in Halifax, Huddersfield, Skipton and the Colne Valley, and the 187th, mainly from South Yorkshire : - Wakefield (2/3 W.R.), Doncaster (2/5 King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) Sheffield (2/4th Yorks and Lancs - "The Hallamshires") - and the 2/5th from the same regiment, their recruiting center being Rotherham. The Artillery was manned mainly from Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Huddersfield and the Ambulance units from Sheffield and Leeds.
The practice of recruiting men from the same area of the country .... in many cases men from the same town or village being placed in the same company .... had yet to be proved disastrous when casualty lists were printed and both the 49th and the 62nd were truly West Riding Divisions.
To realise how the Division was to be affected during the final year or war, there must be some reference to wider events.
Germany, through her policy of unrestricted submarine warfare had managed to bring America onto the side of the Allies as a belligerent ... and the intervention of American manpower on the Western Front would eventually tip the scales against Germany.
On the credit side of the German balance sheet, a combination of inept Russian leadership and astute German political interference had led to the Bolshevik revolution, the collapse of "The Russian Steamroller" and the opportunity to free great numbers of German troops for the Western Front.
1917 had also seen mutinies in the French army, brought to a head by Nivelle's disastrous Spring attack on the Chemin des Dames, (- these mutinies were so well-kept a secret that Germany was unaware of the true state of affairs - but concessions with regard to leave for French troops meant an increase of the burden placed upon her British allies). German attention was drawn from the French sector by the offensives at Cambrai and the long and costly British advance in appalling conditions up to the Passchendaele ridge.
The Italians had suffered grievoulsy at Caporetto from late October to mid-November (275,000 taken prisoner, 10,000 killed and a further 20,000 wounded) in a combined Austrian-German attack, and Britain had been brought almost to her knees by the submarine menace.
Still the military minds of Germany were astute enough to realise that the advantage of numbers to use against their war-weary adversaries was not to be theirs for long ...
The first five months of the year saw the Division used to hold back the German 21st March offensive, then in periods of trench warefare. By now a shortage of troops meant a good deal of reorganisation throughout the British Army, and men from the Durham Light Infantry joined as its Pioneer battalion. They were soon to be joined by troops from the Devons and the Hants Regiments.
June found the Division in rest in what was probably the most relaxed period of its service on the Western Front. The troops were in comfortable billets, it was beautiful Summer weather : there were parades and drill in the mornings, sports in the afternoons, and the divisional troupe - The Pelicans - played to packed houses in the evenings. However the 62nd were not to be allowed to rest for long.
On the 27th of May the Germans, held in check in their attacks of March and April, launched a furious surprise attack across the Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne. Supported by tanks, 28 German divisions struck at the French 6th army North West of Reims. Within days their attack had reached the Marne, and in the Montagne de Reims intense fighting during the next few days culminated in an attack on the important position of the Montagne de Bligny.
Surprisingly the German offensive brought about a better understanding between the Allies. Up to that time French opinions had been privately expressed that British troops must be of low standard to have allowed the Germans such success in the earlier attacks on the Somme and the Lys. The French also felt responsible for the fact that four British Divisions, the 8th, 21st, 25th and 50th, badly mauled in the March and April attacks, had been placed in the care of the French 6th army on the Aisne ... a supposedly quiet sector. Some of these British units fought "until only the memory remained" and their resistance, combined with an unprecedented general retreat that allowed the Germans to put the French capital within the range of their largest gun, brought about a sense of unity in adversity.
But since March 24th the Allies had had a supreme commander with overall responsability for the conduct of the campaign - Marshal Foch. Foch withdrew his force of eight French divisions from Flanders and brought them South to meet the threat. This was precisely what the Germans expected, and the final phase of their plan was, when the Allied reserves had been committed, to mount a final overwhelming attack against the denuded Flanders' front and bring them total victory.
Foch made further demands, asking Haig to send four divisions to cover the section of the line linking British and French forces round Amiens. Haig, in spite of doubts, agreed, and even agreed that these divisions be placed completely under the Generalissimo's control and four more be sent to replace them in the task of covering the junction between the Allied armies. It is a tribute to their faith in Foch that Lloyd-George and Haig agreed, as the Germans still had a superiority of a quarter of a million troops. The XXII Corps (Lt. General Sir H. Godley) was sent down to the French front, the 15th and 34th divisions to reinforce the area round Soissons and the 51st and 62nd (who had fought side by side at Cambrai) to the valley of the Ardre between Epernay and the Forêt de Reims.
Foch was also able to call on other forces. The American Marines and the 3rd Infantry Brigade, having brought the German attack to a halt round Vaux in June had already counter-attacked and cleared Belleau Wood in bitter hand to hand fighting by the beginning of July - and Italian troops from the 1st Division, along with the 14th and 120th French Divisios and the 1st Colonial French Corps were manning the line in the Bois de Reims sector.
It was obvious that the Germans would attempt yet another assault from their positions East and West of Reims. These expected attacks began on July 15th. In their assault to the West of the city the enemy crossed the Marne between Château Thierry and Epernay, and above the river pushed South almost to the North West edge of the forest of the Montagne de Reims. Because of Foch's system of "elastic defence" (a front lightly held by machine gunners encouraging the Germans to advance beyond the area covered by their own artillery and into that covered by French fire-power before they ran up against the French main defences) the Eastern attack made little progress, and made it with heavy losses.
On the day of the German assault, the troops of the 62nd were making slow progress by rail via Paris to the South. They arrived at Mailly-le Camp, South of Chalons, on the 16th, received orders to join the French Fifth Army, and on the 17th started to move to the areas from where they were to go into battle. Owing to lack of transport, the divisional troops (such as Signallers and Engineers) had to march 20 or 30 miles and so the final "settling in" was not completed until the 19th. Orders were given for the Division to concentrate behind the IInd Italian Corps by noon on the 19th, and to be ready to advance through the Italians on the 20th. This was because Mangin's counter attack between Château Thierry and Soissons on the 18th had been a complete surprise to the enemy, and the 51st and 62nd on the Reims side of the salient and the 15th and 34th at its far end were to help "pinch out" the German line, hopefully trapping large numbers of the enemy. This counter-offensive meant the German troops held back for the final smashing of the British line in the North had to be used as reinforcements, and their "offensive to end all offensives" eventually had to be cancelled.
In the small hours of the morning of the 19th orders came to march at 5 am. and to concentrate behind the Italian troops. The scheme was to advance up the valley of the Ardre to a final objective 7 km from the start line. This was decided in a conference at Italian HQ. After it had ended, the commanders of the 51st and 62nd divisions went to the XXII Corps' HQ at Vertus to make final arrangements and receive written orders. The long journey meant that the 62nd did not have final orders until 5 pm. and could make no reconnaissance of the positions to be attacked. It was 9 pm. before detailed arrangements could be sent out, and Zero hour was 8 am. the following morning.
The Ardre, rising due South of Reims in the forest, flows through thickly wooded, hilly country, ideal for siting the hidden strongpoints and machine gun nests which were such a feature of German defence. On either side of the valley, varying from 2000 to 3000 yards in width, the groud rises to high ridges and spurs with forest-covered crests. On the North side are the woods of the Bois de Reims, on the South are the Bois de Courton and the Bois d'Eclisse. The villages of Marfaux and Chaumuzy are in the valley bottom. These are covered by fields of fire from the hamlets of Cuitron, Espilly, Les Haies and Nappes, all perched on higher ground, as well as from the Montagne de Bligny itself (some 7000 yards from the "jumping off" line).
Because of the slopes being so steep, light tanks were unable to operate, and also had problems with marshy ground on either side of the river. Crops, vines and woods on the slopes and ridges concealed the enemy positions: sunken roads and banks at right angles to the line of attack formed natural positions for a stubborn German defence. The advance was likely to be more in the nature of guerilla warfare than anything seen in France so far by the division.
The 62nd was to attack along the right bank of the river Ardre; the Highlanders along the left. Away on the other flank of theWest Riding division, the Italian 2nd Division was to join the advance. The 62nd's battalions met with various difficulties: the 187th brigade found problems in understanding their Italian guides, the 185th had a day's march before they could reach their area and arrived exhausted. They had little time to rest, being ordered forward at 10 pm. to reach Courtagnon by midnight where they were to meet French guides. From then on there was more confusion ... the guides became lost, and the tired troops had to make their way through thick woods under shell fire to reach their positions. Amazingly they were in position just before 8 am. The 186th, more fortunate, received orders in ample time for them to reconnoitre the area between Germaine and Courtagnon and to be in position some hours before zero.
The division's artillery was not yet sited, and the opening barrage had to be provided by the French and the Italians. As the position of the French front line was far from clear, the barrage was directed well ahead of the division's start line. This left the enemy machine gus untouched, and caused the advancing troops extreme difficulties, particularly around the area of the Château de Commentreuil. All along the divisional front it was the same story. Machine guns and snipers in concealed strongpoints caused casualties as high as 50%. The day's casualties came to 46 officers and 775 other ranks. The Germans clung tenaciously to all their positions: their machine guns were well concealed, their snipers were in every available vantage point, they had superiority of numbers and the Allied barrage was wide of the mark .... yet by the end of the day the British line ran to the East of Espilly, Marfaux and Cuitron, and from there through the forest West of Courmas down to the crossroads between Bouilly and Onrezy. Orders came through at 10 pm. that the attack was to be continued the following day.
A creeping barrage started at 10.30 am on the 21st. Opposite the 62nd were the 103rd and 123nd German Divisions. They both had to be withdrawn at the end of the day's furious attack by the Durhams and Yorks and Lancs, and to be replaced by regiments from the 50th German Division. Nevertheless, resistance remained fierce and all the objectives were not reached.
Much the same situation obtained on the 22nd. Slow progress was made by isolating enemy strongpoints, then attacking with bomb and bayonet in hand to hand struggles. There were some set-backs. The 5th Dukes lost the high ground on the corner of Bois du Petit Champ, and it was essential that this should be held before the Marfaux-Cuitron line could be attacked. Two companies of the 8th West Yorks (in actual fact the entire battalion, casualties having been so heavy) were detailed to remedy the situation the following morning. The New Zealand Cycle Corps battalion was put at the division's disposal that evening to provide additional troops.
The 2nd/8th West Yorks began their attack at 6 am. on the 23rd, but within a half-hour all the officers had become casualties. The troops were rallied by a sergeant and established a post on the outer edge of the wood. A second section worked along the heights overlooking the valley. The divisional diary reads almost like a cowboys and indians saga. Sections charged each other .... scouts stalked each other through thick bush, machine gun and sniper fire came from unexpected directions. The deadly game of hide and seek continued for hours.
The edge of the wood was cleared at last and consolidated, and the Durhams were in a position to attack Cuitron the following morning (July 23rd) while the New Zealanders assaulted Marfaux. During the afternoon a combination of attacks by the French 77th Division and the 62nd's 187th brigade at last cleared the Bois de Rouvray and the Château de Commentreuil.
July 24th saw Marfaux and Cuitron heavily shelled. The division's share of the front was shortened in order to allow the brigades to be rotated and given some rest after five days' continuous fighthing. That night Epernay was bombed and the German planes also found and attacked the divisional ammunition column parked close to the road between Reims and Epernay, doing considerable damage to the teams of shire horses and causing casualties among the gunners.
No further advance could be made until the high ground on the left bank of the Ardre was captured. The 62nd agreed to send one brigade to help the Highland Division do this, but the day (25th) had to be spent in making preparations. The following day saw the completion of arrangements and the attack started at 6 am on the 27th, the advance continuing all day. Towards evening, with the assistance of mounted troops, a line was established from Arbre de Villers to the Montagne de Bligny. The Engineers were brought into the line to help consolidate the gains, but because of fierce resistance from the German rearguard no further progress towards the Montagne could be made.
The 28th of July saw the 8th West York mount an attack that won the battalion the Croix de Guerre. They moved off at 4 am, having just reorganised, for in the early hours of the 27th 200 reinforcements (many of them untried and straight from England) arrived. This meant that platoons had to be led by young Lance Corporals, and only 2 trained gunners allocated to each Lewis gun. The rain had just stopped: it was still dark and mist was down over all the area. The advance through the corn was, to say the least, wet.
Arriving at the foot of the Montagne, the troops were met by heavy fire. The line advanced slowly. The German fire at last began to slacken, then with fixed bayonets the West Yorkshires charged the enemy who broke and fled .... helped on by fire from their own captured machine guns. Finally the hillside was cleared, the crest was reached and the position consolidated.
Next day it was realised that the enemy was still in occupation of some trenches to the left of the Montagne: they were winkled out, but two platoons from the 62nd lost direction and were captured. In the afternoon Divisional HQ were told that the 62nd were being withdrawn to another area. The artillery was withdrawn the same night and the remainder of the division followed on the 30th.
The arrangements for evacuating casualties operated well, considering the difficult country .... bandages tied round trees marking the way through the forests, the wounded were taken back to the Reims-Epernay road where ambulances took them to the temporary clearing station set up for the division at Sezanne .... from there most would probable be moved to the advanced operating centre at l'Hopital Auban Moet in Epernay.
The Germans never advanced again. After the Second Battle of the Marne ended on August 7th, events moved so swiftly that it's impossible to follow them through the narrative of one single division. One of the greatest battles of World War I was fought and won between August 8th and September 9th. Haig called it "the opening of the final offensive" .... August 8th was so "final" that Ludendorff called it the "Black Day of the Geman Army". A few days later he offered to resign, and certainly, by 14th Aug. Prince Max of Baden was made Chancellor with a view to arranging an honourable peace.
Amiens was freed on August 8th (a feint in Flanders deceived the Germans and made this possible). Names associated with previous dreadful losses, such as Thiepval, Poziers, Martinpuich and Mory (the last captured by the 62nd) were retaken by the end of August. Bapaume fell on the 29th of that month. On September 1st the Australians captured Peronne. Bullecourt and Hendicourt fell the same day. Round about Ypres, Merville, Bailleu, Neuve Eglise, Kemmel Hill and Hill 62 were freed from the Germans and by the end of the month the four year long threat to the Channel Ports was ended.
After that the battle of the Scarpe brought British forces back to the Hindenburg line's (Siegfried Stellung's) main defences. The 62nd was once more given the task of retaking Harincourt, fighting over the ground it had known in 1917. Graincourt was taken by the 63rd Division, Anneux by the 57th and Bourlon and Bourlon Wood by the Canadians. The Canal du Nord was forced by the Guards in assaults on Ribecourt and Flesquieres. The 62nd followed up with an attack on Marcoing, and the capture of the Masnieres ridge.
From September 27th onwards into October the 1st, IIIrd and IVth armies broke the German defence line and drove a huge gap through the rear trench systems. In Flanders the Belgian army reached Ostend on October 16th. The Germans were driven from Cambrai the previous week, while on the 19th the 62nd overran Solesme in a surprise attack, wading the river Selle to take the position.
November 4th, through to the Armistice on the 11th, saw further advances. By the 9th, the Germans were in general retreat. On the 11th the Canadians arrived at Mons where the first battle of the war involving the British Army took place.
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