The German Offensives of 1918:
20th Battalion Middlesex Regiment
The 20th Battalion went out to the Western Front with the 121st Infantry Brigade, 40th Division, in June 1916. It was reduced to a training cadre on 16th May 1918 and transferred to the 16th Division on 31st May 1918, then to 14th Division on 16th June 1918, returning to the UK. It was reformed and returned to the Western Front on 1st July 1918 with 43rd Brigade, 14th Division.
The Battle of Estaires: 9th-11th April.
The enemy's advance on the Somme had been stopped, but only at great sacrifice. He had won a considerable area of ground and taken much war material and many prisoners from us : our reserves were greatly depleted. But he had not obtained his objectives. Readers of " My War Memories " will not fail to detect the tone of petulance and disappointment in General Ludendoriff's book. With hopes of obtaining greater successes than he had had on the Somme, the German Chief of the General Staff turned his attention to the Lys front where our line was weakly held, for Sir Douglas Haig had been forced to withdraw no less than ten divisions from the northern part of his line in order to reinforce or replace his exhausted forces on the Somme.
A break through on the Lys front might well mean the realisation of the enemy's hopes which had been so markedly defeated at Arras.
On the night of the 7th April an unusually heavy and prolonged bombardment with gas shell was opened along practically the whole British Front from Lens to Armentières, and at about 4 a.m. on the 9th April the bombardment was recommenced with even greater intensity, high explosive being added to huge quantities of gas shell. Between the La Bassée Canal and the Ypres-Comines Canal ( opposite Aubers) the 2nd Portuguese Division held a Sector of the Allied line. 20th and 21st Battalions. On the right of the Portuguese the 55th Division held the line from Givenchy : the 40th Division carried the line from the left of the Portuguese to Bois Grenier.
After their heavy fighting west of St. Leger, which had concluded on the z6th March, the 20th and 21st Middlesex of the 40th Division moved back out of the line for several days. But at the end of the month the Division was transferred to the Lys front, and on the 1st April the 121st Brigade took over the left sub-sector (Bois Grenier) of the new Divisional front, which extended just east of La Boutillerie to north-west of La Houssoic.
The 120th Brigade took over the right sub-sector of the Divisional front which extended from the right of the 121st Brigade to due east of Picantin, opposite a projection in the German lines named the Sugar Loaf ; the 119th Brigade was in reserve. The 20th Middlesex, however, did not go into the front line but were in reserve at Fleurbaix and Canteen Farm. On the 6th the 119th Brigade relieved the 120th Brigade, the 21st Middlesex being the Battalion in reserve. On the night of 5th/6th April the 20th Middlesex relieved the 12th Suffolks in the right-sub sector of the Bois Grenier sector Battalion Headquarters were at Wye Farm. On the following day Captain E. R. Samuel was sent back to the transport lines with " B " Company in order to train for a raid which the Battalion was going to make on the night of the 8th/9th. 9th April This raid may be described as the prelude to the heavy fighting which took place on the 9th April and following days. It was for the purpose of securing identifications, inflicting casualties on the enemy and the blowing up of any dug-outs found in the German lines.
The raid was timed to begin at 4.55 a.m. on the 9th, but just after 4 a.m. the enemy's artillery bombardment began and the British guns immediately opened heavy counter-preparation fire, they continued firing after the raid began, with the result that the raiders could not enter the enemy's trenches. They, therefore, returned to their own lines.
A thick fog hung over the whole of the battle line, thus again favouring the enemy, for artillery observation was severely handicapped and even the machine gunners and infantry could not use their guns and rifles to advantage.
At 7 a.m. the enemy swarmed across No Man's Land and broke into the left brigade sector of the Portuguese Division. He then turned rapidly right and left, attacking the right of the 119th Brigade (40th Division) and the left Brigade of the Portuguese. The 119th Brigade appears to have been taken in flank badly, for soon the Germans had penetrated the Brigade support line. The 20th Middlesex, the right Battalion of the 121st Brigade then formed a defensive flank, but they also were overwhelmed, for the Battalion Diary states that : " Battalion Headquarters surrounded and posts attacked from rear. Commanding Officer, with part of Headquarters personnel, escaped and formed defensive flank in City Road. ' C ' Company advanced from support position. Posts in City Road withdrawn to Shaftesbury Avenue together with ' A ' Company, thus conforming to line being formed by support Company of 13th Yorkshire Regiment." That is all the Battalion Diary has to say of the operations on the 9th of April, but the Brigade Headquarters Diary reports that the 13th Yorkshires and 20th Middlesex were at 9 p.m. on the 9th placed under the command of the 34th Division.
Meanwhile the 21st Middlesex, in 119th Brigade Reserve, who were between Laventie and Fleurbaix when the attack began, stood to at 4 a.m. and then moved up to battle positions. At 10a.m. " C " and " D " Companies were ordered to occupy the machine-gun line, but the enemy was found to be in possession and the two Companies took up a line south-east of the Rue du Quesnes. Five minutes later the enemy was reported in the neighbourhood of Rouge de Bout and, advancing in a north-easterly direction on Sailly, Bac St. Maur and Fleurbaix. Battalion Headquarters were then withdrawn in short stages to a strong point in front of Sailly, having lost more than 50 per cent. personnel in casualties, including the adjutant and Second-in-Command. At this period, Details, moved up by Brigade Head-quarters, arrived, but encountered the enemy across the Rouge de Bout-Sailly road. A line was then formed in front of Rue du Quesnoy. But at about 4 p.m., the enemy having entered Sailly, the remnants of the Battalion withdrew across the Lys and moved to the Steenwerck Switch : the bridge was then blown up by the Royal Engineers.
At 4.30 p.m. the Quartermaster, seeing the danger of his Store at Sailly falling into the hands of the enemy, set fire to it and withdrew across the river, posting two C.Q.M. Sergts. with Lewis guns on the north-eastern bank of the river to defend the bridge, Early in the evening the enemy was reported to be across the Lys in the neighbourhood of Bac St. Maur. The night of the 9th/10th passed without incident. 10th April.
On the 10th the 20th Middlesex, under orders of the 103rd Brigade (34th Division), withdrew through Armentières, part of " A " Company joining the transport at Petit Sec Bois moved to Hazebrouck, the remainder of the Company with three officers joined the 29th Division. The C.O., with twenty-three other ranks, was with the 13th Yorkshires and 12th Suffolks at Nieppe. At 345 am. the 21st Middlesex, who had spent the night of the 9th/10th in Steenwerck Switch, were heavily shelled by the enemy. They clung to their positions however until midday when, as the Switch was enfiladed with machine-gun fire, and the troops on the right had been withdrawn, they fell back to con-form, and dug in in front of Petit Mortier. Although intermixed with the 12th Yorkshires and units of the 25th Division, the 21st Middlesex were in touch on the right with the 120th Brigade and on the left with the 121st Brigade.
On the night of the 11th/12th the 20th Middlesex at Nieppe were relieved and took up a position on the Bailleul- Nieppe road north of La Creche. In the meantime, between 7 and 8 a.m. on the 11th, the 21st Middlesex with other troops fell back in stages and took up position in front of Le Verrier. During this withdrawal the C.O. (Lieut.-Colonel H. C. Metcalfe) was wounded, and Captain G. F. P. Worthington took over the remnants of the Battalion. 12th April Thus, so far as the 20th and 21st Middlesex are concerned, ended the Battle of Estaires. It is not possible to give details of the individual acts of gallantry, or of the fighting during the three days of the battle, as the confused nature of the reports make a coherent story impossible.
The Battle of Hazebrouck: 12th-15th April.
At night on the 11th, the British line north of the La Bassée Canal ran from Givenchy through Festubert-Le Cason, Paradis, Merville, thence, bending back in a north-easterly direction west of Neuf Berquin, through Doulieu-Le Verrier to Steenwerck Station. From the latter place the line turned east, running round the eastern edges of Nieppe, then north to Petit Pont, round the lower slopes of Hill 63 to the western outskirts of Messines, eastern edge of Wytschaete to the old British front line on the Ypres-Comines Canal, east of Hollebeke. Just before dawn on the 12th of April the enemy broke through about Pacaut and Riez du Vinage, but was stopped at the La Bassée Canal. At Merville also we were compelled to give ground. North of Merville, at about 8 a.m., the enemy in great strength attacked on a front extending from south of the Estaires-Vieux Berquin road to the neighbourhood of Steenwerck. The 31st Division, having come up into line, worn-out troops of the 40th Division were relieved, the 20th Middlesex (121st Brigade) marching back to the assembly ground at Strazeele, where they were joined by the 21st Battalion (119th Brigade). They then, with other troops, were ordered to dig a defensive position south-east of Strazcele. Neither Battalion took a further part in the actual fighting.