Report of Attack on Eagle Trench September 1917

Eagle Trench

 

On the 6th August the 20th Division took over the right Divisional Sector of the 14th Corps from the 38th Division.

 

The task before the division was to capture LANGEMARCK village and a portion of the enemy’s GHELUVELT – LANGEMARCK line beyond the village. Before proceeding with the attack on Langemarck it was necessary to obtain the mastery of the STEENBEEK which was held by the enemy.  This stream was liable to sudden floods and its steep banks presented a considerable obstacle.  In addition to this there were many concrete blockhouses at intervals along the eastern bank of the river, the largest one constructed in the ruins of a house called AU BON GITE formed more or less the key of the position, and commanded all the approaches to the river from one side.  The 59th Bde. which was holding the line, with the 60th and 61st Brigades in support and reserve was to carry out this operation, but the two latter Brigades took no active part in the fighting.  The first attempt was made on the 11th August and was unsuccessful, the enemy having discovered the concentration and opened a heavy fire on our troops as they were assembling.  The second attempt on the 14th August, made be the 10th and 11th Rifle Brigades was more successful and a line was established 200 yards east of the stream, but the Au Bon Gite still held out.  At one period, it was captured and a number of the enemy were killed, but our men were again driven out after heavy fighting by a counter attack from a N.E. direction.  The crossings of the Steenbeek had however been made good and it was now possible to arrange for the main concentration to take place east of the stream.  The two Battalions engaged in the above operation carried out the attack with great gallantry; The attack was made over boggy ground across a stream which was too wide to jump and bridges had to be carried and put into position; all this was done under fire and it is safe to say that had the crossings not been sieged the main attack in Langemarck would have been a far more dangerous undertaking and in all probability would have failed.

 

The 59th Brigade had suffered heavily and on the night of the 14/15 it was relieved by the 60th and 61st Brigades in order from the right.  On the night of the 15/16 these two Brigades were deployed into their battle positions east of the Steenbeek.  It was a pitch dark night, the ground over which the troops had to move was very boggy and the concentration had to take place close under Au Bon Gite whose Garrison at any moment might give the alarm and so prevent the deployment taking place.  So silently was this carried out and without a vestige of confusion that the enemy heard or saw nothing to arouse their suspicion, but they kept up Machine Gun fire from Au Bon Gite most of the night, making the assembly still more difficult.  This was one of the most difficult operations the two Brigades had ever been asked to carry out and it reflects the greater credit on all ranks.  The attack commenced at 4.45 a.m., Au Bon Gite being rushed by two companies of the 11th Rifle Brigade, under Captain Slade who displayed great courage and coolness, which had been left in position the previous night.  Covered by a heavy artillery barrage the attacking waves moved forward, the chief centres of resistance being REITRES FARM on the left of the 61st Brigade and LANGEMARCK itself with the houses to the east of the village, all of which concealed many machine guns.

 

The Chateau grounds had been reduced to a swamp by the recent rains and the advance of the infantry on the left was greatly impeded. The whole country east of the Steenbeek for a great distance was a swampy crater field.

 

Banbury’s 61st Brigade which had never been known to fail to take its objection [objective], captured the village and established a line beyond it.  The 12th King’s Liverpool & 7th Somerset, D.C.L.I. and K.O.Y.L.I. were the heroes of this exploit and in spite of bog and bullets fought gloriously.  On the right the attack of the 60th Brigade went through without a hitch, in spite of considerable resistance, the 12/King’s Royal Rifles being on the left in touch with the King’s Liverpool while the 6th Shropshire, L.I. were on their right, and the 6th Oxford and Bucks cleared up numerous pill boxes near to Steenbeek.

 

The German Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battn. 261 R.I.R. was captured in Langemarck; other prisoners captured during the day numbered about 20 Officers and 400 other ranks; captured trophies included a section of 4.2” Howitzers, one 7.7. M.M. gun and 20 or 30 machine guns; many more machine guns – trench mortars were buried in the debris.  The number of enemy killed and wounded is difficult to estimate, but it was known that two Battalions were almost annihilated in addition to others which suffered heavily.  From captured documents it would appear that during the 16th August the enemy’s forces on the 20th Division Front were greatly disorganised; prisoners were captured from no less than five divisions on the front where normally there would only have been two divisions.  On the night of the 17/18th the 38th Division relieved the 20th Division, and the latter was withdrawn to refit and reorganise.

 

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CAPTURE OF EAGLE TRENCH.

 

On the 11th September the 20th Division took over the right Divisional Sector of the XIV Corps front from the 38th Division.  The 51st Division (XVII Corps) was on the right and the Guards Division on the left.  The next task of the 20th Division was to capture EAGLE and KANGAROO and BEAR trenches and included ’T GOED TER VESTEN FARM; the guards Division had for their objective a line between the SCHEIRBOOM – KORTEBEER road and the LANGEMARCK – STADEN railway.  The attack of the 20th Division was carried out by the 60th Brigade on the right and 59th Brigade on the left.  The 61st Brigade was in Divisional reserve on the canal.  Prepatory to the infantry attack the artillery kept up a hurricane bombardment of the enemy’s positions for 24 hours.

 

It was known that EAGLE trench was strongly held; it was full of concrete machine gun emplacements and dugouts and was well sited for field of fire. Although it had been shelled by heavy calibre guns some days before, many of the dugouts were not injured and it was felt that it would be a tough fight before it could be captured.  Arrangements were made to discharge 300 oil drums from projectors on to the portion of Eagle trench near the cemetery shortly before the assault.  The assaulting waves attacked at 5.40 a.m. on the 20th September.  Reports shewed that the advance had not been everywhere successful; the right of the 59th Brigade and the left of the 60th Brigade had been held up by the enemy in Eagle Trench; the right had been advanced a little, but the enemy in Eagle house and Louis farm were holding them up.  On the left, Bear trench had been reached.  An order was issued to renew the attack at 6.30 p.m.  In the meantime the attackers in front of Eagle trench had to find what little cover they could and were being exposed to heavy fire from hostile artillery the whole day.  The 60th Brigade at 8.0 p.m. gained the trenches round Eagle House and captured about 70 prisoners.  By 9.0 p.m. our whole line had been advanced and a portion of Eagle trench had been captured.  By midnight the 59th Brigade had got their objective with their right flank refused.  Early on the 21st September a contact aeroplane reported Germans holding the northern portion of Eagle trench.  A third attack was ordered to take place at 5.30 a.m. on the 22nd September.  The men all this time had been under heavy artillery and machine gun fire and were unable to move out of the muddy holes in which they were trying to get shelter, but they were as eager as ever to come to close grips with the enemy.

Tanks were to co-operate with this attack, but owing to the terrible state of the roads they were unable to reach this rendezvous, and the attack had to be postponed. During the 22nd the situation remained the same and a fresh attack was ordered for the 23rd.  It was felt that unless we could take Eagle Trench at once, the Germans would bring up fresh troops for counter attack which if successful would necessitate the whole operation being carried out again with great loss of life.

At 7.0 a.m. on the 23rd September the attack was to be tried again and Eagle trench to be assaulted from the west and south; this was to be preceded by a heavy bombardment with Stokes mortars.  At 6.25 a.m. on the 23rd the enemy attacked our Posts near Louis farm and the cemetery; they were driven back by machine gun fire and 23 prisoners captured.  Soon after this our attack began; it was carried out by detachments of the 12 K.R.R. and 10 R Bde.  The Stokes bombardment was most effective and under a rifle grenade barrage our assaulting infantry rushed in from the south.  While the enemy in Eagle trench were fighting the rifle men, the 10th R. Bde. came in from the west and captured the rest of this trench; we captured about 100 prisoners and many machine guns.  Most of the prisoners belonged to picked troops of the 208 Division, who said that they had been ordered to attack that morning, assisted by detachments of the 185 Infantry Regiment; our attack on the 23rd September forestalled it and thanks to this success the German counter attack failed completely.  Both the 185 Infantry Regiment and the Storm troops of the 208 Division had suffered heavily and the 3rd Battalion of the latter was almost wiped out.

 

The 20th Division was relieved on the 28th September by the 4th Division.

 

The capture of Eagle Trench was a splendid performance; the men were exposed to heavy firing for the best part of 4 days; the ground was wet and muddy and there was very little cover. In spite of this the 59th Brigade (Hyslop) and 60th Brigade (Butter [Butler]) managed to bring to a successful issue the task which was set them, in the face of determined resistance by picked enemy troops.  The 20th Division received the Congratulations of the Army and Corps Commanders.

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