The following text is an extract from “The Battle of the Lys 1918: South: Objective Hazebrouck” by Chris Baker (Battleground Europe, 2018). With thanks to the publisher.
It describes one of the critical moments of the battle: the extraordinary defence of La Couronne.
“At 9pm on 11 April, the battalions of 4 (Guards) Brigade arrived at Strazeele, and marched out southward to billet in sheds and fields nearby and around the road-bend hamlet of Le Paradis. After a ten-hour journey on buses that were hardly the acme of comfort, the Guards were in sore need of rest. Information about the enemy was sketchy but there were reports that they were advancing, coming towards the Guards along the road from Neuf Berquin.
XV Corps ordered 31 Division to employ the Guards to restore situation the between Merville and the right of 29 Division (which was where? This was not clear at the time but we know it to have been falling back on Bleu). One element of the division was already in that gap: by 9.30pm the divisional pioneers, 12/King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), had taken up a position at the La Couronne crossroads without encountering opposition.
Brigadier-General Lesley Butler pushed his men to a position beyond the larger town of Vieux Berquin, notable for its impressively large church and town hall. No reconnaissance was made (Field Service Regulations appear to have been abandoned at this point) and the Guards stepped out into the unknown. Holding 2/Irish Guards in reserve along the lane west of La Couronne, he sent 3/Coldstream Guards forward to the line l’Epinette to Le Cornet Perdu, with the 4/Grenadier Guards on the Coldstreams’ left, taking up the line from there to the main road. Ahead of them, the little Plate Becque stream ran across the chosen front. The battalions were in position just before dawn, the men having had little sleep and next to no rations for the last 24 hours. Ominously, stragglers from 50 Division were coming back and passing through the Guards’ position.
As soon as it was light, heavy German artillery and mortar fire opened on the whole brigade front, with intense rifle and machine gun fire flaying the Guards’ line. At 8am an infantry attack followed but was beaten off: men said that the Germans were from 12 Reserve and 35 Divisions, both of which were fresh to the battle.
Despite the presence of enemy troops, all too evident to the Guards that they were only a short way ahead, the brigade now received orders to advance its line. The objective given was to reach a position between the college north-east of Merville and up past Robermetz almost to Neuf Berquin, and from there prevent any northwards movement along the main road. This meant advancing in broad daylight across the flattest of fields, on a narrow front with no British support on either side. It was a recipe for disaster. Assurances were given by division that Les Pures Becques was unoccupied by the enemy and that elements of 50 Division were in the area of Vierhouck and Pont Rondin but this proved to be wishful thinking. Patrols were to probe down the lanes towards Vierhouck and any success was to be exploited at once. Two companies of the Irish Guards were also to advance, in echelon behind the leading right flank of the brigade.
The advance began at 11am unsupported by British artillery or machine guns, a desperate act that would have been considered foolhardy if not suicidal. On the right, a withering cross fire from houses at Les Pures Becques and the large orchard south west of Vierhouck caused severe casualties to the Coldstreams, who nonetheless managed to move forward some 400 yards. The German fire also halted any prospect of progress by the Grenadiers beyond the Plate Becque except on that battalion’s left, where 2 Company led by Captain Thomas Pryce worked its way down the Neuf Berquin road, house by house, forcing its way into Pont Rondin where a number of Germans were taken prisoner. They might consider themselves lucky men, for little quarter had been given to others as Pryce’s men advanced. Several accounts say that he accounted for seven enemy soldiers himself.
At the same time that the Guards were beginning their attempted advance, 12/KOYLI were ordered to stretch along the lane from La Couronne and link up with elements of 29 Division at Bleu. They collected stragglers, the remnants of 149 Brigade of 50 Division, as they did so. By day’s end this additional force amounted to just 200 men – less than a company. Contact between the KOYLI and the 4/Grenadier Guards was never established. It left Pryce and his men terribly exposed, with no immediate support on either side.
At about 3.30pm the Germans made a determined attack on the front held by the Coldstreams and 1 and 4 Companies of the Grenadiers, after a short bombardment by trench mortars and light artillery. They endeavoured to outflank the Coldstream and penetrate between the two companies of the Grenadiers. Despite significant losses, especially in officers, an immediate counter attack was launched by the reserve company of the Coldstream and one of the Irish Guards: it succeeded in restoring the line. The Germans renewed the attack at about 4.20pm, which was beaten off with severe losses. The Plate Becque line had been held, and around 5.30pm a link was made on the right with 1/Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, newly arrived with 5 Division. For now the line was secure in this area and the night proved quiet, but it had been a hard day. Numbers 1 and 3 Companies of the Grenadiers had lost over 60% of their effectives; the Coldstreams about the same. To add to the misery, the rations brought up for the famished 1 Company were all destroyed by shellfire. That the Guards were largely unfed at this point was a breakdown of staff work. The poor Grenadiers managed to get a quarter of a loaf of bread each, but only thanks to their commanding officer who managed to buy this stock in Strazeele.
During the day, the brigade had the benefit of fire support from 152 Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, and, in particular, its Forward Observing Officer Lieutenant Lewis. His observation post at Gars Brugghe was shelled frequently and his line through to the batteries (which were south east of the forest) broken on numerous occasions. Even so, he and his linesmen managed to keep fire going, and the Guards recorded that he was responsible for inflicting many German casualties. He also directed fire onto two enemy field guns brought far forward to just to the east of Pont Rondin and which proved to be a considerable nuisance to his brigade’s headquarters (among others, Captain Michael Chapman MC and Lieutenant Noel Abbey were killed when the farm occupied by headquarters was set on fire). In all, 152 Brigade fired more than 3200 shells on this day.
At 8pm, a strong attack had developed on the left of the front being held by 12/KOYLI: the remnants of 29 Division were now falling back on and through Bleu. With their flank exposed, the Yorkshiremen drew back their flank on that side, such that they now faced south eastwards and stretched up from La Couronne to a point just to the east of Vieux Berquin.
During the night, the Guards made some adjustments to its position down towards Arrewage, bringing the 2/Irish Guards into the line and lengthening the front by about 1000 yards to Pont Tournant. The Grenadiers alone were now holding 1800 yards, and even after bringing its fourth company into the line – leaving it with no reserve – was doing so with only some 250 officers and men. Already exhausted, they dug in through a notably pitch-black night a series of small slit trenches to hold four or five men each. There were too few shovels and little barbed wire that could be used to erect a rudimentary defence, and the Guards would come to rue the absence of any Stokes mortars. 210 Field Company of the Royal Engineers came up to assist, but even so the Guards had too few men to be able to send patrols out into no man’s land. The battalion’s temper was not improved when poor staff communication led to ammunition being dumped at La Couronne rather than being brought forward to the line. Behind the scenes, arrangements were made for the newly-arriving 5 Division to take over the line as far as L’Epinette: but this was some hours off as yet.
There was no doubting the task facing the brigade. They were to hold the position at all costs: a phrase often said but in this case, meant. From XV Corps, the order said that no retirement should be made, “except by order of a responsible officer prepared to justify his decision before Court-Martial”. As the Grenadiers’ war diary says, “The fate of the British Army seemed to hang on being able to carry out these orders”. The Guards waited for the grim conflict they knew would consume them as soon as it was daylight. Things were not helped by the battalion headquarters being placed so far forward as to be almost in the front line, and brigade too far back to be reached quickly by runners.
Dawn broke with a another fog shrouding the country, and in the gloom the Germans worked closer to the Guards’ position, bringing machine guns with them. At 6.30am, an attempt was made to penetrate the between the centre and left companies of the Coldstreams, who then had the unusual sight of a German armoured car driving towards them from the direction of Les Pures Becques. Despite much machine gun fire being poured into the Coldstreams post – said to be from as close range as ten yards – this attack was soon beaten off.
At 9.15am, strong and sustained attacks developed all along the line including that held by the KOYLI, and at one point a shout came through the fog that the advancing men were of the King’s Company of the Grenadier Guards. The old ruse was ignored. Although these efforts were also repulsed and the Guards held on tenaciously, casualties were considerable. One of the 3/Coldstreams centre posts is reported to have been held for 20 minutes by its last man, Private 17800 Harold Jacotine. He was killed by a hand grenade and, sadly, has no known grave today. Jacotine was born in Colombo in Ceylon. His brother Eric had also served with the regiment and later went on to the Royal Air Force. Both had been wounded during their previous service.
Gradually the KOYLI were ejected from their line by trench mortars and an overwhelmingly larger German force. It left the Guards exposed from the direction of Vieux Berquin and isolated Pryce’s detachment at Pont Rondin. He had received orders that his position must be held at all costs. The Germans were now in the houses La Couronne and had brought up two field guns to within very short range. At 10.30am, the Brigade-Major Oliver Lyttelton came to the Grenadiers’ headquarters with news that the enemy had penetrated into the line between them and the Coldstreams. He went forward with the CO Lieutenant-Colonel W. S. Pilcher, to within 50 yards of La Couronne where they met a runner, Private Bagshaw, who reported that the centre was in fact still intact. But pressure told: by 2pm the enemy had advanced west of the main road and were reported to be as far as Lug Farm. Battalion HQ received a message from Pryce at 3pm. They were now surrounded and were shooting both ways, standing back to back in their trenches. On hearing of their predicament, brigade ordered a counter-attack to be made by the Irish Guards; on advancing they too found themselves cut off by enemy coming from all sides and hit by machine guns firing from Vieux Berquin. Just one NCO and six men made it through to Pryce.
A final message was received from a runner who crept along a ditch to say that what was left of 2 Company was practically surrounded. The rest of the story was only revealed by a Corporal who managed to escape and came into Australian lines at Aval Wood the following night. He was one of only 14 men of this company of over 120 strong who were heard of again, these being mostly wounded prisoners eventually held in Germany. It appears that Pryce’s men were reduced to just 30 by the afternoon and down to some 18 by 6.15pm, by which time the Germans were in Verte Rue and could be seen advancing towards Aval Wood. A short time later the Germans determined to mop up the remainder of the detachment and advanced from the road but Pryce and his men charged with the bayonet, as his ammunition was exhausted. It was an heroic but suicidal act. Incredibly, the Germans initially retired but this appears to be due in part to the fact that German troops were also behind Pryce’s position, which hindered use of machine guns. Shortly afterwards they came on again and the survivors were overwhelmed, fighting to the last.
Captain Thomas Tannant Pryce, 32, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The citation concludes by saying ‘With some forty men he had held back at least one enemy battalion for over ten hours. His company undoubtedly stopped the advance through the British line, and thus had great influence on the battle’. The brave Pryce, who had already won the Military Cross and Bar, has no known grave but is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial. The author discovered that one of the few men to survive this action was Guardsman 24294 Allan Thornton. He was severely wounded by a bomb dropped by an RAF aeroplane shortly after being captured; one is forced to wonder whether Pryce was a victim of this same incident.
The Grenadiers’ centre company was also now down to just six unwounded men, and the right company had twenty. Every officer had become a casualty. This brave band were reported to be fighting on at 6.15pm. Little more is known of the detail of their last fight. Just a few wounded men who managed to escape found their way into Australian lines the next night. The enemy attack had been relentless, and as the brigade’s diary says, “only the larger attempts have been described, as it is difficult to disentangle these [smaller] incidents from the confusion which envelops them”.
Total casualties to the brigade amounted to 39 officers and 1244 men over two days of fighting. Of these, no fewer than 767 could only be reported as missing: there were so few survivors who could truthfully report what had happened to them. Of the 4/Grenadier Guards, only the C and Adjutant remained unwounded of 19 who had gone into action. The intensity of the defence can be measured by the fact that the Grenadiers fired some 110,000 rounds of ammunition, and the 3/Coldstreams a similar number.
Much has been written of the Guards action and quite rightly, for it stands out as a defence of the most stubborn, tenacious and ultimately sacrificial type. It had bought precious time: the 5 Division was now forming on its left and rear; the 1 Australian Division was lining the edge of the forest. As things turned out, the Germans made no further progress of any significance in this area.