SUMMARY OF OPERATIONS CARRIED OUT BY 20TH (LIGHT) DIVISION
Between 6th & 19th August, 1917.
1. TAKING OVER THE LINE.
(i) On the 6th August the 20th Division took over the Right Divisional sector of the XIV Corps from the 38th Division.
(ii) The latter had forced the enemy back on the 31st July from the original front line held by them to points just West of the STEENBEEK.
(iii) Owing to the bad weather and continual rain, the 38th Division had to be relieved sooner than it was intended. There had been no time to construct roads, tracks or tramways on any large scale before the 20th Division was placed in the Line. Fortunately, the weather improved after our taking over the new sector, enabling us to push on our communications, and prepare new battery positions.
2. OBJECTIVES. The task before the Division was to capture 3 objectives known as the BLUE, GREEN and RED Lines, the BLUE Line being just short of LANGEMARCK, the GREEN Line covering it, and the RED Line being a portion of the enemy’s GHELUVELT – LANGEMARCK Line.
3. ENEMY’S DISPOSITIONS.
(i) On the 6th August, when the Division took over the new front, the enemy held all the country E of the STEENBEEK; his dispositions so far as could be ascertained being – two Battalions of the 262 R.I.R in front of LANGEMARCK, and one Battalion in the GHELUVELT – LANGEMARCK Line, the 261 R.I.R. being opposite the 11th Division on our Right, and the 263 R.I.R. in POELCAPELLE, the latter’s role being to counter-attack should any portion of the hostile line be captured.
(ii) Occasionally, enemy patrols had crossed the STEENBEEK, keeping close to the Western bank of the river, and had encountered our patrols.
4. THE STEENBEEK. The first necessary preliminary to a successful attack lay in obtaining the mastery of the STEENBEEK valley, in order to enable the Division to form up its leading waves East of the stream. Any advance which included the crossing of the STEENBEEK would have proved difficult, especially as the stream was liable to floods, and would form a serious obstacle.
5. DEFENCE OF DIVL. SECTOR. The defence of the sector was entrusted to the B.G.C. 59th Inf. Bde., who had orders to dispose his Battalions in depth, one Battalion East of the road running N.W. and S.E. through IRON CROSS, one Battalion distributed along CANDLE and CANCER trenches on the PILCHEM Ridge, two Battalions in the CANAL Bank in C.13.a. and C., 19.a. and c.
6. COMMUNICATIONS. Between the 6th and the 15th, the construction of plank roads, duckboard tracks, and dry weather mule tracks was pushed on, as well as the extension of the GLIMPSE COTTAGE Railway; by the evening of the 15th, had reached the neighbourhood of JOLIE FARM.
7. ORIGINAL PLAN.
(i) The original intention, as regards the method of employing the three Infantry Brigades of the Division, was to hold the sector with the 59th Infantry Brigade until Y day, and then relieve the 59th Infantry Brigade with the 60th and 61st Infantry Brigades, who had been detailed to carry out the attack on the three objectives.
(ii) The attack being completed, the intention was to relieve the attacking Brigades in the captured line by the 59th Infantry Brigade.
(iii) Various circumstances prevented the carrying out of this plan in its entirety, one being the postponement of the date for the attack, and another the necessity of forcing the passage of the STEENBEEK with the 59th Inf. Bde., in the face of determined opposition from the enemy.
8. PROPOSAL FOR CROSSING THE STEENBEEK. It had been proposed to obtain a footing on the Eastern bank of the stream by peaceful penetration, but this soon proved to be impossible owing to the enemy’s resistance. The key of his defence lay at AU BON GITE, a strongly fortified point containing many concrete shelters; besides this there existed isolated concrete blockhouses at intervals along the Eastern bank of the stream.
9. FIRST ATTEMPT TO CROSS THE STEENBEEK (AUGUST 11TH).
(i) On the 11th August the 59th Inf. Bde. were ordered to force the stream, assisted by Artillery, and the 10th K.R.R.C. was detailed for this duty by the B.G.C.
(ii) The operation was to be carried out by two companies, one on each side of the main IRON CROSS – LANGEMARCK Road, these companies being formed up 200 yards West of the stream, with a line 200 yards E. of the STEENBEEK and parallel to it, as their objective. The hour for the attack was fixed at 4.15 a.m.
(iii) The operation was not a success, the chief cause of failure being that the attacking companies were formed up without a covering party having been deployed in front of them. By an unfortunate incident the enemy passed a patrol across the stream S. of AU BON GITE, and, discovering the concentration this patrol opened machine gun fire against the right company.
(iv) This disorganised the attack from the very commencement, and only elements managed to cross the stream. In the darkness direction was also lost, and casualties were considerable; some of the elements, which had passed over the stream withdrew during the 11th to the West bank.
10. SECOND ATTEMPT TO CROSS THE STEENBEEK. (AUGUST 14TH).
(i) The B.G.C. 59th Inf. Bde. carried out his task with six companies, two companies of the 11th R.B. attacking on the right and S. of the IRON CROSS – LANGEMARCK Road, whilst the 10th R.B. attacked on the left.
(ii) The attacking companies were formed up 250 yards W. of the stream with covering detachments thrown out 50 yards to their front.
(iii) Between the 11th and 14th the mastery of the stream had been ensured by detachments being pushed down to the Western Bank, where posts had been dug.
(iv) On the night of the attack these standing patrols on the Western Bank were withdrawn one hour before Zero in order that the artillery barrage might be placed on an alignment 50 yards W. of the stream.
(v) The arrangements for the artillery barrage for this attack provided for the initial barrage being put down 50 yards W. of the stream, in order to sweep up any enemy patrols which might have taken up positions on the Eastern bank, after the withdrawal of our standing patrols.
(vi) The barrage rested on this initial line for ten minutes in order to enable the attacking companies to get close up to it from their assembly positions 200 yards W. of it.
(vii) The first lift of 100 yards carried it to a line 50 yards beyond the stream, where it rested for five minutes; the next lift was for 100 yards, resting for ten minutes, the extra pause being made to enable the attacking companies to cross the STEENBEEK. The third lift was for a distance of 75 yards only to enable troops to form up on the East bank of the stream; subsequent lifts were 100 yards in five minutes.
(viii) The attack went well, and although losses were incurred, the six companies established themselves on an alignment 200 yards East of the stream, except opposite the German strong point at AU BON GITE. The company detailed for the attack of this strong point succeeded in capturing it temporarily, and killing a considerable number of the enemy, but they were eventually driven back by a counter-attack made from the direction of some concrete shelters 150 yards N.E. of AU BON GITE. They also suffered heavily from flanking fire brought to bear on them from points 400 yards to the East of AU BON GITE.
11. CONCENTRATION & ASSEMBLY.
(i) The crossings of the STEENBEEK having been made good as described above it was now possible to arrange for the main concentration for the attack to take place as originally intended, viz:- the leading waves to form up on the East bank while the remainder of the attacking Brigades formed up on the West bank, and in close proximity to the STEENBEEK.
(ii) The 59th Inf. Bde. (less covering troops on the East bank) were relieved by the 60th and 61st Inf. Bdes. on the night 14th/15th. It was decided that it would be dangerous to withdraw the covering troops of the 59th Inf. Bde. and to attempt to relieve them with new troops from the 60th and 61st Inf. Bdes., owing to the proximity of the enemy.
(iii) On the night of the 15th/16th the troops of the fighting Brigades were deployed according to the pre-arranged plan. Hostile artillery fire was at times heavy, and machine gun fire from AU BON GITE caused a few casualties.
The garrison of AU BON GITE did not appear to see that a concentration was taking place, although they fired Very light throughout the night.
(iv) On the success of this extremely difficult operation depended the whole plan of attack for the 16th. Great credit is reflected on all concerned in the arrangements made for forming up the attacking Brigades.
12. PLAN OF ATTACK.
(i) The plan of attack can be summarised as follows:-
(a) The 60th Inf. Bde. was to attack on a one Battalion front passing to the South of LANGEMARCK, the 6th Oxf. & Bucks L.I. being given the task of capturing the BLUE and GREEN Lines, whilst the 6th K.S.L.I. and 12th K.R.R.C. were allotted to the capture of the RED Line (final objective).
(b) The 61st Inf. Bde. included in their attack the whole village of LANGEMARCK.
This attack was made on a two Bn. front, two half Battalions being allotted to each of the BLUE and GREEN Lines, the remaining two Battalions “leap-frogging” after the capture of the GREEN Line, and moving on to the final objective. (the RED Line).
(ii) The reasons for the dispositions made were as follows:-
(a) That one Brigade should be made responsible for the whole village of LANGEMARCK.
(b) That the Right Brigade on reaching its final objective was more liable to counter-attack from the direction of POELCAPELLE, and therefore might require a fresh Battalion which could be held in reserve.
(c) In addition it was hoped that, should the village of LANGEMARCK hold up the 61st Inf. Bde., the 60th Inf. Bde. being on a narrower front would be able to push forward and drive a wedge round the South-eastern edge of LANGEMARCK, and thus partially surround it, and enable the 61st Inf. Bde. to advance. Any gap, on the right flank of the 60th Inf. Bde., which might occur owing to this movement could be filled up by the Reserve Battalion of the 60th Inf. Bde.
(iii) After events proved these dispositions to be quite sound.
13. ARTILLERY PLAN.
(i) The chief features in the artillery programme for supporting the attack on LANGEMARCK consisted in the two pauses arranged to take place, on the BLUE Line for 20 minutes, and on the GREEN Line for one hour.
(ii) The positions of troops on these two objectives were also to be screened by smoke barrages in order that the re-organisation and arrangements for consolidation might be made. Further advantage lay in the fact that if by mishap the infantry were unable to keep up with the barrage owing to incidents on the battle front, this would enable them to come up in rear of it for the advance to a subsequent objective.
(iii) The pace of the barrage was 100 yards every five minutes. This was considered sufficiently slow, except when crossing the boggy ground by LANGEMARCK Chateau, but there is no doubt that it was only owing to the strongest efforts on the part of the infantry engaged that they were able to keep up with this barrage.
(iv) The various forms of barrages use were:-
(a) A creeping barrage.
(b) A standing barrage.
(c) A distant barrage of 6” Hows.
(d) A machine gun barrage.
(v) These various barrages covered a great depth which would be very advantageous should the enemy be contemplating a counter-attack and endeavour to assemble his troops between LANGEMARCK and POELCAPELLE.
14. AU BON GITE.
(i) A point which required special consideration on the commencement of the advance consisted in the problem of how the German strong point at AU BON GITE should be dealt with.
(ii) There is no doubt that if the enemy had held on to this point firmly during the initial stages of the advance the attack would have been considerably disorganised; as it was casualties were caused in the 61st Inf. Bde. until this strong point surrendered.
(iii) The following plan was made to deal with this enemy stronghold. Two Coys. of the 11th R.B. were kept in the line when the 59th Inf. Bde. was relieved, and detailed to attack and mop-up AU BON GITE, moving with the leading wave of the 60th Inf. Bde. (6th Oxf. & Bucks L.I.).
(iv) Arrangements had been made for an aeroplane to fly at a low altitude over AU BON GITE at one minute before Zero, and by firing down at such of the enemy as were not in concrete shelters to induce them to keep down in their trenches and thus prevent them seeing the approach of the assaulting party.
(v) The attacking party were provided with smoke bombs, and at Zero hour these bombs were thrown on to the strong point by bombers who had crept up within a few yards and lay concealed in shell holes. The throwing of the smoke bombs was immediately followed by the attack which was perfectly successful, and resulted in the capture of one officer and 50 men of the 3rd Battalion 261 R.I.R.
15. THE ATTACK.
(i) The attack commenced at 4.45 a.m. At this hour it was just possible to see the country to our front for about 300 yards, but any troops not in motion could not be seen in this light.
(ii) The attack was carried out according to programmes, the chief centres of resistance being REITRES FARM on the left flank of the 61st Inf. Bde., and the village of LANGEMARCK and the houses to the East of the village all of which concealed many machine guns.
(iii) The Chateau grounds had been reduced to a swamp by the recent rains, and the advance of our infantry on the left was considerably impeded. The whole country East of the STEENBEEK up to the RED Line was a swampy crater field.
(iv) The attack of the 60th Inf. Bde. went through without a hitch, and the resistance did not appear to be formidable.
(v) The 29th Division on our left had made previous arrangements to assist the 61st Inf. Bde., should this be necessary, by bringing cross fire to bear from points West of the railway on the Northern exits of LANGEMARCK. The co-operation between the two Divisions could not have been better.
(vi) The final objective was reached at Zero plus 3 hours 30 minutes.
16. LANGEMARCK. The German Commanding Officer of the 3rd Bn. 261 R.I.R. was captured in LANGEMARCK, and it may be safely concluded that the whole of his Bn. was either killed or captured. The prisoners made by the Division numbered about 20 Officers and 400 O.R. The captured trophies included a section of 4.2” Hows., one 77 m.m. Field Gun, and 20 or 30 machine guns. Many more machine guns, and a considerable number of trench mortars, were no doubt buried in the debris; subsequent reconnaissance would probably confirm this.
17. ENEMY TROOPS INVOLVED IN THE BATTLE.
(i) After the attack of July 31st, the 3rd Guards Division, which was holding the front opposite to us, was replaced by the 29th Reserve Division, a fresh Division.
(ii) The sector immediately opposite the Divisional front was held by the 262nd R.I.R./ which had one Battalion between the STEENBEEK and LANGEMARCK, disposed in shell-hole positions. After our successful attempt to cross the STEENBEEK on August 14th, this Battalion, which already suffered losses through our artillery fire, became too weak, and two companies of the 261st R.I.R. were sent up to reinforce it.
(iii) On the morning of August 16th, the enemy had about two Battalions opposite our Divisional front between their front line trenches and the GREEN Line. During our attack these two Battalions appear to have been completely annihilated.
(iv) The RED Line was defended on our front by about one and a half battalions of the 261sr R.I.R. while LANGEMARCK Station was held by troops of the 50th I.R. belonging to the 214th Division on our left.
(v) The enemy soon realised that the 79th Reserve Division, which had sustained heavy losses, and was badly shaken by our artillery fire, was incapable of making counter-attacks, which, from captured documents, seem to have been expected of it.
(vi) Early in the afternoon on August 16th the prisoners of the 184th Regiment (183rd Division) were taken; this regiment was to have relieved the 262nd R.I.R. on the night 16th/17th. This relief, however, was never completed, as the 183rd Division was brought up and put into the line that evening opposite the 11th Division on our right.
(vii) About 4 o’clock in the afternoon of August 16th, two prisoners of the 119th Grenadier Regt. were taken, and we learned that the 26th Division was being rushed up from the POELCAPELLE Area to relieve or reinforce the remnants of the 79th Reserve Division. This was the regiment which delivered the unsuccessful counter-attack on our front on the evening of the 16th.
(viii) From prisoners’ statements, captured documents and intercepted messages, it would appear that during the 16th August, the utmost confusion reigned in the troops opposite our front. We captured prisoners of the 79th Reserve Division, the 183dr Division, the 26th Division, the 114th Division and the 9th Bavarian Reserve Division. Had the enemy’s troops not been disorganised, we should normally only have captured prisoners of the 79th Reserve Division and the 26th Division.
(ix) It would appear certain that any regiments which had been subjected for several days to our artillery fire are totally incapable of withstanding an infantry attack in force. This is especially true in the case of men of the 1918 class, which formed a large proportion of the troops in the 79th Reserve Division.
18. 11th DIVISION. The 11th Division on our right, through ill fortune, did not succeed in capturing all their objectives. This was mainly owing to the failure of the Corps further South, necessitating the forming of a defensive flank facing East by this Division. Their left flank, however, reached the RED Line, and was in touch with the Division about WHITE HOUSE.
19. F.O.O’s. The work of F.O.O’s. was as usual admirable, and the first information as regards the position of our troops was usually received from them.
20. ENEMY COUNTER-ATTACK.
(i) During the afternoon of the 16th instant S.O.S. Signals were sent up by our troops in the RED Line but the information available as regards local incidents was very conflicting.
(ii) A correct account of what actually happened after our assaulting battalions had reached the RED Line has not yet been received; there is no doubt, however, that the enemy, under cover of hedgerows, folds in the ground, etc., had succeeded in driving in our advanced posts in front of the Cemetery.
(iii) In their withdrawal the protecting detachments carried back elements of our troops which had been established in the centre of the RED Line about SCHREIBOOM.
21. A SITUATION ON THE EVENING OF AUGUST 16th.
(i) On the evening of the 16th the situation on the RED Line was as follows:- the two flanks of the Division, held by the 12th K.R.R.C. and 6th K.S.L.I. on the right, and the 7th D.C.L.I. on the left held firm, while the 12th King’s (L’pool) Regt. had fallen back approximately 200 yards.
(ii) Reinforcements were hurried up by the B.Gs.C. 60th and 61st Inf. Bdes. to secure our original position in the RED Line, and no further incidents took place that night.
22. MINOR OPERATIONS ON AUGUST 17th.
(i) At 6.30 p.m. on August 17th minor operations took place with a view to re-establishing our position on the RED Line about SCHREIBOOM.
(ii) These were not successful; the failure may be attributed to considerable machine gun fire from the direction of PHEASANT FARM and RAT HOUSE, which enfiladed our counter-attacking troops as they advanced towards SCHREIBOOM from their entrenchments 200 yards S.W. of that place.
(iii) The 11th Division had been asked to co-operate:-
(a) By placing a smoke barrage on the right flank of our line near RAT HOUSE and its enclosures, and
(b) by searching with 18 pdrs. PHEASANT FARM, and the ground between that and RAT HOUSE
(iv) Had the 11th Division been able to establish themselves on the RED Line according to programme it is very probable that our efforts to occupy SCHREIBOOM would have succeeded, notwithstanding the strong opposition put up by the enemy in front of our centre.
(i) On the night of the 17th/18th and 18th/19th the 38th Division relieved our left and right sectors respectively and the Division was withdrawn to refit on the 19th August.
(ii) Had the 59th Inf. Bde., which was in Divisional reserve, been in a fit condition to take over the line, as had been originally intended, the relief of the Division could well have been postponed four or five days.
(iii) This Brigade, however, had had considerable losses in its efforts to force the passage of the STEENBEEK, and had become so reduced in strength, and had lost so many officers that it was not possible for it to carry out its original role.
(iv) Throughout the whole period during which the 59th Inf. Bde. had been in the line it had suffered heavily from shell fire, not only against the units N.E. of IRON CROSS, but among carrying parties, and the working parties on roads. One company alone lost 25 officers and men, when moving down to the STEENBEEK from IRON CROSS, carrying out a relief.
(Sd) W. DOUGLAS SMITH,
Commanding 20th Division.
3rd Sept. 1917.