The appalling losses to the British regular army during the first period of the Great War prompted the creation of the New Army—an enormous influx of citizen soldiers driven by feelings of patriotism determined to ‘do their bit’ for the cause. Such a massive increase in the size of the army required a huge expansion in the number of battalions to accommodate them. These came under a myriad of identities—public schools, chums, footballers etc—and included adding battalions to well known regiments of the regular army. The Royal Fusiliers gained many such battalions and the subject of this book, the 23rd, was one of the most notable. As its name suggests the battalion attracted a distinctive type—particularly those with a spirit of sportsmanship and adventure. The war service of this battalion was as exemplary as any that served on the Western Front and the places it fought—listed in detail within these pages—are a catalogue of the famous actions of the conflict, though perhaps its greatest day of reckoning came at Delville Wood in 1916 during the Somme offensive. Available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.
Our artillery was firing to cover our move up. Just after passing Longueval one of our shells dropped, unfortunately, near the platoon which, with the C.O., I was following. As luck would have it, though, only one man was badly wounded. The platoon, of course, went on, and the C.O. went over to the man who had been hit.
‘It’s hard lines, sir,’ said the man.<br>
‘I know it is,’ said the C.O., ‘but you will soon be all right. The stretcher-bearers are coming.’<br>
‘Oh, it’s not that,’ was the man’s rejoinder. ‘It’s being hit now! Here have I been all this time in France without having a real go at the b——s, and now the chance has come, here I go and get knocked out.’<br>
The C.O. made only one remark to me as we passed on. It was: ‘Well, if that’s what the rest of the Battalion feels, I have no fears for tomorrow.’<br>
We took up our position in a trench at the edge of the wood. This was all that remained after the South Africans had been beaten back, and our attack was to start at dawn on the following morning. This attack was in two parts, two companies to take the first objective, a trench in the centre of the wood, and two companies to capture the far edge, and dig themselves in there. The 1/60th were on our right, each battalion having half the wood allotted to it.<br>
The waves formed up in position shortly before dawn, and it was our first experience of going over the top as a battalion. The men, however, were quite cool and cheerful; in fact, one, named Lewis Turner, asked me, ‘How long to go?’ I looked at my watch, and said, ‘Five minutes.’ His reply was, ‘Oh, then I’ve time to finish my breakfast.’ And he did.<br>
At zero our barrage started, and our first waves were off, the thing I noticed most being that most of the men were smoking as they went over. The whole wood was immediately full of machine-gun bullets. There must have been hundreds of machine guns—up in trees, hidden in the undergrowth, in fact all over the place. The Hun artillery came down on all the approaches to the wood, but not on the wood itself so long as any of their own men were in it.<br>
Owing to the position of the wood, however, at the apex of a captured triangle of ground, we received fire from both flanks, and also from our right rear, as well as from the front.<br>
The first objective was quickly taken, and then there was a pause before the advance to the second. A large number of prisoners came in, and were herded up near Battalion headquarters’ trench. We then found that we were up against the Brandenburg Regiment, which had been specially sent up to hold the wood.<br>
A number of these prisoners next got into a shell-hole near Battalion headquarters, refusing to come farther, and one of the funniest sights was to see our R.S.M., Sergeant-Major Powney, who, as a rule, was most dignified, rush at them, and kick and cuff them out of it.<br>
I said to him: ‘Sergeant-Major, that’s not your job.’ He replied: ‘I know that, sir, but I couldn’t help it.’ Poor Powney was wounded later in the day, and died of his wounds.<br>
The advance to the second objective started promptly, but the Hun fought hard for a time, and held us up. Every bush seemed to contain a machine gun, and a redoubt on our left front caused us many casualties. This redoubt contained several machine guns, with overhead cover, and a first-aid post. As soon as the C.O. received news of this check he sent up two reserve Lewis guns. These worked round the redoubt, and, finding an opening, killed most of the garrison, and then rushed it. The survivors fled, but Sergeant Royston found one of their own guns was still in action, and finished them off with it.