An extract from Captain Stair Gillon’s “History Of The 29th Division”.
The divisional commander arrived on the Lys area early on the morning of the 10th, and found a considerable state of confusion and uncertainty as to the situation. All roads were much congested and blocked with refugees flying before the German advance. Many pitiful scenes were witnessed, as the people in this part had been living in comparative peace since the autumn on 1914, and had never thought it likely that they would again be overwhelmed by war. Their rage against the Portuguese was intense, and the divisional commander on more than one occasion saw unfortunate soldiers of that nation being violently assaulted by women.
At this time the enemy was still held on the line of the Lys, except that he had effected a crossing at Bac St. Maur farther to the left, and was moving towards Steenwerck. It was reported that we had a force about La Creche advancing to oppose this movement. The 86th and 87th Brigades were moved across in the afternoon to clear up the situation in this direction, and to join hands if possible with the La Creche force. It was hoped that the crossings of the river at Merville and Estaires would be firmly held, so that our right flank would be secure. But they were captured by the enemy during the night. It resulted that, as no touch was obtained with the La Creche force, which appears never to have got properly underway, that the two brigades were more or less isolated with both flanks exposed. A rearguards action therefore had to be fought.
The enemy attacked strongly on the morning of the 11th, and a gradual retirement was made in the direction of Doulieu. Casualties were heavy as position after position was turned. After a comparatively quiet night, the retirement was continued on the 12th, under constant hostile attacks, through Bleu to a position about Vieux Berquin. There was very little artillery available to cover the infantry retirement, which made the task of keeping off hostile attacks all the harder. Apparently, there was a big dump of ammunition in Bleu, which was exploded by a lucky shell after we had evacuated the place, and this explosion materially delayed the enemy’s advance at a critical time when units were in considerable confusion.
It was on this day that Lieutenant-Colonel J. Forbes-Robertson, D.S.O., who was commanding the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, began a series of exploits which gained him the V.C.
The following graphic account of Colonel Forbes-Robertson’s deeds is from the pen of Captain J.C. Ogilvie, who writes: – “At dawn on the 11th April the regiment found itself grouped in a number of small farms in front of the Meteren Becque, after an all-night movement at right angles to the Neuf Berquin – Estaires road, which had added considerably to the topographical confusion present in most of our minds on this new and uncertain front. The country was a confusion of small farms and fields enclosed by over-grown hedges, scattered areas of dense wood, and divided by heavily treed roads. The day opened in perfect stillness and dense fog, but out of the fog arrived the Boche with trench mortars and machine guns mounted on lorries. Every farm was subjected to intense fire at close range. Colonel Forbes-Robertson, realizing the critical state of affairs, mounted and rode alone from farm to farm, utterly regardless of his personal safety, and organized an effective defence. That done, he rode out to the left, where he found the flanking battalion already in retirement, having lost its entire headquarters staff and most of its officers. Taking command of the whole situation he, personally, and in full view of the enemy, organized a slow fighting retirement in the general direction of Bleu village and Doulieu.
By nightfall the troops under his command had only lost some 900 yards of ground. In the darkness the light from the burning farms showed the Germans to have passed our undefended right flank, and to have entered Neuf Berquin. On the left, everything was indefinite as, in spite of repeated personal reconnaissance, Colonel Forbes-Robertson nad been unable to gain touch with any British troops. During the night he personally guided the remainder of his troops to a line in and around Bleu village, where dawn of the 12th found us once again under direct close range trench-mortar and machine gun fire. Here the remainder of the two battalions, some 150 all told, remained until the night, and here the heaviest fighting of the three days took place. The mud and wattle farm buildings gave no protection, and all through that day Colonel Forbes-Robertson rode around from building to building encouraging and directing each man individually.
“Between Bleu and Vieux Berquin was an open space of 800 yards, constantly swept by machine gun and rifle fire. Across this Colonel Forbes-Robertson rode, and back across it he walked, his horse having been shot under him, with the cheering news that a company of Irish Guards was holding on in Vieux-Berquin. It was the first cheering news that we had had for two days, and it gave all of us renewed strength. That night Colonel Forbes-Robertson again spent superintending and guiding a personally conducted retirement to the railway cutting in front of Mont de Merris, where the Australians found him at dawn with the survivors of his two battalions.
“During three days and nights of constant infantry and machine gun fighting, Colonel Forbes-Robertson by his wonderful soldiering had, with a handful of troops, retired a distance of 6000 yards, and brought the German advance on that particular front to a standstill.
“Had it not been for the extraordinary gallantry, the cheery leadership, and the compelling personality of Colonel Forbes-Robertson during those days and nights of confused fighting, it is difficult to conjecture what might have happened. His superb courage and dogged optimism, his apparent omnipresence, and his undoubted control of the very difficult situation, bound to his person all the troops he had collected under his command. On foot and on horse back, he personally directed every step of the retirement. There was no sending of orders; he carried them himself.
Time after time he was “missing” for varying periods, only to turn up again, having been prowling round one or other of the undefended flanks. Those of the division who were privileged to know him will readily understand the cheering effects of feeling lost and turning round to see old Forbes trudging up to you leading a wounded, half foundering horse, and to hear his cheery voice swearing and laughing, bringing news of how “this” company was doing, and how So-and-so was getting on; a quiet “pow-wow” on the whole situation, and of he went to the next post, leaving the finest feeling of confidence and companionship behind him.”
Could there be a finer tale of gallantry? No V.C. earned in the war was better deserved.
General Jackson, who commanded his brigade, adds a note. “Forbes had been dull and morose all the morning, but had brightened up as things got worse. When they were really bad, he brightened up a lot, borrowed a horse (not his own, as he considered his old dun mare too good to risk), and said to one or two of his head-quarters, ‘The time has now come for me to take a hand.’”
By the night of the 12th the two brigades had got back into a line about Vieux-Berquin, with their right on the Hazebrouck-Estaires road, and their left about the Bailleul railway in front of Strazeele station by Lynde Farm. This position was consolidated, and held all the next day, the 13th, against numerous attacks, though their flanks, especially on the left, were uncovered by the retirement of other troops. Meanwhile the 1st Australian Division, which had come up from the south, had dug a trench line from the Forest de Nieppe to Meteren. After nightfall the two brigades were withdrawn behind this line, and their stupendous ordeal of three days and nights of continuous fighting against a strongly superior enemy was ended. The fighting strength of these two brigades after the battle was found to be not much over 500 men.
A few incidents of the battle are worth recalling. On the night of the 13th a good many did not receive orders for retirement. Lieutenant-Colonel G.T. Raikes on the 2nd S.W.B. (who hurried back from leave and joined in the middle of the battle) and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers. Found themselves with a party with no one on their flanks. So word was passed down the line that in an hour’s time the order would be given to “left turn”, when every man would rise, turn to his left, and follow the man in front of him. The plan worked all right, and at the end of the hour a snake of men, who were trailing across what was then Boche country, headed by the two commanding officers, with a servant and another man as advanced guard. Without further mishap, the whole party got themselves safely behind the Australian line.
The following was another incident of the same nature. Captain Lockwood, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with a handful of men, held the extreme right of the divisional line. As related above, after nightfall, their task being accomplished, the division was ordered to withdraw. But the orders failed to reach this party. A critical situation arose, as it was discovered that the enemy were on both flanks and in the cemetery not a hundred yards to the front. But in the absence of orders Captain Lockwood determined to hold on, which he did, keeping the enemy back till all ammunition was exhausted, and inflicting considerable losses on them. He realized then that a retirement was necessary, and most skilfully withdrew has whole party. Including several wounded men, behind the Australian line, which was reached just before dawn.
In another part of the field the bulk of the London Field Company Royal Engineers had been detached on the evening of the 10th towards Merville. When the enemy crossed the river there that night, this party found themselves completely isolated. But there was no thought of sudden retirement, to get themselves out of their difficult position. On the contrary, they took up a position to prevent the Germans debouching from Merville, and held them up for a considerable time. When eventually forced back, after severe casualties, they continued to fight a rearguard action on their own for the next two days, suffering and inflicting severe losses. All the officers but one of this gallant company were killed or wounded, and well did it earn the three Military Crosses and three Military Medals awarded it.
There were, of course, a good many lighter incidents during the battle. One related by Brigadier-General Cheape is as follows.
During one of the nights of the battle, while digging in, they heard the Germans killing a pig in a farm through which they had recently retired. A patrol was sent out, and, completely surprising the Germans, “jumped” the farm, and left several dead Germans to keep company with the dead pig. History does not relate what happened to the pig.
A familiar face, especially in the 86th Brigade, was that of Captain Harding , the quartermaster of the Royal Fusiliers, who had been with the battalion during the whole war. On the evening of the 12th, when the battle seemed to be at its most desperate, and the line had got to Vieux Berquin, he suddenly appeared right up in the firing line with his transport and rations, apparently quite unconcerned, and bucking every one up by his cheerfulness and by the food he bought up to his beloved battalion. It really was a wonderful feat of energy and initiative on his part to find the battalion as he did, and doubtless the thought that they were being well looked after was the greatest encouragement to the men in the difficult time they were going through.
Major W. Raikes, second in command of the 29th Machine Gun Battalion (which did magnificent work throughout the battle) provided a comic element. He had had many adventures in the three days, and fallen into various ditches, wire fences etc, so that he was caked with mud and almost without clothes before the end. However, he managed to find a pair of French poilu’s trousers, and eventually came out of action and reported himself to the divisional commander clothed in them and not much else except mud.
The 87th Brigade had to change their headquarters seven times during the battle, being shelled out in most cases. On one occasion the brigadier and his brigade-major, Festing, who were the last of the headquarters party to leave, had to retire through the back window of the farm they were occupying, taking the telephone with them, as the Boche was just entering the front yard. They were to be seen trying to move across country, hedges, and deep ditches, in an apparently leisurely manner, though really in a desperate hurry to get clear.
On one occasion Colonel Forbes-Robertson helped his battalion most materially by the matter-of-fact way in which he organised an issue of beer to the men in a hamlet through which they were retiring. The business was organised in a few minutes, and, as can be imagined, the idea of the thing, as much as the actual beer, had a wonderful steadying effect on his men. It should be added that he himself with his headquarters party and a Vickers gun or two covered the battalion while the issue was going on, so enabling everyone to drink his beer undisturbed.
An Advance Dressing Station had been established in Vieux Berquin in the school, on the 11th April, in charge of Major Fiddes, R.A.M.C. Captain M.F. Healy, who was commanding the Divisional Employment Company, writes as follows:-
“In a very few minutes the principal rooms were cleared out and fitted up for hospital use. On one side we put a waiting room for stretcher cases, and a treatment room on the other side of the court; also two rooms for sitting and walking cases. The wounded began to come in pretty thickly after a short time. But cars began to fail, and at one time we had 40 stretcher cases without any means of evacuating them.”
After great trouble, largely on the part of Captain Healy himself, this problem was solved. “On the 12th the Boche decided to choose the school as a target. A whole battery of 5.9s opened up on us by volleys. Anything from thirty to fifty shells came over in bunches of four or five at a time. The houses on either side were totally destroyed, all our windows were blown in, splinters rained down all around us. Major Fides decided to get out. Quietly and coolly four men took each stretcher and started to cross country towards Strazeele station. The sitting cases were carried, and the walking cases were helped. Stores were coolly packed up by the R.A.M.C., and the final touch of swank being supplied by one man, who produced a brush and swept out the room. He might have spared his pains, for as he swept the falling shells scattered the duct again. Thanks to this excellent coolness we all reached Strazeele station without hurt.”
Captain Healy mentions that wine was there in abundance at the hand of every man, but not a man was so much as flushed with drink, and all seemed to have contented themselves with a voluntary ration of about half a glass a man. This was a particularly creditable performance.
The dressing station was moved that night to Pradelles, and on the morning of the 13th to Rouge Croix.