On 4 March 1918, 74 men of “B” Company of the 1/5th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment (of 166th Infantry Brigade, 55th (West Lancashire) Division, took over a small group of front line posts. For many of these soldiers it was their first time in the front line, as they had recently arrived as replacements for casualties lost in the recent Battle of Cambrai. As events were to prove, they were badly let down by their superiors and placed into an area where defences had been neglected and where instructions to improve them had not been obeyed. During the period 5.30am to 6am on 7 March, a German trench raiding party killed or captured a significant portion of the garrison of the posts. It led to a court of enquiry, recriminations, and lessons learned.
The raid took place against front line posts east of Festubert.
The commanding officer of 166th Infantry Brigade would later say that the garrisons of these posts were “entirely unprotected from even the lightest artillery” and that “these locations lend themselves admirably for enemy enterprise”.
55th (West Lancashire) Division had only recently moved into the Festubert area from the Cambrai front. It was coming in for some criticism from high command due to its performance there – largely unwarranted – and was under the spotlight. Its commanding officer, the capable and experienced Major-General Hugh “Judy” Jeudwine, was stung by the criticism and taking steps to ensure no repetition.
The Festubert front line had been static and relatively quiet for a long time. The division found its defences, particularly the barbed wire ahead of the posts and front line, to be in a poor state. Jeudwine gave explicit and emphatic orders to improve and strengthen the wire on 26 February. Next day the brigades passed this order on to the battalions. By 2 March he was becoming exasperated by the apparent lack of reaction and urgency, saying that apathy in the division “passed comprehension”.
The area came under enemy trench mortar fire over the few days before the raid took place: B” Company’s Captain Donald was wounded and his command temporarily given to Second Lieutenant Henry Pickering.
By 5 March, the view was that an enemy raid was “considered not improbable”; by 6 March this had become “considered probable”. The wire in front of the Barnton posts was visible and clearly in bad condition. In particular, there was a wide gap in front of No. 2 Post (the centre front line post shown in the sketch map above), confirmed by a patrol that went out on the night 5-6 March.
The clock ticks down
The commanding officer of the 1/5th South Lancashire Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macarthy O’Leary, had taken no steps to improve the wire until 6 March.
At 2pm that day, Henry Pickering reported his growing concerns that a raid was imminent and requested a second Lewis Gun for No. 2 Post. It was not satisfied.
At 11pm that night, Macarthy O’Leary passed a party under Second Lieutenant A. H. Holt of “C” Company that had been detailed to collect some long screw pickets and go out into no man’s land to improve the wire. They said there were none available at the dump: it turned out that there were, but their issue had been refused by the Royal Engineers sapper in charge of the dump as he needed authorisation from the Staff Captain of the brigade and had not received it. Macarthy O’Leary, who later said that he had forgotten about the gap in front of No. 2 Post, told the party to wire on the flanks instead, for it would be quieter and they could use the wooden stakes rather than the metal pickets.
Pickering sent only one patrol out that quiet night, despite the fact that an enemy raid was anticipated: it only left at 4am and returned fifty minutes later. This was in contravention of orders which had required battalion patrols to be out throughout the night. It never became clear why it had returned so soon. The patrol was led by Second Lieutenant Forbes and 240611 Sgt T. Finnegan.
At 5.05am, a heavy German artillery bombardment of the area commenced, with a box barrage falling around the Barnton posts, cutting them off from reinforcement or escape. All forward communications by telephone were cut and it was later reported that visual signalling was impossible to do dense fog. British artillery responded on pre-arranged fixed “SOS” targets.
At 5.30am, the German raiding party entered “B” Company’s area. Later reports suggested that the garrisons of Numbers 1 (right) and 4 (rear) Posts behaved and fought well (the former under Second Lieutenant J. N. Forbes); No. 3 Post (Second Lieutenant F. Burgess, in the left post) repelled the raid, took two wounded enemy prisoners but lost 7 men who appear to have included the Lewis Gun team; and No. 2 Post suffered a disaster. This garrison was led by Sergeant William Box: no officer was present. Of the 18 men manning the post, two were killed (one was found dead outside the wire, suggesting he had been killed after being taken prisoner), and all but one of the rest were captured. By the time the Germans withdrew after half an hour, the brigade had sustained in all over 50 casualties. Division reported six dead; two officers and 29 men wounded; and 23 were missing.
The captured wounded German prisoners confirmed that three officers and 120 men drawn from four companies of the 1st Battalion of Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 208 carried out the raid. This was a Prussian unit, originally recruited in Braunschweig, Celle and Hildesheim but later also from other areas. Under command of 44. Reserve-Infanterie-Division it was an experienced unit, having participated, amongst others, in the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. They had given orders for the raid to be carried out on 2 March 1918, while the battalion was in the rear at Salomé.
Prisoners of war
I have traced 22 of those men who were taken prisoner
Source: German records held by International Committee of the Red Cross
The records show that all of these men were moved via Lille to the camp at Dülmen in Germany. They appear in a ledger from that camp, mostly stamped 17 April 1918.
All ranks are Private unless indicated and all were serving with the battalion’s “B” Company
240224 William Box, Sergeant
32524 Percy Bratherton
235267 Richard Camm
32536 Harry Edwards
242365 Benjamin Faulkner
235284 Richard Guest
39424 Harold Hatcher
40403 John Hoult
16888 Alfred Hughes, Corporal
242377 George Johnson, Lance Corporal
241090 Arthur Lawrenson, Lance Corporal
235305 Benjamin Lund
235306 Thomas Marsden
200787 Sydney Massey
235308 Walter Monks
32520 Alexander Noble (some doubt about his number: he may be 34106)
235310 James Owens
235388 William Senior
34272 William Small
42054 William Tomblin
34244 Joseph Weaver
113203 Bertram Wedgeberrow
Newspaper clippings reveal that the families were receiving confirmation that these men were in captivity as early as 11 or 12 April 1918.
Killed in action
Four men of the battalion, with date of death given as 7 March 1918, lie in Gorre British and Indian Cemetery
Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission
They lie in adjacent graves in Plot V, row E
32530 William Barber
32531 Percy Carruthers
32534 Sam Diggle (reported as died of wounds)
32520 John Jones
The 4am patrol commander, Second Lieutenant Forbes, was one of those wounded during the raid.
Pte 235364 B. Barker was the only man of No. 2 Post to survive the raid.
The blame game
When “C” Company soon moved up to relieve the depleted and shattered “B”, rifles with fixed bayonets and the Lewis Gun found in No. 2 Post had not been fired and conclusions were soon drawn that the garrison had put up little resistance. An official court of enquiry was established: it met at Gorre on 8 and 9 March 1918 but was instructed not to express an opinion. Evidence was gathered from brigadier down to Barker.
No form of disciplinary action was taken against any officer responsible for the command and disposition of the brigade, battalion, company, patrol or any of the posts.
Second Lieutenant Henry Earlam Pickering committed suicide by shooting himself on 9 March 1918. He lies a little further along the same row as his company comrades in Gorre British and Indian Cemetery. From Lostock near Northwich in Cheshire, he was aged 23.
Reaction and improvement
Hugh Jeudwine increase the pressure on his three brigadiers and other units under his command to step up; improve and increase training; rehearse procedures in the event of enemy attack; and to improve defences. It paid off in the division’s performance in the defence of Festubert and Givenchy in the early phase of the Battle of the Lys (from 9 April 1918), an act widely acknowledged as amongst the finest British military achievements of the Great War.
War diaries, all held at the National Archives in series WO95 and all available for digital download for a small fee at its website
55th (West Lancashire) Division General Staff WO95/
55th (West Lancashire) Divisional Adjutant WO95/2910
166th Infantry Brigade headquarters staff WO95/2928
1/5th South Lancashire Regiment WO95/2929
Red Cross Prisoner of war records grandeguerre.icrc.org
Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org
British Newspaper Archive britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Visiting the area today
It is not possible to stand on the very spot where the men of 2 and 3 Posts were captured, for it is on private farmland, but by walking tracks alongside the fields it is possible to approach very near to it. The easiest way is to make your way to Rue d’Ouvert and go down the dashed white lane shown that goes down to some trees. It is a metalled but narrow lane. You can walk south from the trees (actually along the edge of the blue ditch shown).
Go prepared! There are several sites of Great War interest dotted around Festubert and nearby Givenchy, but the area is a bit of a desert for refreshment – and for publicly accessible toilets. There is a boucherie and a boulanger-patisserie in the village. You may find the little Friterie Monique stall open near the church and there is the small Festu’pizza takeaway place on the same Grand Rue, halfway to Givenchy. But that is about it unless you are able to travel further afield.