This article describes an attack made by the 1/4th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) on 17 February 1917. The battalion was under command of the 147th Infantry Brigade of the 49th (West Riding) Division.
On 10 February 1917 the battalion was ordered to form a “composite company” that would be a raiding party for a forthcoming operation. A total of 76 officers and men of “B” Company under Captain John Graham Mowat were to form this party. On the day, the battalion relieved another unit in a stretch of front line south west of Arras, between the villages of Wailly and Ficheux. The men selected for the party remained behind, in the billet village of Rivière, and began to prepare for the raid.
On 15 February the party moved to billets in Bailleulval. During the day, divisional orders were received, giving details of the forthcoming operation. Its objective was to obtain an identification of the enemy unit(s) holding the trenches to be raided, and to kill Germans.
The raid would enter the German trenches at grid map location R.29.c.95.35 and would be in action for half an hour.
Raiding party organisation
The raiding party would be organised into six groups:
- On the right flank, 2/Lt Purvis and 12 men would enter the German line
- Sgt Moscrop and 12 men would do the same on the left
- A party of 2/Lt Blakey and 12 men would clear communication trenches
- 2/Lt Butler, 14 men and a runner would then enter and clear dug-outs and shelters
- Captain Mowat, 6 bayonet men, 2 runners (message carriers), 2 signallers, 2 stretcher bearers and 2 buglers would form a parapet party
- 2/Lt Hirst, L/Cpl Heyes, 3 sappers of the Royal Engineers and one other man would form a Bangalore Torpedo party.
The 1/5th Battalion of the same regiment, which was holding the front line, would sent out fighting patrols into no man’s land (to report any enemy activity) one and a quarter hours before zero. They would repeat this once the raid was over.
To be completed an hour before zero, a party of 6 men from “D” Company of the 1/4th would go out into no man’s land, cut a gap in the German barbed wire defences and erect guiding posts.
The raiding party would be in a close support position 15 minutes before zero. The Torpedo Party would then move out as close to the enemy’s barbed wire as possible, lay out a tape to guide the direction of the others, and to place its torpedo into position. Ten minutes before zero the other parties would move to be in their front line trench. Mowat would telephone brigade headquarters with the code word “Thursday”.
At zero, the raiding detachments would advance one behind the other, each keeping its right hand on the tape: they would advance in the order Purvis, Moscrop, Blakey, Butler, Mowat. On entering the hostile trenches, the first three would push on as far as possible towards the barrage. Mowat would telephone brigade headquarters with the code word “Friday”.
Certain men would be ordered to concentrate only on obtaining identification from enemy clothing and identity discs.
The signal to withdraw would be given by bugle and the countersign “Mowat”. He would telephone brigade headquarters with the code word “All Clear” when all of his men had evacuated the enemy trench.
A nominal roll of names of all officers and men taking part was to be submitted to the adjutant just before operations began. 2/Lt I. C. Denby would detail 3 NCOs to take the names of men returning. Runners would take these lists back to battalion HQ. After the operation all members of the raiding party would return to Rivière, where Lt F. H. Kelsall would check their arrivalk in billets.
The battalion was commanded by Lieut-Col. R. E. Sugden DSO.
The raid would be provided with sophisticated fire support as follows:
- At zero hour an artillery barrage would be fired.
- Four minutes later it would lift gradually, starting at the entry point and widening until all of its fire was clear of the raid area.
- A “box barrage” would then be laid down to surround the raid area.
- Howitzers, trench mortars and machine guns would fire a feint barrage to divert enemy attention from the raid point and keep men from going towards the raid area.
- X.14 Medium Trench Mortar Battery and 147 Brigade Light Trench Mortar Battery would employ three and fund mortars each as part of the barrage.
- At zero, 147 Machine Gun Company would fire to sweep the enemy’s front line and communication trenches, while 148 Machine Gun Company would fire on the area Ficheux Mill – Blairville Wood – Ficheux.
- Two Lewis guns of the left sector of the front line battalion would also fire to sweep the enemy’s parapet.
Every man would be dressed in fighting order and would carry wire cutters or wire breakers. All identification marks and badges were to be removed. Stokes mortar bombs and Phosphorus bombs would be carried for dealing with dugouts and the party would carry a few light ladders across.
Two stretcher bearers would go forward with Blakey’s party; two others would wait at the head of a Russian sap (this can be seen in the above maps as a short trench running forward from the British lines); two more would be with the Medical Officer in the British front line. Casualties would be evacuated down Folly Lane Trench to an advanced aid post a the junction of Chancery Lane and Flood Street.
Execution of the plan
According to Lieut-Col. R. E. Sugden’s post-raid report:
The Torpedo Party went out, following the tape, about 50 yards before the barrage began. It was found that one of the two torpedoes was unusable so only one was taken across.
The artillery barrage commenced a minute before schedule; zero had been fixed for 10pm. German flares were fired, which actually helped the torpedo party cross no man’s land.It proved difficult to push the torpedo under the wire and it went in at an angle, but was exploded well and cleared a gap.
The raiding party went across and was somewhat hindered by uncut wire but hacked their way through with billhooks. The raid entered the German line about 30 yards to the left (that is, east) of the intended position.
Sgt Moscrop was the first man to enter the German trench. He immediately came upon a sentry post, at which a German was captured and two others bayonetted. The prisoner was handed over to Mowat, who gave a signal to his men that identification had been obtained and that they should now do as much damage as possible. Unfortunately the prisoner managed to wound Moscrop, who nonetheless carried on. The prisoner was killed by bayonet. Two other Germans, who put their hands up, were “shot by a zealous individual on the parapet”[which suggests it was one of Mowat’s own party].
The left and right parties were met be enemy bombing [hand grenade] squads and the right party suffered five men wounded. The centre party was fired on from inside a dugout, which was dealt with by throwing a Stokes mortar bomb into it. Sgt Bancroft flashed a light down into it and saw three or four men had been blown up on the steps.
All parties withdrew in good order when signalled to do so after 16 minutes and all seven men who had been wounded were able to return to the British lines. The “All clear” signal was given as 10.29pm.
Sugden went onto say that,
- The men really understood an artillery barrage and it will give them plenty of confidence in future.
- The raid secured identification and undoubtedly inflicted heavy casualties at small expense.
- It has bucked up the battalion because the men said they would go again at any time! (The exclamation mark is Sugden’s).
- Of the seven wounded, most are slight and one man is already back at duty.
Captain Mowat’s after-action report included,
On leaving our trenches a German searchlight swept right across our front but fortunately was well above our heads.
The Bangalore Torpedo was exploded 3.5 minutes after the barrage began.
The “All in” signal was sent by Cpl Bailey at 10.06pm.
Altogether 13 dead Germans were seen, along with the four on the dugout steps.
The last man of the right hand party, Cpl Jessop, threw a petrol tin bomb down int a dugout and there was a great mass of flame on the steps.
Mowat also named in his report
Sgt Warrington, who killed the German who had wounded Moscrop
2/Lt A. Butler of the dugout clearing party also mentioned
5793 Sgt F. Johnson
6679 H. Kane
2/Lt R. C. Purvis also mentioned
Sgt Sheard, who shot three Germans before being wounded
Pte Knox who shot two more
Pte Mahon who was wounded by a bomb along with Sheard
2/Lt W. L. Hirst also mentioned
23075 Sapper Edward Bird of 2 Section, 57 Field Company RE who exploded the Bangalore Torpedo
2/Lt E. V. Blakey also mentioned
L/Cpl Johnson, who shot a German
Rewards and recognition
Captain John Graham Mowat was awarded the Military Cross. The citation appeared in the “London Gazette”of 26 March 1917. It reads,
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He led his men with great gallantry, and inflicted many casualties on the enemy. On one occasion he personally helped to clear a gap in the enemy’s wire.
6750 Sergeant George Moscrop was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation appeared in the “London Gazette”of 26 March 1917. It reads,
For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He cut his way through the enemy’s wire, led his men into the trench, and personally captured two prisoners. Later, although severely wounded, he continued to lead his men with great courage and determination.
The Military Medal was awarded to:
- 1605 Cpl G. A. Bailey
- 6598 Pte J. Bowers
- 1747 Cpl E. Jackson
- 5793 Sgt F. Johnson
- 1645 Pte R. Knox
- 2413 Sgt J. S. Sheard (posthumously)
Second Lieutenant Edward Vernon Blakey was mentioned in despatches.
This list of rewards may be incomplete.
2431 Lance Sergeant James Schofield Sheard died next day of the wounds he had received during the raid and is buried at Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery. His Military Medal was presented to his widow at Leeds Town Hall on 1 August 1917.
Captain John Graham Mowat MC was killed in action along with five of his men on on 27 June 1917, when a shell struck their dugout. They are buried together at Sailly-Labourse Communal Cemetery Extension. Son of John G. Mowat of Kenmore, Cleckheaton, he was aged 24. He had been educated at Bradfield College and undertook an agricultural course at Cirencester with a view to becoming a farmer. John was commissioned in October 1914 and had been wounded shortly after going to France in 1915. He had a brother who also served as an officer of the battalion: he went on to command it.
This local newspaper photograph of John is from the excellent “Spenborough Roll of Honour” website, with thanks.
Second Lieutenant Robert Cyril Purvis had gone to France with the battalion in April 1915, serving as Private 2220. He was commissioned in June 1915 and transferred to the Royal Air Force in May 1918. Purvis, born in 1893, was the son of Rev. W. Purvis of St. Mary’s Vicarage in Halifax.
Second Lieutenant Edward Vernon Blakey was commissioned in May 1915 and went to France a year later. He went on to be awarded the MC and Bar, the last being for work with 2/4th Battalion at Havrincourt in September 1918. Blakey went on to command in the Brighouse area Home Guard during the Second World War.
Sergeant George Moscrop was discharged from the army on medical grounds on 10 September 1917.
The raid area today
Thanks to Google Maps we are standing on the battalion’s front line trench at the point marked on the map above with a “96”. The lane on the left runs forward to Ficheux. The German trenches entered by Mowat’s raiding party were in the field ahead of us.
- Battalion war diary. National Archives reference WO95/2799.
- Diary of 57 Field Company RE. National Archives WO95/2784.
- Brigade war diary. National Archives WO95/2797.
- War diary of 49th Divisional Adjutant. National Archives WO95/2770.
- London Gazette.
- Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- British Newspaper Archive.