Kaiserschlacht and Victory

The Bantams of 14th Battalion were disbanded on 11th February 1918, and the survivors, some 250 strong, were transferred to 13th Battalion. On 20th February, 2/4th and 2/6th Battalions were also disbanded, their surviving personnel transferring to 2/5th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment and 24th Entrenching Battalion. 10th Battalion had already been disbanded in February 1917, its survivors transferring to 1st and 8th Battalions, and 13th Entrenching Battalion.

On 21st March 1918 the German Spring Offensive, or ‘Kaiserschlacht’, began with Operation Michael on the Western Front. British Third and Fifth Armies’ fronts were penetrated at several points. The following day 39th Division, including 13th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment, was in action and taking heavy punishment over the next week, with the battalion losing over 300 men in killed, wounded and missing. Despite being reorganized and committed to action again in April, as one half of 39th Division’s No. 2 Composite Battalion, the losses proved to be so great that 13th Battalion was disbanded in May. Nevertheless, 13th Battalion, whose origins lay as a pioneer battalion and was largely recruited from Forest of Dean miners, had fought hard to the last. On 30th April Lieutenant-Colonel Gossett of 39th Division’s staff congratulated Lieutenant-Colonel Boulton of 13th Battalion:-

“Dear Boulton,

“I thought you and the regiment would like to know the following, which occurs in a private letter I have received from Marr, and shown to the G.O.C:-

‘A Gloucester officer, named HALL, with No. 2. Bn. put up a remarkably fine show on the 26th. He was surrounded by the Bosche (and his platoon) near the BLUFF about 7.30 a.m., and maintained his position until 8 p.m., when he fought his way though, and rejoined the remnants of No. 2 Bn. with 17 men. The Gloucesters have fought magnificently throughout.’

“May I offer you and the Regiment my heartiest congratulation?”

The single remaining battalion of the Gloucesters with 61st Division was 2/5th. On the first day of the German Spring Offensive they were in the front line at Holnon Wood. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described their performance in “The British Campaign in France and Flanders: January to July 1918”:-

“The defence of the line in front of Beauvais was kept up with remarkable tenacity and ended by 150 men of the 2/5th Gloucester battalion performing what was an extraordinary feat, even in this war of miracles, for they held on to a line 2000 yards in length until 3.30 in the morning of March 23, holding up the whole German advance. All night the enemy tried to rush or to bomb this thin line of determined men, but it was not until the cartridges ran low that the British made their retreat, sneaking round the outskirts of the village which blazed behind them, and making their way to Longuevoisin where they joined their comrades who had already given them up as lost, for they had been five miles behind the army. Colonel Lawson was in command during this heroic episode, and was ably supported by two lieutenants, Rickerby and Dudridge. Of the latter, it is recorded that in a later stage of the retreat he was in such a condition of absolute exhaustion that he was wounded three times in the course of a single day without ever observing it until evening. Utter nerve fatigue has its compensations as well as its terrors.”

Captain J.H.E. Rickerby died of the wounds he had received that evening during the German bombardment. Lieutenant-Colonel A.B. Lawson was killed on June 24th while reconnoitering enemy positions. Brigadier-General A.W. Pagan, late of 1st Battalion and now Lawson’s immediate superior and commanding 184th Brigade, wrote of him:-

“This officer was only approached by one other as a battalion commander among the many I met in France. He was absolutely fearless, very able and was devoted to the welfare of his men. He was always unruffled, whatever the circumstances, and was a very fine leader of men.”

8th Battalion with 19th Division was in action at the same time, and on 21st March Captain Manley Angell James’ gallantry was to win the battalion’s second Victoria Cross of the war. The citation read:-

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack at Velu Wood, Capt. James led his Company forward with magnificent determination and courage, inflicting severe losses on the enemy and capturing twenty-seven prisoners and two machine guns. He was wounded, but refused to leave his company, and repulsed three hostile onslaughts the next day. Two days later, although the enemy had broken through on his right flank, he refused to withdraw, and made a most determined stand, inflicting very heavy losses on the enemy and gaining valuable time for the withdrawal of guns. He was ordered by the senior officer on the spot to hold on “to the last”, in order to enable the brigade to be extricated. He then led his company forward in a local counter-attack on his own initiative, and again was wounded. He was last seen working a machine-gun single-handed, after having been wounded a third time. No praise can be too high for the gallant stand made by this company, and Capt. James, by his dauntless courage and magnificent example, which undoubtedly enabled the battalion to be withdrawn before being completely cut off.”

On April 9th 1918 the second phase of the German offensive began, Operation Georgette, directed at Lys. On 18th April 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment were in the front line just west of the village of Festubert, where they had fought so well in 1914. The battalion was in a high state of efficiency, having been led since 1915 by the popular Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Pagan. Pagan had been promoted in March 1918 and, as Brigadier, had 2/5th Battalion as part of his command at the beginning of the Kaiserschlacht. The company officers and men of 1st Battalion, now under the command of the mercurial Lieutenant-Colonel J.L.F. Tweedie, were not about to let their old colonel down in the face of the renewed German onslaught. One newspaper report of the time reminded its readers of the Regiment’s traditions:-

“. . . At another point the Germans thought they had surrounded a platoon of ours and called on them to surrender, but instead our men counter-attacked, cut off a section of the Germans, and took them prisoners in turn. Not far from a Festubert a party of Gloucesters were entirely surrounded, and once more asserted their right to be the regiment which fights both ways and wears its badges aft as well as forward.

“All along this extreme southern sector, indeed, the combat was of the most sanguinary character. The Germans everywhere came on in wave after wave, and before the remnants finally ebbed and flowed back their losses must have been very heavy.

“Officers speak in glowing terms of the behaviour of our machine-gunners, who, after the five-hour bombardment had pounded almost all their defences to bits, crept out from their holes and amid the wreckage as cool as if nothing had happened and got to work on the advancing infantry.”

Second Lieutenant Charles Wilson had enlisted in the Regiment as a drummer boy in 1901, began training as an army schoolmaster in 1911, gained his commission in 1916, and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Royal Army Education Corps. On 18th April 1918, Wilson led a platoon of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, and managed to jot down notes in his diary during the course of the action. Thus, at 08:00 hrs at the end of a very heavy and sustained bombardment of four hours:-

” . . . saw Bosches dribbling up hedge on left: the fun begins. A swarm (of enemy) appears on right coming through gap in hedge. Spare Lewis-gun lets rip. No. 1 (Cotham) gets severe wound in face – Holbrook carries on.

“The Vickers gun now picks up Bosche machine gun and knocks its out. Plenty of work with glasses for me – dozens of Bosche light-machine gunners picked up by glasses and crews knocked out. Frontal and right flank attack fails by 9 a.m.

“9 a.m. Corbett asks for assistance as Bosches have swerved to his left and are now in great numbers in front of him. Give him spare Lewis-gun and crew, and L/Cpl. Brimble’s section. We are holding them well now. Return to 16 Platoon and find L/Cpl. Barnett and section firing at Germans who have got about 500 yds. away. Spare Lewis-gunners and Platoon H.Q. open fire on Bosche getting through behind us.

“Bosche in front now have ‘wind up’ – afraid to show a finger – the boys snipe continuously. Can give more attention to rear now.

“Noon. Bosche attack has become hopelessly disorganised – attack at a stand still. Planes came over and they put up white lights.

“2 p.m. Enemy retire in confusion, throwing rifles and equipment as they run, helped along by our artillery and my boys.

“4 p.m. Their Dressing Stations appear: enormous number of Bosche wounded and killed.

“6 p.m. They go back to their original line in a panicky state. Had a bit of fun on my own sniping. Barnett has a duel with a German machine gun and knocks it out of action in about ten rounds. At dusk plenty of good targets – Bosche collect wounded.”

The German offensive ground to a halt on 18th July, and the time was right for the final Allied offensive to begin. 1st Battalion saw action at Fresnoy in September, the St Quentin sector in October, and fought their last action of the war at Catillon on 4th November. 8th Battalion fought their last battle near Les Fourrieres after crossing the River Selle in late October. 12th Battalion with 5th Division had returned from Italy in time to take part in the battle of Lys in April, and fought their last action during the battle of Albert in late August, before being disbanded on 6th October. The last battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment to be mobilized was the 18th which did not arrive in France until August 1918. 18th Battalion saw some action towards the end of that month and again in September, but spent the rest of the war in Reserve.

1/5th Battalion left its two Territorial partners, 1/4th and 1/6th Battalions, with 48th Division in Italy and arrived back in France in the middle of September 1918 as part of 25th Division. On 23rd October the battalion was in action at Bois l’Eveque, its progress being held up by a line of machine guns. Private Francis Miles single-handedly overcame two of the enemy machine guns, killing or capturing their crews, and signalled for the rest of his company to advance. “C” Company then worked their way behind the enemy line, taking sixteen machine guns and over fifty prisoners. Miles was to be awarded the Gloucestershire Regiment’s last Victoria Cross of the war, and the only one to be awarded to a non-commissioned soldier of the Regiment. Before the war he had been a miner from the village of Clearwell in the Forest of Dean and, although he had served in several battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment during the Great War, he had not served in the 13th Battalion, which itself was largely recruited from Forest of Dean miners and used as a pioneer battalion. A newspaper report of the time recorded:-

“. . . Clearwell is one of the most patriotic villages in the country, having contributed one or more soldiers from every house. It boasts the record of having sent more soldiers in proportion to its population than any village in England. The whole village is overjoyed with Miles’s meritorious performance.”

In Palestine the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars ended the war, 156 strong, on outpost duty outside the recently captured city of Aleppo. An armistice had been concluded with Turkey on 31st October. 7th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment were at Kazvin in Persia on 31st October, and the following month would go on to Baku on the Caspian Sea before finally leaving for home via Constantinople in August 1919.

Private Arthur King of 1/6th Battalion had been badly wounded in the arm on 9th October 1917 during an attack on the German positions at Poelcappelle. The arm had to be amputated a week later, and after the war Arthur recalled his last year of recovery:-

“On January 29th 1918, I was discharged and went home to await my turn to go to Roehampton for an artificial arm. On my way home I had to wait a couple of hours in Bristol and was surprised to see Else and George as well as Monty waiting for me. When I got home I found Mother not very well, but Ada was fairly well. Mother did not get up much after I got home. Her cough got worse and she died on Sunday April 14th 1918.

“I went to Roehampton in August and had to go to Brighton to have a bulbous nerve taken out. I was there about three weeks and then came back to Roehampton. I got fitted with the limb and was discharged on October 18th 1918. I went back to Tormaton and Ada and I continued to live in the old home. It was a great relief when the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918. About this time Fred Hickman came home. Ada was getting married so we sold the furniture and on January 29th 1919 I gave up the house. George offered me a home, so on January 30th; I came here to live at 28 Sandholme Road, Brislington, Bristol. It is now November 1922.”

The world would never be the same again.

Picture: Private Miles capturing the machine guns single-handed.