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... part 2
In the meantime the battalion signal sergeant, Browne, with three men_ were working des_perately to repair the line between " Clarence " and the Fort, and after four hours' hard labour communi_cation was re-established and Captain Fine reported " all correct."
The first intimation of any hostile infantry on the sector held by the Buffs came from A Company (Cap_tain Grant) reporting about 10 a.m. that thirty Germans were about Canal Post, near the quarry. After this headquarters lost communication with Captain Grant. At 11 o'clock C Company made out about two hundred of the enemy going north along the main St. Quentin road. At 11.45 A Company got communica_tion with C and informed the latter first that there seemed to be much movement in their rear, and then that they were surrounded; after this the line "went." D Company then observed a party of Germans between them and the Fort, and it was found that some, covered by the fog, had actually visited the company headquarters and broken the signalling lamp. The Buffs' Headquarters now directed D Company to be ready to make a counter-attack, and at " Clarence Keep " itself the meagre defences were manned with spare runners, cooks, sanitary men, pioneers, police and servants, and these prepared to see the matter out. Then the chap_lain and doctor arrived from Vendeuil, where they had been billeted, and told how B Company had been sur_rounded, but that Captain Chant had escaped into the fort. Strong bodies of Germans had come down the road from the north and surprised the defenders, though some had escaped in the fog and joined C Com_pany; the enemy had got the two machine guns which on the left flank of the company had been stationed on the road and had surrounded the platoon that was there. There was no news of a party which had been at the railway station.
About this time a bugle sound, evidently German, was heard from the direction of Ronquenet Wood and a party, seen north of " Clarence Keep," was fired on and dispersed. The second in command, too, trying to get back to report the state of the case to brigade head_quarters, was wounded crossing the open ground near Ronquenet Farm, probably by the party that sounded the bugle. All this, of course, meant that the defences had been penetrated during the fog. The length of line held by the Buffs was roughly a couple of miles, and the posts or platoon garrisons had on an average about eight hundred yards between them, and so it came to pass that they were, one by one, isolated and surrounded. In fact, the Germans tried about 1.30 to assail the Fort itself from the south and south west, but by this time the weather was clearer and, rifles and guns being turned upon them from several points and our artillery firing at very close range or " over the sights," this attempt was abandoned; nevertheless they began to close on " Clarence Keep," and later brought up a machine gun which began to fire into the backs of the men, the garrison being disposed now for an all round defence. Several attacks on this headquarters post were beaten off by rifle fire, greatly due to the gallant be_haviour of L.-Corpls. Berry and Harris._
Part 3 .....
During the afternoon many hostile aeroplanes ap_peared on the scene. These, flying very low, were directing the shell fire by means of signal, one conse_quence being the shelling of our guns just east of " Clarence," under cover of which shelling hostile in_fantry worked up very close and at last caused our gun detachment to surrender. In fact, the enemy had com_plete air command in this region. During the whole afternoon " Clarence Keep " kept up communication with D Company by flag, and headquarters had seen the Fort signalling to Liez, where the brigade staff was. The constant message was " counter-attack essential," and this was because Captain Fine had been led to be_lieve that the divisional reserve had arranged to carry one out, in the case of its being necessary in order to save the Fort. From 6 to 6.30 p.m. an intense hostile bombardment was directed on Captain Fine's com_mand, after which all was silent and it seemed as if the place had fallen, but it was afterwards ascertained that the little garrison had held out for another twenty four hours. A Company was despaired of. The best that could be hoped was that the men were prisoners; but firing from their direction was heard up till midnight, and it was supposed that they were then still refusing to surrender. As a matter of fact, it was afterwards ascertained that Lieut. Kennett's platoon fired on the German transport on the 22nd and held out till the evening of that day. B and C Companies had lost posts and garrisons and were now but fragments of the units they had been, but the enemy had not passed and what they had gained had been won in the morning, when they were so greatly aided by the fog.
C Company had been especially well handled by Captain Tupper and had defeated all hostile attempts during the day, and D Company, under Lieut. Morrell, with 2nd Lieut. Halliday to aid him, had made a fine local counter-attack and driven the Germans back at a critical time. A project was entertained by the 55th Brigade, when reinforced by the 4th Dismounted Brigade, for relieving the pressure at Fort Vendeuil, but this was vetoed by the Divisional General, who issued very emphatic orders that touch was to be maintained with the brigade on the right about Quessy, and it was clear that the battle zone of this latter force was in the hands of the enemy. This order therefore meant a withdrawal and that those troops in the forward zone of the 55th Brigade which could not be extricated must just surrender or die. Before withdrawal orders reached the Buffs, they had been busy, under cover of night, reorganizing, serving out food and ammunition and digging in.
The first hint of retreat came at half an hour after midnight, when an officer of the Machine Gun Corps arrived at " Clarence " with orders to take away the two Vickers guns which were there and with the information that a general withdrawal had been ordered to a position west of the canal. This was confirmed shortly afterwards by patrols of the 7th Queen's. These patrols had been sent up from the battle zone by the brigadier to deliver the orders to all the scattered parties of the Buffs and others which could he reached. Even now Colonel Ransome would not go back unless the order was confirmed, and his adjutant bicycled into Remigny to telephone for instructions. He, however, got a clear and distinct order that the Buffs were to retreat. So at 1.10 a.m. on the 22nd March the battalion head_quarters retired by small parties to the brigade at Liez, after destroying all papers and leaving behind many useful and pleasant stores. C Company had already arrived here with fragments of B, and soon after D Company came in, and before daylight in the morning the battalion had concentrated about La Faisanderie, but it now consisted of only three companies. The 55th Brigade Headquarters moved from Liez to Rouez.
It was later ascertained that the 7th Battalion The Buffs was the only unit of the 3rd Corps that was, on the afternoon of the 21st March, still holding out in the forward zone, and that its doing so resulted in other units being enabled to reorganize behind the Crozat Canal. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon the Buffs withdrew into a wood a little to the south and started to dig in on very empty stomachs. It was not, however, till 3.30 a.m. on the 23rd March that the battalion occupied its new position, as it had been called away to the support of the Queen's, and indeed very early on this date, too, C and D Companies had to be again placed at the disposal of the C.O. of that regiment, in order to fill a dangerous gap that existed between the left of the Queen's and the right of the East Surrey.
Everybody prepared himself for a new day's fighting, the 55th Brigade being now in support of the forward troops. At 6 o'clock a French regiment, which had been expected, duly arrived. This unit had been de_tailed to make a counter-attack on the town of Tergnier and was to be supported by the Queen's, who fought that day under the command of Lt.-Colonel Bushell. This counter-attack was duly attempted, but the Frenchmen were very shortly back amongst the Buffs again. They seemed a fine, resolute lot, and they said they had gone up with only thirty five rounds of ammu_nition per man and had expended it all. Moreover, they had lost their way in the mist. The story of this counter-attack is not the history of the Buffs, but it may be here mentioned that Lt.-Colonel Bushell of the Queen's was the hero of the attempt. He appears to have led his own fellows and Frenchmen too with the greatest gallantry, and he was rewarded with a V.C.
From 8 o'clock in the morning there was confused fighting in the wood, where nothing beyond a range of fifty yards or so could be observed. Wounded men kept coming back to where Colonel Ransome's little party was, and all brought with them the same tale of the enemy's steady advance. Both Captain Morrell and 2nd Lieut. Halliday of the Buffs were badly wounded. Both were very gallant officers and a great loss at such a time. It appeared to Colonel Ransome, who com_manded the Buffs, that it was not much use stopping in the wood: nothing could be seen, and it was thought that its northern edge was being passed by the enemy; so it was decided to take up two old lines of trenches and pits which existed in an orchard two hundred yards in rear, and the headquarters of both Buffs and Queen's, with all sorts of fragments of companies and other small units, fell back to this place and there remained all day fighting a grim battle with the advancing foe. There were nine machine guns with the party, but only just enough personnel to work them. It was principally a machine gun fight and for a long time our weapons did very well, but the enemy kept bringing up more and more, while our supply of ammunition began to fail as the afternoon drew on. Every effort was made to get up more from the rear, but the difficulties were too great to overcome, and the enemy gradually began to gain fire superiority. During the afternoon those com_panies of the Buffs which had gone forward by direc_tion of the O.C. the Queen's, as well as other advanced parties of British troops, had rallied on Ransome's posi_tion, which proved an invaluable post for the purpose. The opinion of the brigadier of the 55th Brigade on this point is as follows :
Part 5 ....
In the light of subsequent knowledge it is clear that the stand made here by Lt.-Colonel Ransome's force was of the greatest value not only to the rest of the brigade, but to the whole line in this vicinity. . . This stand was due in the first place to the skill and foresight of Lt.-Colonel Ransome in establishing a line outside the wood on which the withdrawing troops, scattered and dis_organized by the confused fighting in the wood, could be rallied and reorganized. In the latter part of the work Lt.-Colonel Ransome was assisted princi_pally by Major Tortise and Captain Snell of the 7th Queen's, and by Captain Black and Lieut. Howcroft of his own battalion. All these officers behaved with the utmost gallantry."
About 6 o'clock a French battalion which had come up behind the English party during the afternoon essayed a frontal counter-attack. There was no artillery preparation. The attempt was beyond praise as regards the gallantry of the soldiers who made it, but the brave Frenchmen were met with a perfect storm of machine gun bullets and they could not go on. After lying down for a few moments they got up and retired, and the retirement took the whole of the English first line troops with it. This was by no means a misfortune. Anxiety had been felt already about the possibility of holding the position till nightfall, but it seemed to be suicidal to attempt to retire before the German machine guns by daylight. However, fortunately these ceased fire as the hostile infantry came forward to pursue, and so our retirement was far less costly than could have been expected. It was a very mixed lot of men that went back through Rouez Wood. Frenchmen and all sorts of English units mixed up in great confusion as regards their ranks. A fresh line was formed inside the wood and Captain Black actually led a small party for_ward to check the pursuit, which prevented any great pressure before darkness set in, and the fugitives were able to collect, reorganize and march back to Villiguier Aumont. During this final phase Sgt. Browne and Pte. Coleman, two signallers who had greatly distinguished themselves on the 21st by mending the line from " Clarence " to the Fort under quite extraordinary difficulties and heavy shell fire, were wounded.
The march to Villeguier was without incident, though it was thought by some that the party was sur_rounded. On arrival, the details belonging to the 55th Brigade were directed on to Bethancourt, where Br.-General Wood, commanding, already was, as was also the 8th East Surrey Regiment. About 10 a.m. on the 24th March the 55th Brigade was ordered to withdraw to a line approximately east of Calomel; here it had the 53rd on its right flank and the 54th Brigade on the left. The Buffs, who were the supporting battalion of their brigade at first that night, withdrew later into divisional support, and at 7 a.m. on the 25th the whole division fell back to the line Grandru-Mondescourt_-Appilly and later to a position covering Baboeuf, these retrograde movements being carried out in good and soldier like order by platoons in artillery formation. At 2 p.m. on this day the Buffs were sent back to a position west of Baboeuf, to cover the canal bridge at Varesnes, and later to Varesnes itself, which was reached at 10 p.m. On the 26th March the whole of the 55th Brigade marched to Caisnes. The casualties suffered by the 7th Buffs between the 21st and 26th March amounted to :—Officers : killed, 1; wounded, 5; miss_ing, 11. Other ranks : killed, 17; wounded, 108; miss_ing, 410. When a force has to retire after fighting, it is generally quite unknown whether a man who fails to answer his name afterwards is dead or a prisoner of war. He is simply described as missing.
There are no photographs of him that I’m aware of
Wow Mick! thank you so much for the amazing reply. I've printed it as I know others in my family will be fascinated to read the account. I didn't know what battle and quite where, so this has filled in some massive gaps.
I hadn't been able to find out any information on where Philip worked and who for prior to WW1 so thank you for including that. Interesting to note when he went into hospital in 1939 he gave his profession then as chauffeur, he was by then living in Watford so not sure who he would have worked for then.
My search still goes on to find where he is buried but this is an amazing account of his time during the war which I've not seen before. Thank you so much.
A shame there are no pictures, hoping if there wasn't one of him alone maybe there would be one of the battalion.