This article describes a minor disaster: a trench raid designed to kill or capture the garrison of a German outpost that was cut short when British artillery fired into the attacking party. The raid was carried out by “B” Company of the 1/12th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (The Rangers).
The battalion was in a reserve position at Lagnicourt when it began to move forward to return to the trenches and relieve the 1/14th Battalion (London Scottish) in the front line at 5pm on 2 November 1917. A party of three officers and 62 men of “B” Company were separated out to form a raiding party, and they instead went to Fremicourt to train for this forthcoming operation.
For the next few days in the front line the situation was generally quiet, although there was occasional shell fire. The battalion sent out several patrols, particularly to observe the ground situation and defences around the “Magpie’s Nest” and to engage a hostile patrol which it was believed regularly moved between it and the “Quéant Birdcage” at around midnight. On 4 November the battalion’s Lewis Guns fired 500 rounds at a troublesome enemy machine gun post at the “Magpie’s Nest”.
Objectives of the raid
Final orders were issued just before the raid. They set the objective as kill or capture the garrison of the “Magpie’s Nest”; to destroy a trench mortar known as “Edward” and a machine gun at grid location D.13.a.0.2.
Plan of action
The raiding party would arrive from Fremicourt by lorry and would report to the battalion in the line at 9pm on 7 November. They would bring their personal equipment, tape, wire cutters and bangalore torpedoes. Other stores would be issued once in position. The men were ordered to blacken their faces with burnt cork and to remove all insignia and paperwork. Each man would carry 50 rounds of rifle bullets in the pockets of his tunic.
The signals officer would report all OK at 9.30pm; all working parties would cease at 11.30pm; the garrisons of front line posts would step aside to allow a gap for the raiding party; and at 1.30am on 8 November all men in the front line would “stand to”. Zero hour was fixed for 12.30am.
The officer commanding the raid, Captain Keith Anderson, would remain in reserve in the front line along with six Lewis Gunners and five riflemen. The artillery’s Forward Observation Officer would also join this group and would be in touch with the batteries via telephone.
The remainder of the party would be organised into five groups:
Wire cutting party: one NCO and six riflemen; all equipped with revolvers; NCO and two men to be equipped with wire cutters; four others with bangalore torpedoes. They would advance with two bangalore torpedoes and explode on to cut a gap through the enemy barbed wire at the point of entry (grid location D.13.a.90.35). If the second was not needed it would be carried back.
Storming party: under Lieutenant Stephen Scott; one NCO, two bayonet men, two bombers (hand grenade men), two rifle grenadiers, two carriers. All except officer and rifle grenadiers to be equipped with two Mills hand grenades. They would go into the enemy position at the point of entry, work their way to the trench mortar and machine gun post, then form a block in the trench to hold enemy away while the party withdrew. The party carried three Stokes mortar bombs to destroy the trench mortar and machine gun if they could not be removed.
Parapet party: Second Lieutenant John W. Day; one NCO (Sgt King); six Lewis Gunners; two men with revolvers and electric torches to collect identifications; two four others with bangalore torpedoes. They would line the enemy trench and hold off any attempted counter attack from the east and north east.
Two covering parties (left and right), each including: one NCO, six Lewis Gunners, five riflemen and two as tape men. The left covering party was under Cpl Hardy. His men would ensure that no enemy counter attack could develop from the Quéant direction. The right party would take up a position in the felled trees south west of the Magpie’s Nest” and ensure no counter attack could come from the “Quéant Birdcage”.
At z-5 minutes an intense artillery and trench mortar barrage would begin, and the machine guns of 168th Brigade Machine Gun Company would engage selected targets. 109 and 281 Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery, along with 168th Brigade (3-inch medium) Trench Mortar Battery, would participate. The four medium trench mortars would fire at a rate of 15 rounds per minute each.
At z-1 the artillery would lift to fire a box barrage surrounding the area to be raided. The wire cutting and storming parties would advance out into no man’s land but go no further than within 200 yards of the shellfire. The artillery would also continue to fire shrapnel rounds with percussion fuzes at the enemy’s barbed wire just in front of the point of entry, tight up until zero.
A telephone line would be laid from the “Magpie’s Nest” back to the battalion’s front line.
The artillery would fire a smoke barrage from z+9 to screen the withdrawal. This would continue until z+23 minutes.
Once the storming party had withdrawn back through the point of entry, the parapet party would fire a blue Very Light flare. This would be the signal for the flank covering parties to withdraw.
Progress of the raid
At 11pm the parties began to move into their positions of readiness. Four enemy were spotted making their way from the Pronville road towards the “Magpie’s Nest”: 2/Lt Day halted the parties and took two men to reconnoitre but soon returned, having seen no further movement. He led the parties into position by 12.20am.
Shortly afterwards another enemy was seen. The Germans fired a number of flares and opened up with rifle and machine gun fire and fired six trench mortars towards the raiders, but doing no damage.
The British barrage began on time, at which point German fire ceased, but shells fell short amongst the raiding party and even behind some of them (between them and the bank shown in the sketch map above). One man was killed and two wounded by this fire. One of the left covering party was wounded at around Z-2 by a shell bursting nearby; another was of the right covering party. It was also reported that the artillery barrage was not properly co-ordinated, with the trench mortars beginning 90 seconds before the field artillery.
When the barrage lifted to a box at Z-1 the Germans fired a “golden raid” signal rocket but otherwise did not react.
With the raid having been disorganised, Day decided to withdraw and signalled it at Z+11. Most of the rest of the party made it back to the front line. One man was known to have been killed by a bullet to the head and that he was near the bank. Another was found to be missing at roll call. Captain Anderson took out a search party but no trace o this man was found; the dead soldier was brought in. Day himself was struck by a piece of shell fragment and bruised.
Casualties of the raid
Rfmn 470279 (formerly 2006) Phillip Clack, who had served with the battalion in France since 24 November 1916 although he had served with the Paddington Rifles from as early as 1907. He is the man who was killed in action. His death was announced in the War Office daily casualty list of 6 December 1917. His younger sister Rosie, by then a resident of Birmingham, was his next of kin. The 1911 census shows him as being aged 22 and employed as a slater’s labourer: he was a boarder in Marylebone, where he had also been born. Clack is buried in Morchies Military Cemetery (row C grave 12).
Rfmn 474005 Walter Hipwell was the man reported missing: this information appeared in the War Office daily casualty list of 28 December 1917 but was corrected to reporting that he was in enemy hands in the list of 31 January 1918. He was subsequently held at the POW camps at Munster and Friedrichsfeld-bei-Wesel. He was born in Leicester in April 1898; had enlisted through the Group System in October 1915; went to France after training with the Sherwood Foresters and joined the battalion on 11 July 1916; had been wounded (not seriously) in the thigh at the start of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Hipwell had previously worked as a seam trimmer for the shoe manufacturer W. A. Thompson in his home city.
The battalion was under command of 168th Infantry Brigade of 56th (London) Division.
Second Lieutenant John William Day was seriously wounded at Tadpole Copse on 23 November 1917. This was his second appearance in the lists. He was aged 20 in 1918.
Captain Keith Hope Johnstone Anderson, by then commanding “D” Company, was taken prisoner of war on 12 September 1918.
Visiting the site of the raid
The site of the “Magpie’s Nest” can be approached by farm tracks. This is private land and you would be advised to obtain permission.
Battalion war diary (National Archives WO95/2954)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission database
International Committee of the Red Cross POW database
“Soldiers died in the Great War”
1911 census and army service records via Findmypast