Gazetteer of the Western Front: Travecy

Location

Travecy is a village south of Saint-Quentin
Lat: 49° 41′ 19″ N (49.6886)
Lon: 3° 21′ 36″ E (3.3600)

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Travecy is not shown on this map due it its scale but it lies just north of La Fère on the N44 road from Saint-Quentin.

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Travecy is a short distance north of La Fère, in the valley of the River Oise.

History

With thanks to delcampe.net, a postcard view of Travecy

With thanks to delcampe.net, a postcard view of Travecy in the years before the Great War

Travecy fell into German hands during their offensive in the summer of 1914. It remained under enemy occupation until March 1917 when the Germans carried out a strategic withdrawal (Operation “Alberich”) eastwards from the Somme, to prepared defences of the Siegfred-Stellung (“Hindenburg Line”). Once the Germans had evacuated form the village it was occupied by French forces.

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The village lies on the west of the straight Sambre-Oise Canal, a 19th Century construction to ease the passage of coal being sent from the Charleroi area of Belgium down towards Paris. A short distance to the east is the River Oise, meandering through marshland. The town of La Fère had been militarised by the French for centuries and, as the map above suggests, was essentially a fortress surrounded by a moat. There had been a battle here in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

When British Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed, in the face of military advice, to extend the British line southwards, Travecy was within the area designated to be taken over by the British. The first unit into Travecy was the 17th (Service) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment), which relieved the 6th Battalion of thee French 338th regiment of Infantry on 29 January 1918.

During early February 1918, the British 58th (2/1st London) Division relieved the 30th Division and held this area until the first days of the vast German offensive, Operation “Michael” (Kaiserschlacht, or the First Battles of the Somme, 1918) which began on 21 March 1918.

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There had been little fighting in this sector since the end of the German withdrawal. The canal bank was essentially the front line on the Allied side, with the locks at Travecy and St-Firmin near La Fère being vulnerable points. On taking over the line, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) found it to be the quietest sector they had ever experienced (war diary of 19th (Service) Battalion). On moving in, 173rd Brigade of 58th Division reported “remarkable inactivity”. The defences were poor and the entrenched position (the map above shows in blue the French trenches taken over by the British) was not extensive. Rumours and signs of an imminent German attack were however mounting and Fifth Army was pressed to make the area more defensible.

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This is part of a map contained in the war diary of 173rd Infantry Brigade headquarters, showing dispositions on the night 20-21 March 1918. The red lines are defences of various types, mainly constructed in February and March. In Travecy, top right, a strongpoint known as a “Keep” had been built. When the German attack began, the line from St-Firmin up to Travecy was held by the 2/2nd Battalion of the London Regiment.

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Part of a map from the British Official History, showing progress of the German attack on 21 March 1918. The solid black line represents the British front before the attack; by day’s end it had been withdrawn to the dashed line. Travecy was once again in German hands. The attack in this area was carried out by the divisions of Group Gayl of the German Tenth Army.

The defence of Travecy Keep

Travecy Keep was held by “A” Company of the 2/2nd Londons, numbering no more than 200 men and commanded by Captain Maurice Harper MC.

Captain Maurice Harper led the defence of Travecy Keep

Captain Maurice Harper MC led the defence of Travecy Keep

With thanks to Mark Smith for the preparation of this narrative:

At 4.50am on the 21 March 1918 the German bombardment began, with one artillery piece firing for every 10 yards of the line. Gas shells and trench mortars also rained down on the London men. The bombardment lasted until 7.00am and under its cover the enemy infantry crossed the St Quentin Canal and assaulted the 2/2 Londons positions in the Forward Zone. Dense fog weakened the defensive positions which relied on good visibility to cover the gaps. The Germans exploited the fog and were soon behind the Forward Zone positions.

Two of the keeps (Japy and Brickstack) held by 2/2 Londons fell early on but the Main Keep held out until after midday before it was finally taken. At Travecy Keep the artillery bombardment lasted until 8.00am, by which time all communication links had been severed and, in thick fog, A Company were without support and completely isolated. As the barrage lifted the enemy attacked and took a number of the forward posts and briefly penetrated the Keep’s outer defences to the north and south and heavy fighting developed on the right flank held by one platoon quickly reduced to 10 men and an officer. By 10.00am the surviving two men of this platoon fell back to the Keep. An hour later an attack, assisted by an aeroplane, developed to the north forcing two sections of “A” Company back to the Keep which was now under continuous machine gun and rifle grenade fire. An advance section were still undetected forward of the Keep and they inflicted many casualties on the enemy during this attack with a Lewis Gun before retiring.

During the afternoon the enemy made a number of determined assaults on the Keep, all of which were repulsed. At 5.00pm Captain Harper called for two volunteer runners to report to Brigade HQ. The men, Privates Banks and Ancliffe, returned two hours later with the news that the enemy had penetrated 2 miles to the north west and nearly 3 miles to the west and south west. With its flanks driven in and the enemy behind it, Travecy Keep was completely surrounded. At this point Captain Harper’s force consisted of 3 officers and 60 men.

Just before dusk the Germans launched a further assault on all sides of the Keep and the fight raged for an hour before the enemy fell back. During the night the Germans continued to bomb the Keep and sweep it with machine gun and rifle fire. Thick fog greeted dawn on the 22nd March and still A Company resisted the continuing German attacks. During lulls in the fighting the men would crawl out of the Keep in ones and twos into the ruins of the village and fire on enemy machine gun teams nearby. By midday the fog had lifted and the men of A’ Company took the opportunity to fire on a column of enemy transport seen on the St Quentin to La Fere road. They even fired on a group of German Staff Officers and a working party on the Travecy to Achery road. The Londoners were rewarded with an attack by a German aircraft which dropped two bombs on the Keep. Later in the afternoon further aircraft bombed the Keep, one of which was shot down by Lance Corporal Long with a Lewis Gun.

At 7.30pm Captain Harper held a council of war with his remaining officers and CSM. Their ammunition had virtually run out, they were completely cut off and there was no hope of a counter attack. The London men were completely exhausted, hungry and outnumbered at least 50 to 1. Their casualties were exposed to enemy fire and needed treatment. Captain Harper decided that it would be futile to resist further as this would lead to the deaths of all those that still survived. He gave orders to destroy all maps and plans together with the remaining 2 Lewis Guns and trench mortars. Shortly after midnight the Germans began another attack. Captain Harper went out to meet them and surrendered, 44 hours after the initial German bombardment had commenced. “A” Company had fired over 18,000 rounds of ammunition, had launched over 200 trench mortars and had thrown more than 400 hand grenades. With the capture of the remaining 44 men (including the wounded) of “A” Company, total losses of the 2/2 Londons stood at 570 men of all ranks from a trench strength of 610. More than 60 were dead and many had been captured including the Commanding Officer, Lieut-Col AR Richardson.

In connection with the heroic defence of Travecy Keep, Captain Harper was awarded a Bar to his MC and 2/Lieutenant PD Gibson was awarded the MC.

Final liberation of Travecy

In the great Allied offensives of the summer and autumn of 1918, Travecy and La Fère were liberated by the advance of the First French Army under Général Debeney.

Touring the area today

Travecy was rebuilt after the Great War in a layout little changed from 1914. There are few traces of the war although there are many concrete bunkers and emplacements of the Hindenburg Line all the way along the canal line: some of the most accessible are a few miles north of Travecy at Brissy-Hamégicourt (east of Moÿ-de-l’Aisne).

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Thanks to Google Maps, we are looking eastwards at the bridge over the canal at Travecy, on the site of the old lock and an important part of the front line of March 1918.

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One of the many German bunkers of the Hindenburg Line alongside the Sambre-Oise Canal at Brissy-Hamégicourt.

It is a small village with no accommodation or possibilities for refreshment. The nearest major selections of accommodation are in Saint-Quentin.

Despite the terrible toll of casualties in the attack on Travecy there is no British cemetery or memorial here. Some of the men who died are buried in the military extension to the communal cemetery at Chauny, but most have no identified grave and are commemorated at the distant Pozières Memorial.

Links

Lloyd George agrees an extension of the British line

58th (2/1st London) Division

Long, Long Trail guide to Saint-Quentin

Other places in my Gazetteer of the Western Front