Extract from ‘The Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War’ by Captain H. FitzM. Stacke MC.
That afternoon the 58th Brigade attacked the La Boisselle salient, securing a lodgment on the southern face; and orders were sent for the 57th Brigade to move up after midnight. Rather than risk another jam in the communication trenches, the 10th Worcestershire moved forward across the open in three lines of platoons, reached the British front line opposite the extreme western end of the hostile salient, and lay down to await the moment of attack. The other battalions of the Brigade formed up to flank and rear. Flares and bursting shells disclosed their position to the enemy, and a heavy fire of shrapnel caused many casualties: but all lay still, awaiting the hour fixed for the attack.
Shortly after 3 a.m. amid the blazing gun-fire all around, a warning order was passed along the line. A few minutes later a second order, unheard amidst the din but quickly sensed, rippled down the ranks. The men rose to their feet, and the order was given to advance. The platoons rushed forward, crossed “No Man’s Land ” and charged the German defences.
A fierce fight followed with bomb and bayonet over successive lines of trenches. The companies became confused, control became impossible and the platoons stormed forward as best they could, led by their subalterns and N.C.O’s. One party was led by Lance-Corporal A. J. Gardner, who dashed ahead of the rest carrying a Lewis-gun under his arm which he fired as he ran. A party of the enemy gave way before him and he seized their trench. He was hit, but continued to fire his Lewis-gun till he fainted from loss of blood.
In small groups the Worcestershire platoons fought their way onwards into the ruins of the village. Ten days of intense bombardment had shattered every house; but the enemy had previously constructed deep dugouts and had strengthened the cellars. In those underground strongholds they had survived the bombardment, and now they swarmed up from their cover to meet the attack. In and around the smashed heaps of masonry which had once been houses, the British platoons fought with enemies who appeared suddenly and unexpectedly from every side. Only by momentary light of flares and shell-bursts was it possible to distinguish friend from foe. The fighting was hand-to-hand or at point-blank range, with bomb, bullet or cold steel.
At various points individual officers established some sort of order for a moment and attempted a systematic destruction of the German defences. Explosive charges previously prepared were brought up and were thrown down such dugouts as were discovered. But the fighting was too involved and the casualties too rapid for any permanent control.
Battalion Headquarters of the 10th Worcestershire had followed the companies forward across the trenches. The Commanding Officer, Colonel Royston-Piggott, made his way forward with his Adjutant up to a large mine-crater-The Crater of the mine which had been fired on July 1st. There he made certain that his Battalion had reached the village. He dictated to his Adjutant a message to be sent back to Brigade reporting the progress. Just as the message was finished, the Colonel was shot through the heart. A few minutes later the Adjutant also was hit and, for a time, Battalion Headquarters ceased to exercise control.
The first light of dawn enabled the fighters in the village to recognise each other with certainty, and the struggle reached its climax. Most of the defenders had by that time been killed or captured, although a few strong points still held out. Several of the Worcestershire platoons had fought their way right through the village to the more open ground on the far side. That ground was a tangle of broken hedges in a wilderness of shell-holes. Small parties of troops pushed forward in the excitement of victory, shooting, bombing and collecting prisoners.
Lieutenant R. W. Jennings led one such party, collecting such stray men as he could find. In the dim light he recognised one of the “Battalion bombers”, Private T. G. Turrall, and called him to follow. Private Turrall, a powerfully built soldier, went forward with the bombing party.
The daylight grew. A hidden machine-gun suddenly opened fire on the group. Private Turrall flung himself on his face and escaped the hail of bullets. When they ceased he peered around. The subaltern was lying close to him, badly wounded, with a shattered leg. No other survivor of the party could be seen.
Private Turrall crawled to his wounded officer and dragged him slowly to shelter in a shell-hole. Then he set to bandaging the wound, using the haft of his entrenching tool as a splint, and binding it with one of his own puttees.
As he worked, a bomb burst close to his head: then another. A German bombing party had seen him moving in the shell-hole. He picked up his rifle and opened fire on the bombers, who were working forward along a hedge. A gap in the hedge enabled him to shoot two of them: the others gave up the attack.
Peering from the shell-hole he saw a wave of German infantry pouring forward from the east-a strong counter-attack. Resistance to such a force was useless, but he did not think of surrender. The subaltern had fainted. Private Turrall flung himself flat and feigned death. He was prodded with bayonets and then left. The counter-attack swept on to break against the Battalion in the village.
Throughout that day he tended and defended the helpless subaltern. When darkness came he cautiously made his way towards the village, with the officer on his back. By good fortune they reached safety.
Lieutenant Jennings’ wounds proved mortal, and he died within a few hours; but not before he had dictated an account of his soldier’s deed; and Private Turrall’s brave devotion was rewarded by the Victoria Cross.
In the village itself the last brave remnant of the enemy fought on, holding individual posts for several hours. Those posts were gradually isolated, surrounded and reduced. Strong German counter-attacks were made against the village; but a defensive line had been hastily organised on the eastern outskirts of the village and the counter-attacks were withered by machine-guns and musketry. By midday the fighting in the village was over: the last German post had been taken, and reorganisation was in progress.
The 10th Worcestershire had reason to be proud of their first battle; for the captured position was of immense strength. The dugouts were so deep and of such solid construction that even after the terrific bombardment of the previous week many of them were still undamaged; and the defenders-troops of the German 13th, 23rd and 110th Reserve Regiments-had fought to the last. The 57th Brigade captured 153 prisoners-nearly all wounded. But the success had been dearly purchased. The Battalion had lost a third of its fighting strength, including the Commanding Officer and Adjutant.
The survivors of the Battalion held on throughout the remainder of the day in such cover as they could find or make, and in the evening the supernumerary officers who had been left behind with the Battalion Transport came up and took over command of the companies. After dark the 10th Worcestershire were relieved by the 7th south Lancashire and withdrew to rest. Orders were to proceed to a trench named “Ryecroft Avenue,” but in the darkness the weary troops wandered to and fro for some time before the location of that reserve position could be discovered. Eventually the platoons were housed in crowded dugouts. All next day (July 4th) officers and men slept the sleep of exhaustion, broken at intervals by heavy shelling.
At 9 p.m. on July 4th the 10th Worcestershire moved forward again to the old British front line, in support to the fighting still in progress beyond La Boisselle. Rain and shell-fire made all ranks damp and miserable but the Battalion was not actively engaged. Next morning the Battalion again moved back to the Tara-Usna line. Orders came for the 57th Brigade to be relieved; and after dark that evening the 10th Worcestershire marched right back to billets in Albert.