Tragedy unfolding: the attack on Spanbroekmolen 12 March 1915

Imperial War Museum photograph Q380. A firing trench along the Messines-Wulverghem Road, looking torwards Messines, March 1915. Not exactly the scene of the attack but a location close by.

Background

On 10 March 1915, British First Army began to conduct offensive operations now known at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Second Army was requested to support it by mounting diversionary operations. The attack on Spanbroekmolen was one of them.

War diary, General Staff at Second Army Headquarters, 12 March 1915:

In order to hold the enemy to his ground and prevent him from despatching reinforcements south, II Corps carried out an infantry attack at Spanbroekmolen. Owing to fog operations did not commence until 2.30pm. At 4.30pm the infantry (3rd Division) attacked but owing to heavy fire from concealed MGs [machine guns], the attack did not succeed. The troops were withdrawn without difficulty after dark.

Personal diary of Captain Gerald Achilles Burgoyne, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles (from book “The Burgoyne Diaries: the first winter at Ypres with the Royal Irish Rifles), Pen & Sword 2015)

13th March 1915. And the story, as far as I can now reconstruct it, is one of failure; a failure due entirely due to our artillery; who is to blame for this, I do not know, and it is to us at present, immaterial. .. In justice to them [the artillery] I must add that I now hear they were very averse to firing yesterday at all, owing to the state of the atmosphere being to bad for observation.

The attack cost 155 British dead.

The area of relevance to the attack is marked in yellow (source 1919 Michelin Guide to the Ypres battlefields)

On 9 March 1915 the artillery of 3rd and 5th Divisions opened fire on a pre-arranged programme, the bulk of it being aimed at Spanbroek Molen. They repeated it next day (10 March, the day on which British First Army began the Battle of Neuve Chapelle). German rifle fire was believed to indicate that they were apprehensive of an imminent British attack. Orders were given to the battalions in the front line that every endeavour was to be made to make the Germans think that an attack was to be made against Hollandsche Schuur. Gaps were opened in the British barbed wire defences, indicative of an imminent infantry advance. Orders were shouted out, drawing enemy fire.

German forces captured Spanbroekmolen in early November 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres. This map, part of a larger one contained with the British Official History, depicts the assault of 11 November 1914 when French forces (blue) defeated further German (green) attempts to advance. Spanbroekmolen was left as a front line position as both sides dug in.

Possession of Spanbroekmolen gave the Germans a considerable tactical advantage. It lies west of a ridge of high ground that runs southwards from Ypres, via Wytschaete and Messines and was a on a peak of high ground. The land sloped sharply away on its south-western and north-western sides. The French, and soon the British, front line trenches lay below and were overlooked from the peak. The Germans could observe miles of the rear behind the allied front line, to the next ridge at Neuve Eglise (now Nieuwkerke) and beyond. The peak was also known as “Hill 76”.

A windmill, from which the area took its name, had stood on the spur of high ground for centuries but was destroyed by fighting here in November 1914 (thanks to Westhoekverbeeldt). Nearby was the “In de Spanbroekmolen Cabaret”.

Part of a trench map dated to April 1916. The front lines were not significantly different to the situation of March 1915. British front is shown in dashed light blue, German trenches in more detail in red. Note how the German front snaked around the high peak of Spanbroekmolen.

11 March 1915

The headquarters of 3rd Division issued detailed orders for the attack.

The first paragraph of 3rd Division’s orders hints that further attacks would be made if this one succeeded. National Archives WO95/1413.

War diary, 7th Infantry Brigade (tasked with carrying out the attack):

Brigade in billets at Locre, 1 battalion at Westouter.

War diary, staff at headquarters of 8th Infantry Brigade (next to and north of the 7th, tasked with diversion):

The night was abnormally quiet. The morning was foggy. Arrangements had been made for a heavy bombardment of Hollandsche Schuur from 11.30am to 3.30pm, preceded by some rounds from all guns fired for verification of ranges during the morning. The morning was misty and the programme had to be postponed for about one hour [as the fall of shot could not be observed]. The bombardment therefore took place from 2.30pm to 4.30pm. Considerable fire was brought to bear on Spanbroek Molen and neighbourhood but the bulk was on Hollandsche Schuur in the hopes of making the enemy think that an attack on this point was imminent. The bombardment against the trenches was effective and did much damage, but a section of 40th Field Artillery Brigade specially detailed for wire-cutting in front of Hollandsche Schuur failed to obtain any decisive results.

At 2pm GOC [Brigadier-General W. H. Bowes] visited GOC 3rd Division [Major-General J. A. L. Haldane] at Scherpenberg. [The latter] explained to him the operations planned for the following day. Consequently on this the Brigade-Major was sent to visit the COs of the firing-line battalions to arrange with them to take steps again to make the enemy expect an attack on the Hollandsche Schuur front. It was arranged with OC 2nd Suffolk Regiment [in] K2 and L trenches should close the gaps he had made in his wire as these were considered unnecessary and they involved a slight risk, that he should patrol to the front, and should continue his sapping. OC 4th Middlesex was instructed to leave the gaps in his wire open, to patrol his front well, and continue his work on communication trenches. …

The night was fine and passed quietly.

This sketch map from the war diary of 8th Infantry Brigade is one of few to illustrate the position at Spanbroekmolen in March 1915. The red lines are British trenches – disconnected, not continuous, and on the lower part of slopes that run steeply up to the windmill site.

Preliminary arrangements. Assembly trenches were dug for 2 battalions in rear of E and F Sectors. These trenches were 2’6″ wide and 3’6″ deep with a step and berm in front so that the troops could get out easily. … Bridges for crossing our own and disused trenches ones were made 16′ long and 2’6″ wide, strong enough to carry 4 men at once. 500 yards of portable knife rest pattern barbed wire entanglements were made and s supply of sandbags, etc collected. The 57th Field Company with an infantry battalion as a carrying party were in charge of the preliminary arrangements. The 56th Field Company was detailed to the assault …

12 March 1915: the assault force moves into position

War diary, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

Left billets at Locre at 2.45am and marched via Kemmel to the section of the trenches known as F in front of Spanbroekmolen. The battalion arrived in position at dawn about 5.30am and occupied four lines of trenches on the reverse of the hill, the Worcestershire Regiment being in trenches on our right. Battalion headquarters were in the trench known as F2, about 50 yards in front of the front trench in which the  battalion was situated. These trenches were about 25 yards apart. [The East Surrey Regiment held F2 during the operation]

War diary, 3rd Worcestershire Regiment

Left billets at Locre at 2.30am and occupied “assembly trenches” west of Spanbroekmolen preparatory to an assault on the German trenches at Spanbroekmolen. The orders for the assault were that it was to be carried out by two companies Worcestershire Regiment on right and two companies Wiltshire Regiment on left, the remaining two companies of each battalion being detailed one (each) to dig communication trench to captured German trench and one (each) to consolidate and place in a state of defence the German trench when captured. The assault to be preceded by an artillery bombardment at 7am. The assault at 8.40am. … During the night the [barbed] wire had been moved and some plank bridges made across the trenches.

War diary, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers:

Company marched [from billets at Mont Noir] at 0.30am, picking up Number 3 Section at La Clytte, and arriving at Kemmel crossroads at 3.05am. Numbers 3 and 4 Sections attached themselves to the Wiltshires and guided them to the assembly trenches. Numbers 1 and 2 Sections similarly acted as guides to the Worcesters from Lindenhoek. The assembly trenches were fully occupied by 5.45am. Number 2 Section (Lieut. C. G. Martin) was allotted the task of accompanying the assaulting party and rushing and blocking the communication trenches on the right. Number 3 Section (2/Lieut. B. C. Denning) a similar task on the left. Number 1 Section (under Capt. G. E. Sopwith …) were allotted the opening of communication trenches from the German trenches to E1 and E2, while Number 4 Section (2/Lieut A. R. R. Woods) had to open a communication trench to F4. These trenches were not to be opened until the assaulting column had taken the front trenches and pushed out a covering party. With Number 2 and 3 Sections were parties of one officers and 12 men each, and with numbers 1 and 4 Sections were a company each.

War diary, 2nd South Lancashire Regiment

The battalion was ordered to occupy assembly trenches which had been previously prepared. The battalion marched from billets at Locre at 3am, moving via Kemmel and Lindenhoek. Thee march was delayed in consequence of the road being blocked by the  1/4th South Lancashire Regiment which was returning from carrying stores to Kemmel and by working parties of 85th Brigade. It was nearly broad daylight when the battalion moved into position. Cover was taken behind a small wood and folds in the ground, the assembly trenches being fully occupied by the Worcesters and Wilts.

The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, also of 7th Infantry Brigade, remained in reserve at Lindenhoek.

12 March 1915: postponement

War diary, 7th Infantry Brigade:

Units reported that they were in position in the assembly trenches at 6.10am. A thick mist hung over the country and shortly before 7am orders were received from 3rd Division that the attack would be postponed.

The artillery programme ordered by 3rd Division. National Archives WO95/1413.

12 March 1915: the attack finally goes in

War diary, 7th Infantry Brigade:

The mist began to clear away at about 1pm and at 2.08pm a message was received from 3rd Division ordering the artillery to commence registering at 2.30pm. [Registration was a process of firing observed shots and making adjustments so that future shots would fall accurately on target. It was a certain way of giving up surprise].

The artillery fire seemed to be good (except in the case of shorts) and the effect was thought satisfactory. [“Shorts” were shells that fell short of their target – and with the opposing front lines being close together this represented serious danger to the assault force].

War diary, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

At 1pm the mist began to clear and by 2.30pm it was clear and the artillery bombardment began and continued with a slight pause till 4.10pm. It consisted of field guns firing shrapnel to cut the hostile [barbed] wire and large quantity of heavy high explosive to beat down the enemy’s parapets and blow in his trenches [and] this appeared to be fairly successful, but it was afterwards observed that the enemy’s front line trenches were almost intact.

At 4.10pm the infantry assault was launched by two companies of 1st Wiltshires and two companies of the Worcestershire Regiment, accompanied by a party of RE [Royal Engineers], the remaining two companies being detailed as working parties. The front company (A, Capt. P. J. V. Viner-Johnson) rushed forward, crossing the trench known as F by means of flying bridges which had been placed in position early in the morning and passing through our barbed [wire] by means of gaps which had been made opposite the bridges. As soon as A Company were clear of the bridges, B (Capt. R. H. Broome) followed them. As soon as A Company had got across the bridges, the enemy opened a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire on them, and only a few small isolated parties succeeded in getting up to the enemy’s wire, a distance of about 200 yards. B Company also came under a very heavy fire and were unable, with the remainder of A Company, to get more than 50 yards from F2. At the same time, most of the Worcestershire Regiment on the right appeared to be also unable to get on. B Company endeavoured to crawl forward but were unable to get very far and gradually starting about 5pm began to fall back into F2, suffering considerably in doing so. Most of the survivors of A Company … got back under power of darkness.

War diary, 7th Infantry Brigade:

The German front line was strongly occupied and machine guns posted in a redoubt near Peckham on the north inflicted severe loss on the left of the attack [that is, on the Wiltshires].

War diary, 3rd Worcestershire Regiment

The battalion lay in the assembly trenches all day. They were very wet. … The distribution of the battalion was: 1st Company (assaulting), C Company under Capt. Goff; 2nd Company (assaulting), A Company under Capt. Hewett; 3rd Company (for digging communication trench), D Company under Capt. Traill; 4th Company (for consolidating position), B Company under Capt Maitland. Punctually at 4.10pm the leading company left their assembly trench followed by the second company. They came after passing our trenches a heavy rifle and machine gun fire. The latter principally from the front and right front. Heavy casualties occurred but a party of about 40 NCOs and men with 2/Lieut Holland and Lieut Martin RE succeeded in occupying a part of the front German trench. 2/Lieut Clarke was hit just going into the trench and [was] carried in, dying shortly afterwards.

A party had been collected … [illegible] … and were just about to make a dash for the German trench to support when our own artillery unfortunately dropped a high explosive shell killing and wounding a number and scattering the remainder. The party that had gained the trench proceeded at once to block each end and succeeded in holding on for over three hours until ordered to withdraw under cover of darkness. They succeeded in bringing away all the wounded from the German trench.

War diary, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers:

The attack failed, although Lieut. Martin and 2nd Cpl. Skinner gained a footing in a German trench with their infantry party, and held it till 6.30pm when they were ordered to retire. Numbers 1 and 4 Sections did not therefore come into action. During the assault, Major Barnardiston, who accompanied the left of the Worcesters assault, was wounded, also Lieut. Martin and 2/Lieut. Denning. In addition 18 rank and file were killed or wounded.

War diary, 2nd South Lancashire Regiment

The battalion [remained] in support. After [the attack] had failed, the battalion was heavily shelled for about 1.5 hours. A great many shells went just over the battalion but the men were absolutely steady and owing to the good dispositions made by company commanders, those that burst near did not do much damage.

War diary, 1/1st Honourable Artillery Company (7th Infantry Brigade but attached to 85th at the time)

In F Sector trenches. The attack [by the Worcesters and Wiltshires] failed through the machine gun emplacements of the enemy not having been destroyed by our artillery. Three of the emplacements had been pointed out to higher authorities on several occasions previous to the attack. We lost three killed in F4 [and had 5 wounded].

The German front line as it was perceived by the British before the attack. National Archives WO95/1413.

War diary, 3rd Division Commander Royal Artillery:

No success, due to insufficient weight of howitzer metal, it is thought. Aeroplanes could not work with us due to low cloud.

Report of the day submitted at 10.47pm by 23 Brigade RFA to 3rd Division Commander Royal Artillery. Attached to the latter’s war diary.

Summary of the day’s artillery work sent by 3rd Siege Battery RGA, timed 11.30pm 12 March 1915. Attached to war diary of 3rd Division Commander Royal Artillery

Casualties

War diary, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

Killed: Capt. P. J. V. Viner-Johnson, Lieut. O. J. Calley, 2/Lieut. S. F. Hooper, 2/Lieut. D. C. H. Northcote (The Buffs, attached)
Wounded: Lieut. C. C. Morse, 2/Lieut. A. H. Hales, 2/Lieut. S. M. Theyre
Other ranks 29 killed, 12 missing, 45 wounded.

Percy Joseph Viner Viner-Johnson (Bond of Sacrifice) aged 39, a veteran of the Second Boer War

Oliver John Calley (Bond of Sacrifice) “a very gallant officer, much loved by his men and a general favourite with his brother officers”. He was aged 22.

War diary, 3rd Worcestershire Regiment

Killed: Capt. G. E. Hewett, Lieut. C. G. B. Loos, 2/Lieuts. C. F. Moore, W. H. Clarke, F. B. Burr, T. Freeman, E. M. Mansell-Pleydell, M. J. Murphy, W. B. Barling
Rank and File: killed 38, wounded 99, missing (believed killed) 32.

War diary, 2nd South Lancashire Regiment

Casualties were 15 men wounded, 3 of whom subsequently died of their wounds.

Burials and commemorations

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission include 155 British officers and men who lost their lives in the attack on 12 March 1915. I have not attempted to add those who may have died of wounds at later dates. Of the 155, just 34 have known graves.

La Laiterie Military Cemetery [13 burials]

Wiltshire Regiment, 1st Battalion [13]
Lieutenant Oliver John Calley (I B 26)
Pte 6765 Ernest Cannings (I B 2)
Pte 6945 Frederick Franklin (I B 17)
Pte 10983 Harold Arthur Keel (I B 9)
Pte 8908 Joseph Lee (I B 16)
Pte 3/249 Herbert Ernest Lock (I B 1)
L/Cpl 10622 Richard Thomas Palmer (I B 8)
L/Cpl 11944 George Harry Rainer (I B 6). Aged 18.
Pte 9933 Henry Charles Rudman (I B 5)
Pte 10307 Walter Sammes ( B 3)
Pte 10953 William Joseph Short (I B 4)
Pte 7012 Daniel James Taylor (I B 10)
Sgt 11904 Sidney Walter Tylar (I B 7)

Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery [14 burials in all]

Worcestershire Regiment, 3rd Battalion [7]
Lieutenant Frederick Bonham Burr (L 9)
Second Lieutenant William Hamilton Clarke (X 13)
Lieutenant Tristram Freeman (L 14)
Captain George Edward Hewett, West India Regiment attached 3rd Worcestershire Regiment (Y 11)
Lieutenant Cecil George Bertram Loos (L 11)
Second Lieutenant Charles Frederick Moore (Y 13)
Second Lieutenant Michael Joseph Murphy (X 11)*

*CWGC records give his date of death as 11 March 1915. This appears to be an error.

Frederick Bonham Burr (Bond of Sacrifice). MA From Keble College, Oxford, he was a published poet who came from Halesowen.

William Hamilton Clarke (Bond of Sacrifice). Rugby School and Queen’s College, Oxford.

Cecil George Bertram Loos (Bond of Sacrifice). Born at Colombo in Ceylon.

Honourable Artillery Company (Infantry), 1/1st Battalion [3]
Pte 1903 George Goodman (F 19)
Pte 2254 Lesley Inskipp (F 17)
Pte 2363 Sidney Charles Lindsey (F 14)

South Lancashire Regiment [3]
Pte 1544 Edward Burston (H 5) 2nd Battalion Died of wounds
Pte 1821 Arthur Blease Lawless (G 69) 1/4th Battalion
Pte 2250 Herman Schafer (G 75) 2nd Battalion Died of wounds

Wiltshire Regiment, 1st Battalion [1]
Lieutenant Sidney Frederick Hooper [F 37]

Sidney Frederick Hooper (Bond of Sacrifice), a former senior staff officer of the Board of Trade and BA from University College London. Had studied in Munich and Vienna. “A very gallant and capable officer, full of energy and zeal, a warm-hearted true comrade”.

Messines Ridge British Cemetery (post-war battlefield burial concentration) [4 burials]

Worcestershire Regiment, 3rd Battalion [4]
Pte 9284 Joseph Bayliss (II F 35)
Pte 8726 Alfred Clark (II F 34)
Pte 12848 George Slim (II F 37)
Pte 8887 Harry Weaver (II F 36)

Wytschaete Military Cemetery [3 commemorations]

Royal Engineers, 56th Field Company [1]
Sgt 3946 Charles John Amphlett (RE Farm memorial – known to have been buried there but his grave was later destroyed)
Spr 23556 Henry Sydney Regan (also RE Farm memorial)

Royal Engineers, 57th Field Company [1]
Spr 23921 Arthur William Kay (also RE Farm memorial)

La Clytte Military Cemetery [1 burial]

Royal Engineers, 56th Field Company [1]
Spr 23922 Albert Edward Johnson (II D 7)

Loker Churchyard [1 burial]

South Lancashire Regiment [1]
Pte 1684 Willmot Stanley Rowlinson (II C 12) 1/4th Battalion Died of wounds (7th Field Ambulance). Aged 17.

Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial [commemorating 121 officers and men without known graves]

Worcestershire Regiment, 3rd Battalion [75]
L/Cpl 8654 Matthew Bailey
Pte 13394 Wilfred James Baird
Second Lieutenant William Bingham Barling
L/Cpl 9097 Charles Barnett
Pte 9790 George Percy Box
Pte 12592 Harry Bristow
Pte 9529 James Bubb
Pte 8859 Samuel Bullock
Pte 9647 Walter Burrows
Pte 16423 Cornelius Richard Careless
Pte 14453 Arthur William Carey
Pte 9894 John James Clace
Pte 9116 Henry William Cole
Pte 9374 Joseph Comley
Pte 14592 Henry Cottrill
L/Cpl 9941 Edward Coulson
Sgt 9158 Frederick Croft
Pte 9558 Robert Charles Curtis
Pte 9398 Thomas Alfred Dainton
Pte 9742 Edward Davies
Pte 14557 William Charles Dennis
Pte 9248 James Dowdeswell
L/Cpl 8716 Alfred Farmer
Pte 8932 Charles Frewin
Pte 5802 Henry Garbett
Pte 8922 Titus Matthew Garrett
Sgt 9777 Francis William Gibson
Pte 16369 John Halford
Pte 8746 Walter William Hardiman
Pte 13749 Frederick Ernest Harris
Pte 8927 George Henry Hatton
Pte 8364 Frank Hawkins
Pte 7409 Frederick Hayes
Pte 9246 Charles Heard
Pte 15427 Ernest Heath
Pte 6751 William Hibbs
Sgt 9551 John Hicks
Pte 16491 Peter Hingley
Pte 8774 Arthur Holmes
Pte 9601 William Howells
Pte 7405 Harold Hudson
Pte 9606 George Clement Humphries
Pte 7684 Albert Hunt
Pte 9247 William Henry King
Pte 9587 William Lilly
Lieutenant Edmund Morton Mansel-Playdell, Dorsetshire Regiment attached
Pte 13372 Herbert John Merchant
Pte 6413 Henry Miles
Pte 9226 Alfred Mitchell
Pte 9551 Thomas Morgan
Pte 8750 Harry Mortimer
Pte 9000 Robert Nicks
Pte 8738 John O’Hagan
Pte 14254 Frederick Page
L/Cpl 7787 Henry William Parkes
Pte 9646 Tidaz Parsons
Sgt 9527 Albert Payne
Pte 14972 Horace Potter
Pte 10658 Frederick Read
Pte 9741 William Henry Richards
Pte 6298 Thomas Arthur Richardson
Pte 10467 Herbert Rushton
Pte 9004 George Samuels
Pte 8985 George Simpson
Pte 7129 Arthur Edward Smith
Pte 8444 Thomas James Thomas
Pte 17261 Frank Tolley
Pte 8660 Ernest Turner
L/Cpl 7323 Thomas Vaughan
Sgt 13185 Harry Ward
L/Cpl 9489 John Henry Wilde
L/Cpl 8467 Thomas Leonard Willetts
Pte 9093 Abraham Williams
Pte 15013 George William Wilson
Pte 15297 James Wright

Wiltshire Regiment, 1st Battalion [39]
Pte 12489 Alfred Adlam
Pte 7936 Alfred Boulter
Pte 8003 Montague Rowland Bridgeman
Pte 10525 John Burgess
Pte 7646 Ernest George Collett
Pte 3/563 John Emms
Pte 8633 Frank Fisher
CSM 3790 Arthur Jackson Goulding
Pte 5694 Walter Green
Pte 7069 William Henry Charles Harford
L/Cpl 11973 Arthur Joseph Hayward
Pte 10282 John Hewett
Pte 12007 Ernest Victor Ilston
Pte 10575 Samuel Jeffcutt
L/Cpl 7730 Walter Allen Kent
Pte 13705 William John Landfear
L/Cpl 10433 John William Arthur Law
Cpl 10162 Ernest Harold Lea
Pte 10607 Harold Mead
Sgt 3/531 Ernest George Moulden
Second Lieutenant Douglas Horace Gilbert Northcote (Buffs, attached)
L/Cpl 10206 Francis Joseph Peitz
L/Sgt 10461 Herbert George Pond
Pte 7586 James Pound
Pte 11844 Joseph Price
Pte 10030 Arthur Joseph Ricketts
L/Cpl 10017 Oliver Sedgwick
Cpl 10553 Walter Frank Shakespeare
Pte 3/366 Percy Smart
Pte 10445 Herbert Jesse Smith
Pte 11001 James Smith
Pte 3/535 Arthur Stinchcombe
L/Cpl 7775 Maynard Summers
Captain Percy Joseph Viner Viner-Johnson
Pte 10321 Herbert George West
Pte 10248 Edwin George White
Pte 3/363 William Wilkins
L/Cpl 7807 James Wilshire
Pte 3/387 Robert Augustus Woodroofe

Royal Engineers, 56th Field Company [6]
Spr 9261 John Bonny
Spr 11883 John Fenwick
SpR 28737 James Palmer
Spr 22734 Adolphus Pezet
L/Cpl 24052 George Frederick Pike
L/Cpl 22529 Allan Wilfred Weekes

Royal Irish Rifles, 2nd Battalion [2]
Rfmn 6043 David Carlisle
Cpl 10401 Frederick William Nalty

Le Touret Memorial [commemorating 1 man without a known grave]

Royal Engineers, 56th Field Company [1]
L/Cpl 23957 William James Moran
There is no good reason why Moran was listed at Le Touret rather than at the the Menin Gate

Wounded

It is not easy to trace complete lists of men who had been wounded, as they did not all necessarily appear together in the same published list. I am reasonably confident that the below lists are of men wounded in the attack but others may have been listed at different times and it is possible that a few of the men listed here were not of the two assault battalions.

War Office casualty list of wounded, issued 3 April 1915, appeared in the “Times” on 8 April 1915. It appears to be of men of the 3rd Battalion and those I could trace had become casualties on 12 March 1915.

War Office casualty list of wounded, issued 3 April 1915, appeared in the “Times” on 8 April 1915. It appears to be of men of the 1st Battalion and those I could trace had become casualties on 12 March 1915.

Awards

Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Cyril Gordon Martin, D.S.O., 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For most conspicuous bravery at Spanbroek Molen, on 12th March 1915, when in command of a grenade-throwing party of six rank and file. Although wounded early in the action, he led his party into the enemy’s trenches and held back their reinforcements for nearly 2 1/2 hours, until the evacuation of the captured trench was ordered.

Leeds Mercury, Monday 24 May 1915. Newspapers of 1980 reported that Cyril, by the end of his service a Brigadier-General, had bequeathed his medals and awards to the museum of the Institution of Royal Engineers.

Military Cross

Second Lieutenant A. H. Hales, 1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment).
For conspicuous gallantry at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, in leading the attack after being twice wounded, and subsequently for placing other wounded men under cover.
[Arthur Hoare Hales was killed in action on 6 July 1916.]

Distinguished Conduct Medal

Sgt 3946 C. J. Amphlett, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry on 12th March 1915, at Spanbroek Molen, when he led his party with great gallantry after his Officer had fallen. He was killed on the parapet of the enemy’s
trenches.
[See Wytschaete Military Cemetery, above]

Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 27 March 1915, refers to him as “Jack Amphlett”. He had already been mentioned in despatches.

Cpl 8753  A. E. Chuter, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry and ability at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March, 1915, in leading his party up to the enemy’s position, and subsequently for his very good organizing work with the infantry attacking party, who had lost their Officers and Non-commissioned Officers.

Pte 7934 F. E. Clark, 1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment).
For gallant conduct at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March, 1915, when he left his trench under fire, went out in front for a distance of 150 yards and rescued a wounded man who was still being fired at by the enemy.
[Frederick Clark was wounded shortly after the action].

Pte 8733 A. J. Doyle, 2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment.
For gallant conduct at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March, 1915, in going out in front of his trench under fire on two occasions and bringing in wounded men. Private Doyle had previously carried a message and brought up a machine-gun under fire.

Sgt 9884 R. Drinkall, 3rd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment.
For conspicuous gallantry in the assault on the enemy’s position at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915. Was one of the first to enter the German trench and by marked determination and ability succeeded in holding the right end for nearly three hours, notwithstanding the bombardment with grenades and machine-gun fire by the enemy.
[Robert Drinkall was killed in action on 7 June 1915.]

L/Cpl 8690 J. W. Duffy, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, when he led his party up to the enemy’s trenches, and collected parties of Infantry which had lost their Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers, and only ceased his efforts when the infantry retired.

Sgt 8490 G. B. Hillings, 1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment).
For conspicuous gallantry during the assault at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March, 1915. When the retirement was ordered he went forward into the open under heavy fire and carried a badly wounded Officer a distance of 100 yards into safety.

Sgt 7145 A. E. Ince, 3rd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment.
For conspicuous gallantry in the assault on the enemy’s position at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915. Was one of the first to enter the German trench and rendered great assistance in its
defence. Subsequently Sergeant Ince behaved with great gallantry in rescuing the wounded.

Spr 11000 J. Jordan, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry during the attack at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915. in bringing the wounded men into cover under a heavy fire; he was almost the only unwounded man in the advanced party of No. 3 Section. Subsequently Sapper Jordan performed similar acts of gallantry in rescuing the wounded on the same day.
[John Jordan became a poison gas casualty in June 1915.]

Spr 23921 A. W. Kay, 57th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry in endeavouring to rescue a wounded man under very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Sapper Kay was killed in the attempt and so was the wounded man he went out to save.
[See Wytschaete Military Cemetery, above]

CSM 6026 J. A. Kepner, 1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment).
For conspicuous gallantry at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915. During the assault he showed great determination, and controlled his men, whilst under very heavy fire, with ability, although himself badly wounded.

Spr 17962 M. McClosky, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, when he, with a pioneer of his company, showed great coolness and devotion to duty in getting the wounded men of an advanced party into temporary cover. Later when it was dark they went out again from the trench and brought in several more.

Spr 14337 J. McLaren, 57th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
For conspicuous gallantry during the attack on Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, when he, together with a man of the East Surrey Regiment, went out in the face of a heavy fire and brought in a wounded man who was lying ten yards beyond the entanglement.

Cpl 16174 S. P. Skinner, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers,
For conspicuous gallantry on many occasions, notably on 12th March 1915, when in the attack on Spanbroek Molen he got into the enemy’s trench and did good work with hand grenades.

Pte 9688 W. Suffolk, 3rd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment.
For conspicuous gallantry at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, in rescuing three wounded men under heavy fire from within 30 yards of the enemy’s trenches. Private Suffolk also displayed great gallantly inrallying and collecting men during the attack under very heavy fire, at a critical time.

Cpl 12133 R. Whittington, 3rd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment.
For gallant conduct and devotion to duty at Spanbroek Molen on 12th March 1915, when he crawled through a gateway which was under very heavy machine gun fire, and bandaged the wounded who were lying only 30 yards from the enemy’s trenches.
[Robert ‘Bob’ Whittington had already been mentioned in despatches. He was killed in action on 26 August 1916, still aged only 21.]

3rd Divisional Cards

War diary, 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers, 13 March:

CRE [Divisional Commander Royal Engineers] gave cards from GOC [Haldane] to Sgt. Chuter, Sappers McCloskey and Jordan, and Pioneer Hurley..

Miscellaneous press clippings

Birmingham Daily Post 20 March 1915

Gloucester Journal 20 March 1915

Birmingham Daily Mail 22 March 1915

Belfast News-Letter – Friday 14 July 1916

Wiltshire Times, Saturday 20 March 1915

My view

It is easy to say in retrospect, but in my view this operation that should never have been authorised. Its potential effects as a diversion to the attack at Neuve Chapelle were questionable; the resources available for the attack too few; the selected objective as difficult as it could be. Tactically, the attack repeated the mistakes of December 1914 as being on too narrow a front. Warnings of protected enemy machine gun positions appear to have been ignored and confidence on what in retrospect was a very weak artillery bombardment was unjustifiably high. Once the planned attack had to be postponed it really should have been abandoned. The bravery and spirit of the assault units is not called into question. Spanbroekmolen would not fall until June 1917, and only then by being obliterated by an enormous underground mine.

Sources

War diary 3rd Division Commander Royal Artillery. National Archives piece reference WO95/1390
War diary 3rd Division Commander Royal Engineers. WO95/1397
War diary 7th Infantry Brigade. WO95/1413
War diary 1st Wiltshire Regiment. WO95/1415
War diary 3rd Worcestershire Regiment. WO95/1415
War diary 8th Infantry Brigade. WO95/1416
War diary 56th Field Company RE. WO95/1403
Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
“Times” (Times Digital Archive) (for casualty lists)
British Newspaper Archive
The London Gazette (for award citations)

Links

3rd Division

See my article of the awful events of the attack on Wytschaete on 14 December 1914 in this same area.