Thursday, 28 November 2013

Bourlon Wood, November 28th 1917

Bourlon Wood in 1917
Following the battle of Cambrai earlier in November, the London Regiment found themselves with the task of taking Bourlon Wood from the enemy, and holding onto it. They suffered terrible casualties. This text is an edited extract from the 47th (London) Divisional History, by A H Maude. It gives the reader some idea of what was going on in that small scrap of woodland.
Period 29th November to 4th December 1917

The enemy had lost valuable ground in Bourlon Wood and village. Its retention by us threatened his line to the north, enabling us to observe and enfilade his trenches as far as Oppy and Gavrelle, From the high ground at Bourlon Wood, too, we had excellent observation of Cambrai and the intervening country, as well as of that to the north towards Douai. In consequence, attack and counter-attack had followed each other almost without cessation for a week, the village changing hands each day. The casualties on both sides had been heavy ; the issue still hung in the balance.

The Division take over the wood

When the Division took over the Bourlon Wood Sector at 10 a.m. on November 29th, the greater part of the wood was still in our hands, the British line running from west to east a mile to the north of the Bapaume-Cambrai Road.
We relieved the 62nd Division on the night of November 28th-29th, the three dismounted regiments of cavalry, who were reinforcing them, remaining with us for twenty-four hours. This relief was not carried out without considerable difficulty, owing to heavy shelling by the enemy, who continually barraged all approaches to Bourlon Wood.
The guides were late, but the relieving battalions, led by Lieut.-Colonel Mildren, commanding the 6th Battalion, pushed on without waiting for them and completed the relief at the cost of several casualties.
Map of the disposition of troops
The London Irish Rifles (part of 141st Brigade)
can be seen in the east of the wood denoted by the number 18

The 141st Brigade took the right sub-sector, with the 140th Brigade on the left, and the 142nd in reserve in the Hindenburg Line. The 62nd Division, acting under orders from the Corps, insisted on the whole of the 141st Brigade being sent into Bourlon Wood to relieve their brigade. In protest against this Major-General Gorringe urged that to crowd seven battalions (four of 141st Brigade, one of 140th Brigade, and two of dismounted cavalry) and forty-seven machine-guns into the wood, which already contained one battalion of the 59th Division on the right, would only invite excessive casualties without increasing the adequacy of the defence.
For a wood in modern warfare is more safely held by rifle and Lewis gun posts, suitably placed on the forward edge of the area under some sort of cover, and machine-guns in depth outside the wood, with a fair field for fire and observation, than by a mass of units struggling in the undergrowth, half-blinded by the gas that clings to every bush.

The Division goes in

The protest was overridden, and on the night of November 28th-29th seven battalions were all in position in the wood. The enemy bombarded heavily with gas-shells during the night, and the 141st Brigade suffered many casualties. The disposition of the battalions will be observed in the map. On the morning of Friday, November 30th, the enemy made a counter-attack in force, directed chiefly against the trenches of the new salient, and he renewed his efforts to recapture the wood.
Our troops found themselves in circumstances peculiarly unfavourable for defence. The trenches, when taken over, were barely 4 ft. deep ; there was no wire, and few tools. The support trenches were not continuous ; the trees obscured the situation ; the gas hung in the thick undergrowth. Efforts had been made during the twenty-four hours of our occupation to get wire set out in front, and the trenches fire-stepped and dug to 6 ft. in depth. The enemy had shelled heavily during the night, but the guns rested before dawn, breaking out again about 8.30 a.m. into a heavy bombardment of our lines.
Meanwhile, Bourlon Wood was treated to an intense gas-shell bombardment. Heavy casualties resulted among the defending troops.

The Germans counter attack the wood

The enemy advanced in waves from Quarry Wood in a southerly direction, but their advance was checked for a while by the accurate fire of our artillery and machine-guns. The latter were arranged in batteries of four, thus facilitating control, and giving a heavy volume of fire with a maximum of surprise. The enemy advancing were thus enfiladed from positions north of the sugar factory, and the attack driven westward. Soon after midday the enemy were seen retreating in disorder over the crest of the hill.
About 2 p.m. the enemy assaulted again after a heavy bombardment of our lines on the west of Bourlon Wood. The right flank of the 2nd Division, on the left of our 6th Battalion, gave ground at the same time, and the enemy drove in a wedge between our left flank and the right of the 2nd Division. A gap formed between the 6th Battalion and the 15th Battalion, and the enemy forced our left flank to a position a few hundred yards in rear. Lieut. -Colonel Mildren, commanding the 6th Battalion, thereupon counter-attacked with his reserve company, reinforced by all the runners, signallers, and orderlies at Battalion Headquarters, and restored the line.
Meanwhile, attacks against the 141st Brigade on the right were launched by the enemy, but were broken up before they reached our trenches by our Lewis gun and rifle fire, supported by the artillery and machine-guns. The hostile bombardment which preceded them was very severe, and the 19th Battalion suffered many casualties from gas, their strength being ultimately reduced to 9 officers and 61 other ranks.
For some days the German artillery had been steadily pouring gas shell into Bourlon Wood, until the thick undergrowth was full of gas. Many casualties were caused to our troops, and gas masks had to be worn continuously for many hours. None the less, when the enemy attacked, he was again hurled back with heavy loss. A distinctive feature of the defence was the gallantry of the Lewis gunners, who, when the attack was seen to be beginning, ran out with the guns in front of our line, and from positions of advantage in the open mowed down the advancing German infantry.


The Division received orders to evacuate on the morning of December 4th, and the orders only reached battalions at 4 p.m. on the same day for a withdrawal to be effected seven hours later. Throughout the following days our field ambulances carried out the evacuation of the wounded under great difficulties, but with unwearying gallantry and marked success. The 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers especially distinguished themselves by carrying up ammunition through the gas-infected area, working hard all night in improving the line and carrying back all wounded who remained in the aid-posts and advanced dressing-stations in Bourlon Wood at dawn.
By 4.30 a.m. there were no British troops left in the wood. Before 10 a.m. it was again occupied by the enemy. The 141st Brigade suffered over two thousand casualties.



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