24 March 1918

At dawn on Sunday, the combined DLI Company were joined by Captain Endean’s section of A Company, having escaped from Ham. According to the war diary, they included 2nd Lieutenant Galley, though other records say he had died on 22 March (there may be confusion with a 2 Lt Gallie). The diary also states that Galley and about thirty men were sent forward to take shelter in a railway cutting and, with the assistance of a Vickers and a Lewis gun, helped cover the area on the British side of the canal, both to left and right. Here they were joined by a small detachment from the Bedfordshire Regiment under Captain Parker, who assumed control. Meanwhile Captain Jee’s detachment were dug in one mile north of Rouy le Petit, while D Company, under the command of Lieutenant Cooper, were at 61st Brigade HQ at Villeselve.

At 5 am, under the cover of thick fog, the enemy crossed the canal at Pargny, forcing a gap between the 20th and 8th Divisions. Patrols sent out to make touch with the Warwickshire Regiment to the right failed to return. The Germans gradually wore down the defences and began to turn the division’s left flank held by 11 RB, succeeding by early afternoon and forcing terrible losses on the riflemen. Similar pressure was being exerted on the right flank, where the 11 KRRC was forced to retreat at about 3.30 pm.

A&B Companies

At 6 am, A and B Companies of 11th DLI came under artillery and mortar fire at Canizy. At 8 am, the B Company section retired under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, but joined with A Company to launch a joint counter-attack. They successfully, if temporarily, checked the German advance and regained their trenches. However units to the right were simultaneously retiring and trying to set up a defensive flank. Reinforced with men from 12 KRRC, the DLI men moved forward to the railway line, occupying some partially dug strong points at Calvary Farm. Captain Endean discovered that a complete gap had opened up on the right as far as Esmery Hallon. The combined DLI and KRRC forces on the left flank were holding their own.

Finally at about 2.30 pm the DLI were outflanked on their right, lost control of Calvary Farm and were forced to retreat to Breuil, passing through Hombleux. Such was the precipitate nature of their retreat that it was only the action of some Canadian motorised machine guns that prevented greater disorder. By nightfall they were under the command of 60th Brigade and holding the bank of the Canal-du-Nord on its western side, between Buverchy and Breuil. One unit under Captain Endean and Lieutenant Bushell held the bridge at Breuil (under the command of 12 KRRC), while Lieutenant Cooke placed another unit under CSM Lambert, mixed with KSLI men, which dug in near Buverchy under the command of the KSLI. About 100 yards behind, Lieutenant-Colonel Hayes, Lieutenant Cooke, 2nd Lieutenant Ellwood and a small number of signallers and runners formed the HQ. Once established, the units experienced a relatively quiet night. By now all the British forces were severely mixed up, with troops from four Divisions jumbled together. They were joined by several sections of French troops to help hold the line of the canal. The French disturbed the quiet by firing periodic bursts of machine gun fire towards the opposite bank.

Captain Jee’s Detachment

Captain Jee’s position, north of Rouy le Petit, came under attack at dawn on the same day and by 9 am they were the front line of defence. At 10 am, his men gave covering fire for a counter attack by 61st Brigade from Mesnil St. Nicoise towards Béthencourt. The attack failed and by afternoon Jee’s men had been outflanked, losing the village of Rouy in their rear. A defensive flank was dug overlooking the village. Lieutenant Dodds was wounded during this action. By evening they had managed to retreat by stages to a defensive position in front of Nesle, on the road between there and Ham.

D Company

On Sunday morning, about 6 am, D Company moved forward from Villeselve in thick fog. They were unable to make contact with any of 61st Brigade, and dug in about one mile to the north. To their left was a company of Irish troops and a section from the Machine Gun Corps, while on their right were men from 14th Division. Around noon the fog cleared and they came under fire from artillery to the east and south. Along with the accompanying units, they retreated to a sunken road near Villeselve at 3.30 pm, where they were able to link up with some men of 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (7 DCLI) from their own Division. They covered the retreat of French mitrailleurs (machine-gunners) and British cavalry men. Although the Germans continued to slowly advance towards them, the officer in charge of the DCLI, desperate to conserve the dwindling supply of ammunition, would only let them fire at a hostile aircraft.

At 6 pm, D Company came under well targeted shrapnel fire from the German artillery and their line broke. The only line of retreat was through the village of Villeselve and they pulled back under constant machine gun fire. Reaching the village of Guiscard at 7.45 pm, they were scattered by a barrage of gas shells. Lieutenant Cooper and four men found they had become separated from the rest of the company. They reached Muirancourt at about 10 pm and, with assistance from the Military Police, managed to get back to Bussy at about midnight. Here Cooper found the medical officer and another officer from 7 DCLI and gathered together a group of about twenty-five stragglers from other 20th Division units.

The day’s end

The afternoon of 24 March had seen a general retreat across the 20th Division front, in order to maintain the line and close any gaps where flanks had been threatened or turned. A new defensive line was established on the Libermont canal. At the end of the day, most of 11 DLI were with 60th Brigade, holding its right flank near Buverchy with support from 83rd Field Company Royal Engineers and 6 KSLI. The 59th Brigade, having been outflanked on the left, was reinforced with whatever could be mustered from the confusion, but despite every effort could not re-establish touch with the 8th Division to their north. Any other surviving remnants of the 20th Division were scattered.

Ten men were killed during the day, all privates and all except one commemorated among the missing at Pozières. These were John Angel, Alfred Collingwood, William Douglass, Thomas Fenton, John Fieldhouse, John Lincoln, James Logan, John Rundle and Matthew Youll. Norman Meek from Seaham is buried at Hangard Communal Cemetery Extension, one of the concentration cemeteries, and may have died in captivity of wounds.

 

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