Morlancourt: 22nd Battalion

22nd-battalionBackground

Once the two great operations of the 1918 German Spring Offensive against the British – ‘Michael’ and ‘Georgette’ on the Somme and Lys respectively – had been halted and exhausted, the months of May through to July were quiet and stagnant on the British front. However while the British Army was recovering from the hard fighting of March and April, the Australians alone were on the offensive – not an offensive of grand attacks and large advances but a series of nibbles, raids and local operations carried out with a daring and stealth that unnerved the opposing enemy divisions. These minor stunts – often carried out without supporting artillery fire – became known as ‘Peaceful Penetration’ and had a major demoralising impact on the morale of the German front line soldier. They were also important to gain ground, allowing more space for defence, plus a means to take prisoners which was one of the most important sources of gathering information as the Allies tried to guess where the next German blow would land. Over the next three months the 22nd Battalion would play its active part in this novel type of warfare in an area between the rivers Somme and Ancre, opposite the villages of Morlancourt and Ville-sur-Ancre. 

Combat

3rd & 2nd Division 1918Having been relieved from their forward positions opposite Albert and Dernancourt, the 22nd Battalion along with its sister battalions within the 6th Brigade were held in the first week of May 1918 at Querrieu in readiness to counter-attack should the Germans break through on the Villers-Bretonneux front. On the 9th May the 22nd Battalion relieved the 39th Battalion and returned to the front line before Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt. The forward positions for both sides at this time were characterised by a series of outposts and in accordance with the Australian objectives of ‘Peaceful Penetration’ every night some portion of the AIF line was to be pushed forward, for the 22nd Battalion commencing the night after their arrival back in the front line when the posts of ‘C’ Company were pushed forward in front of Marrett Wood. On the night of the 10th May 1918 a patrol of ten men under Lieut. Wall pushed out in the dark along the bottom of the spur south-west of Ville-sur-Ancre to the sunken road known as ‘Little Caterpillar’. On nearing the German post, Wall dropped six of his men to cover him and crept ahead with the rest. As he lay watching, at a point from which the German machine guns at the sunken road and a listening post ahead of them could be made out, one of the men in the rear party coughed and shortly afterwards a patrol came out from the German lines heading in that direction. As the patrol approached, Lieut. Wall ordered it to halt but as the Germans were clearly going to fight, he fired. Two Germans were hit and a third captured, the remainder running off being chased with bombs. Lieut. Wall brought back his three prisoners of the 357th I.R., 199th Division, without loss to his party. Lieut. Wall, who distinguished himself greatly in patrol work, was awarded the Military Cross for this action. On the 12th May a party under Lieut. Greene was tasked with occupying a new position in front of the line when it was attacked by a strong enemy fighting party. One man was badly wounded and with the Germans encircling their position Lieut. Greene, Military Cross, supported by L-Cpl Kennett, Military Medal, engaged the enemy successfully reaching and carrying the wounded man back to rest of the patrol (see Medals & Awards, Morlancourt for all citations).

Ville-sur-Ancre - E02323A conference was held at Brigade HQ at Heilly on 13th May for the proposed larger attack at Ville-sur-Ancre (photograph left of the village across the field) with the objective of straightening the line and capturing the village. Word was now getting around that the Battalion was to be involved in a major stunt at Ville-sur-Ancre, and the following day as a preliminary the 22nd along with the 24th Battalion was relieved by the 21st and 23rd Battalions and went into support at Ribemont, where the men bathed and rested. Morale was high and everyone was in high spirits as they read, played or slept in the sun.

Ville-sur-Ancre - E02481During the night of 17th May the Jumping Off Tape was pegged out by the 6th Field Company engineers under the command of Lieut. Gillespie, assisted by Lieut. Thewlis, in readiness for the attack scheduled for twenty-four later. The plan adopted for the operation was to attack and seize the high ground to the south of the village and so force the enemy to evacuate. The 22nd Battalion was given this task on a frontage of three-quarters of a mile and to penetrate for a depth of a similar amount. Their objective included two sunken roads – known as ‘Big Caterpillar’ and ‘Little Caterpillar’ – strongly held by the enemy and guarded by a series of outposts manned by machine-gunners. After capturing these objectives the Battalion was to link up with a company of the 24th Battalion east of the village who had to cross the river Ancre to the north by specially constructed fording bridges (example shown in photograph above right). The village itself was to be cleared and consolidated by companies of the 21st & 23rd Battalions (read the broader account of the 6th Brigade attack at Ville-sur-Ancre in the Peaceful Penetration article under Combat Areas, AIF Divisions).

2015-03-13 12.31.12Two guides per Platoon met the Companies at the position of the assembly and guided them to the JOT. As the men began to move forward just before midnight ‘A’ Company suffered fifteen casualties from a single stray shell. Secrecy was paramount to the success of the operation, with bayonets not to be fixed until zero hour and entrenching tools tied to scabbards. Shortly after midnight on the 19th May 1918 all four companies were in position ready to attack, B, A, C & D from left to right, in two waves (see sketch left, showing disposition of Companies and Platoons). Never before had the 22nd Battalion attacked over so large a frontage (1,500 yards) with so few men, with 15 to 20 yards separating each man in the same wave on the JOT. Zero hour was set for 2am when an intense creeping barrage fell on the German line, and by the time the German artillery replied it was directed mostly at targets in the back areas. The attackers followed so closely upon the barrage that they effectively surprised and captured the occupants of the enemy outpost line who were not able to put up much resistance. The first wave consisted of a line of skirmishers to search the ground, the second to mop up small posts and Machine Gun positions as the advance progressed. Where there was resistance, such as a machine gun on the left, Lieut. Westaway’s platoon dropped to the ground, its Lewis gunners blazing away firing from the hip as they made for the post.

Ville-sur-Ancre mapOn the outskirts of the village and opposite the Battalion’s left flank was a cemetery and a crucifix, both strongly held by the enemy. These positions were attacked by a party under Lieut. Madden, Military Cross, and captured straight away along with several machine-guns. In the ‘Big Caterpillar’ the resistance was serious and heavy hand to hand fighting took place. Already short in numbers, by the time the sunken road had been reached the attackers had suffered heavy casualties. In front the defenders were numerous and capable of a strenuous resistance, plus the men were being sniped at from the rear. Sgt Ruthven seeing Capt. Hunter his company commander severely wounded and the seriousness of the situation took control as follows: As the leading wave approached its objective it was subjected to heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun at close range. Without hesitation he at once sprang out, threw a bomb which landed beside the post, and rushed the position, bayoneting one of the crew and capturing the gun. He then encountered some of the enemy coming out of a shelter. He wounded two, captured six others in the same position, and handed them over to an escort from the leading wave, which had now reached the objective. Sgt. Ruthven then reorganised the men in his vicinity and established a post in the second objective. Observing enemy movement in a sunken road nearby, he, without hesitation and armed only with a revolver, went over the open alone and rushed the position, shooting two enemy who refused to come out of their dug-outs. He then single-handed mopped up this post and captured the whole of the garrison, amounting in all to thirty-two, and kept them until assistance arrived to escort them back to our lines. During the remainder of the day this gallant non-commissioned officer set a splendid example of leadership, moving up and down his position under fire, supervising consolidation and encouraging his men. Throughout the whole operation he showed the most magnificent courage and determination, inspiring everyone by his fine fighting spirit, his remarkable courage, and his dashing action.

Ruthven D00019medal_vcFor this action William ‘Rusty’ Ruthven (photograph left) was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to any member of the 6th Brigade during the war, and what would be the only recipient within the 22nd Battalion.

Farther down the slope where the Big Caterpillar was deeper another German machine gun was encountered and was put out of action by Lieut. Abercrombie, Military Cross, a well-known cricketer with a good arm, throwing a Mills bomb to good effect. Major Dooley, Commanding Officer of ‘C’ Company was wounded early in the attack and command passed to Capt. Sparrow. Machine Gun fire was encountered from the embankment, but Cpl Binns, MM, did fine work firing his Lewis Gun from the hip and putting the enemy gun crew out of action, and along with CSM Werrett, DCM, and some others were responsible for collecting 28 prisoners from the Big Caterpillar sunken road (photograph below), many of whom had been sleeping with their boots and equipment off in niches or funk holes cut into the bank and covered with English waterproof sheets captured previously during the Spring Offensive. Within half an hour of Zero hour success signals could be observed from all objectives except those on the left flank where B Company could not go forward to their final objective owing to a portion of the barrage falling short, the barrage itself accounting for a number of casualties. When it ceased the company advanced and the whole Battalion dug in on the crest of the slope overlooking Morlancourt. At 2.50am ‘C’ Company had established touch with the flank companies, and within minutes success flares were observed at ‘D’ and ‘A’ Companies. Prisoners, many exhibiting low morale, began to arrive at 3.15am. Over 200 prisoners and many machine-guns were captured by the 22nd Battalion during the morning.

Ville-sur-Ancre - E04831A smoke screen had previously hidden the attack from the Germans observing from their support and reserve positions on the hill north of Morlancourt, but the smoke had now cleared and machine guns were firing on their positions. Between 6am and 7.30am a great deal of enemy movement was observed on high ground for a possible counter-attack and the artillery were at once notified, plus the area subject to harassing fire. During the morning the hot sniping from the Germans on the plateau and the bombardment of Ville-sur-Ancre continued. For its part the 6th Brigade also sent forward nine pairs of snipers who particularly in the early morning when movement was free claimed 57 hits. Pte Wilson, Military Medal, and Pte Konza, Military Medal, of the 22nd Battalion working in front of Big Caterpillar under Lieut. Thewlis are said to have been the most successful. The rest of the day saw the almost entire absence of hostile rifle or artillery fire, with the exception of a few shells which fell late in the afternoon after a reconnaissance patrol by a low flying German plane. From this advantageous position the Battalion was able to employ ‘peaceful penetration’ of pushing the posts forward and straightening the line. Ville-sur-Ancre 3 - E02416Following the attack at Ville-sur-Ancre the 22nd Battalion was relieved and returned to Franvillers for a period of rest and training (photograph left of men from’C’ Company playing ‘two-up’). After ten days the men were recovered and in a good state for a return forward, and during the night of the 31st May they relieved the 28th Battalion in front of Mericourt occupying the Treux, Ballarat and Bendigo support trenches.

1918-06-10Back in the front line aggressive patrolling continued for intelligence gathering purposes and it was on 9th June that Lieut. Lennon was killed re-entering the battalion lines following a successful raiding patrol against an enemy post when one prisoner was taken. During the raid Sgt Tyler and Pte Bunworth (see video in Family Stories) were both killed and a further six men wounded. Sgt Strachan (5th Reinforcements) was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bringing back his wounded officer despite being wounded himself. A larger raid, this time with supporting artillery and designed to gain additional territory, was planned for dusk on the 10th June 1918 by Major-General Rosenthal’s AIF 2nd Division (see operational orders, right). It was to be led by the 7th Brigade to capture part of the ridge between Sailly-Laurette and Morlancourt, supported by the 6th Brigade and its 22nd Battalion on the northern flank.  Indeed the demonstrations by the Australian infantry and artillery on both of the flanks of the 7th Brigade’s attack succeeded in causing the Germans there to believe that the front of the assault was much wider than was actually the case. Under the northern extension of what turned out to be an accurate artillery and Light Trench Mortar barrage, the 22nd Battalion party raided the Germans on the spur between Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt. Led by Lieut. Harricks (photograph below left) the 22nd Battalion lwh-portraitraiders fought hard without suffering a casualty, killing thirty of the enemy and bringing back six prisoners and a machine gun. For this dashing operation Lieut. Harricks received the Military Cross, and five other raiders – L-Cpl Harris, Sgt Nicholls, L-Cpl Russell, L-Cpl Strawhorn and Pte Watson – were also decorated with the Military Medal. Investigations and analysis after the raid concluded that the enemy in this sector was showing no signs of any preparations for a further attack in the Somme area, and as would soon become apparent focusing his efforts further south and to the French sector of the Western Front. Overall the successful Morlancourt raid resulted in capture of 330 prisoners and 33 machine guns.

The 22nd Battalion returned to the Querrieu area on 15th June having been relieved by the 59th Battalion of the AIF 5th Division. Here they stayed training, participating is sports and on 23rd June had its first inspection by Lieut.-General Sir John Monash the new commander of the Australian Corps. On the 28th June the Battalion began its move to the Villers-Bretonneux sector, starting with a march to Glisy and divisional reserve trenches near the village, occupying trenches between the railway line and the Amiens Road. Accommodation here was very poor, and the arduous and fatiguing work of digging and burying signal cables became tiresome in the extreme. A week later the Battalion moved back to the Aubigny system, but as this trench system had not been occupied for quite some time much work was needed working on the defences and trench shelters. It was during this period in mid-July 1918 that the Battalion endured its worse gas shelling during the entire war. At 11.30pm on the 16th July 1918 the Germans commenced a barrage of the Aubigny system and neighbouring area and within three hours the enemy threw over 7,000 shells completely saturating the area with mustard-gas. The men wore their Small Box Respirator gas mask (photograph below right) for a SBRconsiderable period of time and the affected area was evacuated and shell holes filled in. In spite of the precautions taken, the intensity of the bombardment and the sultry nature of the weather causing the gas to hang about meant that the casualties were going to be numerous. At the end of 72 hours when the last of the men had been evacuated it was found that the battalion had lost 200 members, with five men dying from their wounds. Both A & B companies had been severely depleted, including losing the commanding officers, so the decision was taken to amalgamate them, with Lieut. Abercrombie, MC, taking command.

On the 19th July the 22nd relieved the 25th Battalion in the firing line east of Villers-Bretonneux, with the 23rd Battalion on the right and 5th Brigade on the left. By day the line was quiet, but at night there was much sniper and machine-gun fire as the flatness of the countryside made indirect fire dangerous for the any man moving overland. Three days later the Germans put over a barrage of gas-shells even more intense than that the Battalion suffered in the Aubigny system. From 10pm till early morning on the 23rd July thousands of yellow-cross gas-shells fell in the ruins and the gas was blown back over the ration dumps and the Battalion Headquarters. Elaborate precautions enabled the casualties to be kept to about fifty. The other battalions in the Brigade and all units in the vicinity of Villers-Bretonneux suffered much more heavily. At this time most of the other casualties resulted from machine-gun fire, plus every afternoon the left company sector was intensely bombarded. It was a stray bullet which killed Lieut. Swanton at his post.

On the 27th July the 22nd Battalion had its first association with the Americans. ‘K’ Company of the 3rd Battalion, 129th American Regiment was attached to the 22nd for experience, with one platoon allotted to each company and one in reserve. This one full-strength American Company considerably outnumbered the entire 22nd Battalion. Two days later the 22nd Battalion and the Americans were relieved from the line by the 21st Battalion, and the Battalion resumed its nocturnal role of cable-laying. The heavy nature of the manual labour performed so continuously, the strain of living so long in the forward area and the two gas attacks had their effect on the men, and a relief to the Corps or Divisional area was hoped for, but as events would unfold would not be forthcoming. 

Outcome

Ville-sur-Ancre 7The effect of ‘peaceful penetration’ by all the Australian battalions on German morale was quite pronounced, with the impact being noticed by both the Allies and Germans. In addition new ground was constantly being taken providing a springboard for future attacks and not allowing the enemy to settle and dig in – as an example see the difference between the blue lines in the 6th Brigade sector, right. The success of these ‘bush tactics’ (as one German General described them) can be illustrated by one measurement in that 85 officers, 3,700 men, 38 trench mortars, and 400 machine-guns were captured by the AIF alone in this period. A letter captured from a German taken in one of these raids spoke about a dread of the Australians ‘who would creep up to our posts at night like cats, killing and carrying off.’ A captured German soldier is reported as saying: ‘You bloody Australians, when you are in the line you keep us on pins and needles; we never know when you are coming over’.

The attack at Ville-sur-Ancre was very much a 22nd Battalion battle, as it was the only complete unit involved in the attack. Ville-sur-Ancre was essential to the German for the defence of Morlancourt, and the village was the first to be regained by the Allies after the end of their Spring Offensive. Casualties amongst the Battalion’s 523 officers and other ranks that took part in the attack were heavy with 30 men killed or missing in action including 2nd Lieut. Bowden, and of the 165 men wounded Major Dooley, MC, Capt. Hunter, Lieut. Southwell and Lieut. Bourke were all incapacitated from further service in France. In total sixty-five men from the 22nd Battalion were killed in action or died of their wounds in the ‘peaceful penetration’ period between the German Spring Offensive and the start of the 100 Days Offensive.

Ville-sur-Ancre - E02762During the Peaceful Penetration period in the Morlancourt area forty men from the 22nd Battalion were awarded medals for their bravery. The attack at Ville-sur-Ancre saw twenty-eight decorations awarded including, in addition to those already mentioned above, a Distinguished Service Order for Major Matthews, Military Crosses for Lieut. Hutton and Lieut. Patterson, plus Bars to the Military Medal for Cpl Binns, Cpl Gorman and Sgt. Batton (5th Reinforcements). For the 6th Brigade overall the action at Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt was a complete success and the operations had worked out precisely as intended. The casualties for the Brigade had been relatively light at 418 considering that the defenders had approximately 800 casualties and that 330 Germans and 45 machine guns had been captured. The importance of the Ville-sur-Ancre victory in raising British morale and contributing to the destruction of the high hopes of the Germans was universally recognised at the time. So successful was the whole operation and so important to High Command that on the following day AIF Commanding Officer General Birdwood visited Battalion HQ in the line to convey personally his thanks and appreciation. Many trophies (photograph above left) obtained during the attack were dispatched back to the Australian War Museum.

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