The Battle of Aubers Ridge – Many Rugby Men killed. 9th May 1915

Introduction

A number of men who lived or had relatives in Rugby served in the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. They were in action in the Battle of Aubers Ridge, near Lille, in north-east France on 9 May 1915, as were some other Rugby men in other units.

Badge of Rifle Brigade

Badge of Rifle Brigade

Arthur Keen, Frederick Humphries and Joseph Henry Upperton were all killed with the 2nd Battalion Rifles in the 25th Brigade attack on 9 May 1915, in the action in the northern pincer attack.[1]   Leslie Wood was with them but taken as a prisoner of war and interned in Friedrichsfeld PoW Camp.[2]

Walter Hardman was also killed that day after having, it seems, been transferred from the 1st Battalion; he was listed with the 2nd Battalion in the Rifle Brigade Medal Lists. Edgar Izzard, who was also in the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade and died three days later on 13 May 1915, seems not to have been so transferred.

Two other Rugby men were also killed on 9 May.   Frank Reynolds was serving with the 2nd Northants in the 24th Brigade in the northern pincer attack, and James Henry Altree was with the 2nd Battalion, Kings Royal Rifles, which was in the immediate reserve with the 2nd Brigade as part of the southern pincer attack.

The 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade

The 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade was at Kuldana in India when war broke out in August 1914. They returned to Britain, embarking from Bombay on the 20th of September, arriving at Liverpool on the 22nd of October. They joined 25th Brigade, 8th Division at Hursley Park, Winchester and proceeded to France landing at Le Havre on the 6th of November 1914. They were in action at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Battle of Aubers and the action of Bois Grenier.[3]

Some background is provided by Victoria Burbage:[4]

By May 1915, the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade had been in France for six months. They had already suffered heavy casualties in March during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, but nothing would have prepared them for what they were about to experience at Rouges Bancs. Unlike the pre-war regular soldiers who formed the backbone of this battalion, many of these men had enlisted at the outbreak of war and had travelled out from England, joining the Battalion in mid-March as reinforcements for the losses suffered at Neuve Chapelle. … The Battalion’s casualties that day were the worst that it was to experience for any single action throughout the whole of the Great War. Fifteen officers and two hundred and forty-eight men were killed. Of this number, only two officers and fourteen men have known graves, the rest being listed on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. Of the hundreds of wounded men, many would die from their wounds over the days and weeks to come.

The Battle of Aubers Ridge

The Aubers Ridge area had been attacked in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle two months earlier. The battle marked the second use of specialist Royal Engineers tunnelling companies, who tunnelled under no man’s land and planted mines under the German defences to be blown at zero hour.[5]

The following information on the battle of Aubers has been edited from the excellent account in The Long, Long Trail – The British Army of 1914-1918 – for family historians.[6]

As Germany continued their offensive against Russia in the winter of 1914-15, they hoped that a defeat of Russia would allow them to deploy all their forces on the Western Front, in the meantime they moved troops from the west to the east.

The French hoped to take advantage by planning three attacks to disable the German ability to defend the ground that they had gained in 1914.   These would be at Artois (near Arras), Rheims and Verdun.

Aubers 2

A lack of men and munitions meant that the attacks could not be undertaken simultaneously.

The Artois attack in the north was given priority.   The British commanded by General Haig were asked to assist in the north of the Artois area, by an attack a day after the main French attack. However, poor weather led to a postponement for two days when the British would attack with the French on 9 May 1915.

The British attack to the north of Artois was to be a pincer movement to the north and south of Neuve Chapelle.

Aubers 3

The 8th Division, including the 2nd Rifles as part of the 25th Infantry Brigade, formed the Northern Pincer moving SE towards Rouges Bancs, then spreading to capture the line between Fromelles and La Cliqueterie.

The British were constrained by severe ammunition and gun shortages and the infantry attacked after a very short 40 minute bombardment which started at 5.00am on 9 May. At 5.30am the lead battalions attacked. By 5.40am the 24th Brigade troops were under heavy enemy fire although some got through a gap blown by the field guns, and into the German front trench.

The attack of 25th Brigade, which included the 2nd Rifles, was more successful: the wire on the left was well-cut and the infantry crossed the almost-undamaged breastworks and into the German fire trenches. They moved onto the first objective (a bend in the Fromelles Road) and the Rifle Brigade bombers occupied the enemy trenches. On the blowing of the two mines at 5.40am, the lead companies occupied these craters, and moved forward and formed a defensive flank.

However, by 6.10am there was intense fire across No Man’s Land and movement became impossible.   The following support battalion lost many men. Some retired, having apparently mis-heard a shouted order. German prisoners, making their way to the British lines, were mistaken for a counterattack and there was considerable confusion.

A renewed attack at 1.30pm was shelled in the assembly areas with heavy casualties and did not take place. Despite advice that progress was impossible, Haig ordered further attacks, including a bayonet attack at 8pm.   However, chaos in the trenches and on the roads meant this attack also could not take place.

At 2.30am the next morning, the surviving men of the Rifle Brigade were withdrawn as it had not been possible to reinforce them.

A further attack in the morning could not take place as there was insufficient artillery ammunition.   The 4.7-inch ammunition was defective and the fuses on the heavy rounds did not burst when hitting the wet ground.

The southern pincer attack had similar difficulties. The 2nd Brigade which included the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Company in immediate support was among those suffering from the heavy machine-gun fire which cut down the attackers even as they left their trenches. There were further artillery barrages, but despite repeated efforts, no effective gains were made.

The French attack to the south was more successful. It overran the German trenches on a four mile front and pushed more than two miles onto Vimy Ridge. Unfortunately the reserves were too far away to exploit the success, and allowed a German recovery. Intense fighting continued for a week: the French captured Carency and Ablain St Nazaire, but not as intended the crest of the Vimy Ridge.

There were more than 11,000 British casualties on 9 May 1915, most within yards of the front-line. This was one of the highest casualty rates of the war. In the 8th Division, there were 4,682 casualties of which 192 were officers.   The worst infantry casualties were those of the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade which lost 654 men, of whom 21 were officers.

The battle was a disaster for the British. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. It is doubtful whether it had any positive effect on assisting the main French attack.[7] In summary there was no intelligence about the strengthened German positions; there was no surprise; the bombardment was wholly insufficient and the enemy guns were not suppressed; the behind lines organisation did not allow movement of reinforcements and casualties; the British artillery and ammunition were in poor condition: the first through over-use, the second through faulty manufacture; with poor communications the positions of troops were unknown and support artillery fire was impossible.

Haig’s conclusions were:[8]

  1. The defences in our front are so carefully and so strongly made, and mutual support with machine-guns is so complete, that in order to demolish them a long methodical bombardment will be necessary by heavy artillery (guns and howitzers) before Infantry are sent forward to attack.
  2. To destroy enemy’s ‘material’, 60-pounder guns will be tried, as well as the 15-inch, 9.2-inch and 6-inch siege howitzers. Accurate observations of each shot will be arranged so as to make sure of flattening out the enemy’s ‘strong points’ of support, before the Infantry is launched.

A German Priest who was serving in the German Army said,

After two hours fighting, the enemy was beaten back. You can scarcely have an idea of the work this represented.   How these Englishmen had in twelve hours dug themselves in! The hundred fellows who were in our trenches had brought with them an enormous quantity of ammunition, a machine gun and one that they had captured from us … Almost every single man had to be put out of action with hand-grenades. They were heroes all and true to the end, until death … men of the ‘active English Rifles Brigade’ …

 

[1]       See separate accounts of the lives of the various men mentioned.

[2]       http://friedrischfeldpowcamp.tumblr.com/.

[3]       Edited from: http://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/allied/riflebrigade2-gw.php#sthash.4GMnlwYd.dpuf

[4]       From http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=98641; Victoria Burbidge, in an address at a Memorial Service on 9 May 2008.

[5]       Edmonds, J. E., Military Operations France and Belgium, 1915: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents By Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence II, (1st ed.), London, Macmillan, 1928, pp.6-8 and p.31.

[6]       Edited from: http://www.1914-1918.net/bat11.htm.

[7]       http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aubers_Ridge; from Edmonds, J. E., Military Operations France and Belgium, 1915: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents By Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence II, (1st ed.), London, Macmillan, 1928, pp.37-41.

[8]       Haig, Private papers, 11 May 1915.

Advertisements

One thought on “The Battle of Aubers Ridge – Many Rugby Men killed. 9th May 1915

  1. Pingback: Scotton, Ernest. Died 1st Jul 1916 | Rugby Remembers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s