Thursday 4 May 2017

The Sad Story of the 7th Battalion at Cherisy

The 7th Bedfords' attack at Cherisy

Friday 4th May 1917

After the failure of the attack by 18th Division yesterday at Chérisy your correspondent has been eager to speak with someone from 7th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, which was one of the assaulting battalions, another being 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment from their brigade. This morning the adjutant was able to speak with me at some length. It seems that the attack was due to begin at 3.45 a.m. but it was not light enough to begin until 4.15. The British barrage commenced badly, being irregular and so gave the troops very little cover as they advanced down a gentle slope towards a wood just outside Fontaine-lès-Croisilles. The Battalion’s job was to seize the front line between this village and the village of Chérisy.

The left their trenches before zero and, according to the adjutant they formed up splendidly. The advance started at zero, they soon slightly lost direction. This was because  the men being extended at about 12 paces between them and could scarcely see each other. The battalion on the left, Leicesters of 21st Division, also lost direction and crowded to the right, thus confusing the Bedfords’ attack and causing a further loss of direction, pushing them further to the right.

Four tanks were to be used to attack Fontaine village. One of these was unable to start and another went but a short distance. Worse, a third tank went down the line of a trench called Wood Trench and  then turned and came right through the Bedfords’ advancing lines. This added to the confusion and some groups retired to their starting point someone having been heard to shout: “Retire”. These men were reformed at once by their officers and again advanced, but the covering barrage, such as it was, had gone on. Thus the Battalion was held up at Fontaine Trench, which was strongly defended and the wire was thick and undamaged. They came under heavy machine-gun fire from Vis-en-Artois, Chérisy, Fontaine Trench and Fontaine Wood.

Small detachments pushed forward to an angle formed by Fontaine Trench and Wood Trench but could get no further.  At this time the majority of the 55th Brigade (commanded incidentally by the Bedfords’ old commanding officer Colonel, now Brigadier George Price) had reached their first objective on the left of the Bedfords.

The position of the Battalion about 10 a.m. was in front of Fontaine Trench with their right flank thrown back facing Wood Trench. At this time the Leicesters on the right had not made good Wood Trench except a small portion at the Western end. Some groups of the 55th Brigade reached a portion of their second objective.

About 11.30 the 14th (Light) Division further to the left commenced retiring, followed by the 55th Brigade, 12th Middlesex and some groups of the Bedfords, but about a company still remained in shell-holes in front of Fontaine and Wood Trenches when at midday the troops on their left had all got back to the starting Trenches.

At 7.15 pm a new Barrage started and two companies of 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment attacked on the Bedfords’ frontage in which elements of the Bedfords joined and which was covered by rapid fire from the troops in shell holes. This attack, however, was not successful as the enemy put up an intense barrage and the wire in front could not be forced. The whole lot then fell back to their original front line and held that during the night, being relieved early in the morning by the Northamptons taking over.

The frustration and, indeed, anger in the adjutant’s voice was palpable as he was telling me this. The 7th Bedfords have been used to success and it is galling for them to admit failure. It is notable that in addition to the darkness, the losing of the true line of attack, the poor barrage, the strength of the German defences and the uncut wire the adjutant blamed lack of success on lack of knowledge of the ground. The Battalion had only arrived on Wednesday, two days ago and had not, of course, been able to practise an attack over similar ground. He compared this with the full year they were on the Somme near Carnoy before they made their glorious attack on 1st July last year and the fact that they had had weeks of practising attacking over very similar ground.

There has been no action on the main Arras battlefield today, but fighting continues on the southern edge around the village of Bullecourt. It will be remembered that 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division’s attack yesterday was unsuccessful whilst the 2nd Australian Division had mixed fortune, some failure, some success with a part of the Hindenburg Line being taken. Today  the men of 1st Brigade of 1st Australian Division have been drawn  into the fight, under command of 2nd Division.

The enemy made strong attacks on the captured ground early this morning, but were beaten off. By mid-afternoon today we were hearing that the Australians had not only held their gains of yesterday, but expanded them so that about one thousand yards of the German front line was not in their possession. Further enemy counter-attacks are expected.

The British 7th Division attacked Bullecourt again today, trying to succeed where 62nd Division had failed. Reports at this point are contradictory, with some saying Bullecourt has fallen, some saying that it still holds out. We hope to learn of success over night.

Source: X550/8/1

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