The Kensington Rifles/The end in sight

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Chapter V: The end in sight

On the 5th December 1917 the Russian Bolsheviks agreed a truce signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on the 3rd March 1918. The terms were high. Russia had given up Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. This allowed the Germans to move many of their troops to the western front freeing up stocks of ammunition. By the 15th February 1918, the Germans had two armies stationed to attack between Ypres and La Bassee, and five more between Arras and Reims.

The Kensingtons having handed over to the London Scottish marched to the transport lines near Fremicourt. After a week of route marches and wagon rides found thenselves adjacent to Vimy Ridge… finally they marched to up the ridge - to the long communication trench leading down to the trenches in front of the village of Oppy. Once again the Kensingtons had their numbers made up as they prepared for the new years battles.

After the October Revolution and the overthrow of the Monarchy Russia negotiated a cease fire. The Germans could now concentrate on the west – deal with a single opponent - the Allies. As soon as the peace treaty was signed they started to transport men and arms westwards in an attempt to create a victory before America could contribute. As soon as Haig heard of this he immediately realised his preparations should include a stockpile of ammunition. The Germans were about to field 191 Divisions against the Allies 164. There was a discrepancy of manpower which dictated that the Allies should stand firm and defend. The German offensive began on the 21st March directed at Britain’s 5th Army who had been recuperating after the Battle of Cambrai and Passchendale…

Battle of Lys, 21st March, 1918[edit | edit source]

The following year, 1918, it became a well known secret that the Germans were being strongly reinforced – that they were preparing for an offensive that would be against the 5th Army. The RFC squadrons were bombing the German lines and airfields at Busigny, Bertry and Escaufourt. The build-up by the Germans was very much larger than previous occasions. Their object was to smash through British lines before the Americans built up sufficient forces to make a difference. The German Offensive in Picardy became better known as The March retreat.

On the 19th after a long spell of hot dry weather it started to rain with a heavy mist. All sights and sounds were dampened down and the enemy after some artillery fire became quiet. Both sides were oppressed by the enveloping fog. Suddenly there was an enormous crash as an artillery bombardment started. It was the most intensive bombardment staged since the beginning of the war. The St. Quentin sector was in the middle of it. The onslaught was massive. Gas was used and the order was given to put on gas-masks. The fog kept the gas close to the ground as it crept closer. Behind the gas the Germans started to penetrate the weak positions, feeling their way around strong points. Their reserves taking their place as the main body moved forward. Ahead of the main force surged the storm-troopers equipped with automatic rifles and machine guns and light mortars. They made many openings in the British lines. The front had never been held by so few men and so few guns. Behind the British front line troops there were few reserves. The 5th Army had to cover forty-two miles with twelve infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions. The Germans had forty-three divisions and by sheer weight of numbers began to push the British Forces back. There was a break through at St. Quentin. The last of the British reserves were used up. A general order to retire was made.

On the 21 March an Operation called Michael, and the less important attack at Lys, began on the 9th April regained all the ground lost [6 miles] to the Allies the previous year… This was achieved by the Germans in three days. Many of the Brigades were decimated within a few hours. The German advance was finally halted before Amiens.

Battle of Doullens, 26th March, 1918[edit | edit source]

During the second night it was realised that the Germans were massing again for another attack... The airfield at Flez had to be evacuated and right in the valley of the Somme columns of German troops could be seen advancing everywhere. They were advancing in hordes. The RFC delayed the advance but not sufficiently to stem the tide. Three days after launching the attack the Germans stood a good chance of driving a wedge in-between the 5th Army and the 3rd Army to the north. An ominous bulge began to form in the line once again the British Army fell back. The 4th Division faced seven German divisions in the ‘Mars’ offensive; the German advance was halted. It looked as if the Germans were making for the important railway centre at Amiens. On the 26th March the Germans were eventually held at Doullens. It was decided by the general Staff that the British troops should come under General Foch to coordinate the defence of the line. The following day the British held the line the Germans began to falter once again, there was consternation. General Gough was relieved of his command.

The magnificent fighting withdrawal left the Germans with extended lines to the extent it had to stop and regroup. As soon as the Germans halted without capturing Amiens or broken through at Arras they tried to break through to Paris, then to the north towards the coast gaining some ground but the British line still remained complete and unbroken… each side losing nearly three hundred and fifty thousand men. Although it was a very testing attack for both Armies for the Germans it was a very bitter pill, it convinced many that the war was not going to be won their resources had drained away.

Battle of Bapaume, 12th April, 1918[edit | edit source]

The Kensingtons entrained to be taken along the line to Watten, Houle and finally Bapaume.This was an old battle area, and looked it being desolate. The Germans had retired to high ground. We found our way to Le Transloy and the sugar factory. Thankfully the weather was fine and warm.

On the 12th April 1918, the Germans became so threatening that Douglas Haig issued an order of the day – recognising the seriousness of the German attack – that all troops should stand firm. The lull between the Battle of Amiens and the continuation of the fighting at the Somme became known as the Battle of Bapaume. For a week during the end of August and the beginning of September the battle raged across the Somme. The front to the north and south had been pushed forward; there was a general advance of all the Allies along the whole front. The Germans were in full retreat – it was a total collapse of their lines. The weather helped being warm and dry making the ground suitable for tank movement. Douglas Haig issued to all commanders instructions that contained in them an indication of intent, that risks should be incurred as a duty – which it was no longer to advance in regular lines but to take what ground was won or offered. At the end of the month the Australians made a ferocious attack on Mont St. Quentin and Peronne the last commanding positions left to the Germans. Mont St. Quentin is a rounded hill two miles to the north of Peronne. Their fortifications were of the strongest kind and the German troops were told to defend it to the last man. They put up tremendous resistance but were in the end overcome by the Australians who took the fortifications forcing the Germans to fall back on the Hindenburg Line. Away to the southeast the Americans were engaged in the hard fighting for Argonne.

Battle of Chateau Thierry, 27th May, 1918[edit | edit source]

The battle opened up with the usual bombardment followed by massed infantry attacks. Within five days the Germans had reached Chateau Thierry on the river Marne. Some of the new America arrivals were attached to the British line. By June the Germans had pushed through the British line to the river, and beyond. It was a situation that called for desperate measures. All day long the 2nd Battalion Devon’s continued until darkness fell. In the morning the mist seem to be clearing. Out of the murk the Devon’s saw the Germans advancing in lines bringing with them their guns and transport. When they got within range they were all mown down. This heroic stand partly took place in a wood the original trench had been blown up. Taking up position in another they turned to face the Germans who were so tightly packed together they could not be missed. The Devon’s made a last stand until finally out of ammunition charged the enemy. This triumphant last ditch attempt to stop the Germans disrupted their offensive and sapped their will.

Battle Hindenburg Line, 18th September, 1918[edit | edit source]

The battle began with the British 1st, 3rd and 4th Armies moving forwards to reach the fortifications capturing 116,000 prisoners. An attack on both flanks of the German forces was made by all the Allies in a piecemeal fashion to deceive the Germans. The German positions between Cambrai and St. Quentin were penetrated and the Allies surged on. The Hindenburg Line was formidable having deep canal-trenches filled with water and wire making it difficult to get the men and tanks across. The thick impenetrable wire, massive concrete fortifications and earth banks were constructed in depth. The British artillery blasted away with a passion that was staggering. On the evening of the 26th of September all the front was in action. The troops were stilled to let the artillery bombard the front. For a time the Hindenburg Line held but finally the attack by the British, American and Australian troops succeeded – during the 29th September following a rain storm and dense fog during the night forward troops penetrated the defences. By the end of the next day the Germans were in full retreat. By the middle of October there were one million American troops in France creating two Armies. Their casualties, when the battle was over, were just over a quarter of the total… after being a full-scale force.

On the 6th November the Kensingtons fought their last battle. They had been on the move for three days. The Germans intended to resist their passage and a heavy barrage of gas shells landed. The 169th Brigade was on the right and the 168th on the left. They, together with the London Scottish, advanced towards the River Grande Honnelle. A, joined with B, and C Companies were to keep in touch with the flank Brigades. After a tremendous artillery bombardment the advance was seriously in jeopardy. D Company was sent off in support to link with C. Together they were sent to the northern outskirts of the village where they found the enemy in possession. After clearing a number of Germans, taking many prisoners, the situation became clearer. At last the village was securely held as Battalion Headquarters was set up in the cellars of the church.

The night before Hindenburg agreed with Ludendorff that to save Germany from a catastrophe there must be an immediate armistice. The leaders prevaricated and the fighting went on... The moral of the German Army was in tatters the men were refusing to fight. During the last weeks of the war in October the Germans were in confusion. They had reached a line that ran along the western edge of the large Forest of Mormal and to the south of it the Sambre Canal. The line was back to where it had been at the beginning of the war four years before. On the 4th of November the Fourth Army launched its attack against the enemy positions along the Sambre canal. In the morning the German resistance broke down completely and all along the front the Germans Army fell back in an open and general retreat. The whole of the Allied troops moved forward eastwards by the British and north-eastwards by the Americans and French. The plight of the Germans became an impossible one.

The German gambol had failed and Ludendorff resigned. By this time the division had suffered 34,809 casualties. The German Navy Mutiny at Kiel sparked off a revolution. On the 30 October 1918 the Turks signed an armistice and on the 7th November The German Government named their delegates for discussions about an armistice; two days later the revolution sized Berlin; and on the 11th the armistice was signed.

The London Division received the Cease Fire order for 11am on the 11th November 1918. The order was given to the Kensingtons in Rieu de Bury. By this time all the roads and villages about were completely devastated… this gave a great deal of work to tidy up - to allow passage through. The Kensingtons provided a body of troops to march with others in the First Army through the town of Mons on November 15th. On the 27th November the Kensingtons left Rieu de Bury and marched to Villers sire Nicole. They stayed for more than a month, including Christmas. Eventually demobilization came to them allowing groups to slip away. The 1st Battalion had spent more than four and a half years in France and been through fourteen battles.

In 1918, there was a unity of command between the English and French Armies under the French Commander in Chief, Marshal Foch. The British and French had relied upon, to a major degree, a continuous sustained firepower from the artillery. This depleted the German Army, a fact not recognised until later by the High Command. Had they followed up immediately victory would have come sooner? As it was the eventual counter attacks made by tanks later on lead to ultimate victory breaking the morale of the German Army. Ludendorff and The Kaiser both realised that the war could not go on. The Treaty of Versailles, 1918, settled the fate of Germany and directed the course of events over the next twenty years, which lead to The Second World War. The Armistice terms were signed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne. The terms forced Germany to give up all Allied territory, to withdraw her troops to the German side of the Rhine, to surrender all prisoners , and to hand over her fleet, aeroplanes, and guns. The ‘war-guilt clause’ declared Germany responsible, demanding a sum of money to be paid annually to her conquerors, the Rhineland to be occupied by the Allied troops, her coal field to be given to the French. France to regain Alsace-Lorraine, Poland gained territory, and did Czechoslovakia, and Germany was to give up her colonies which were divided up amongst the Allies and reduce her army to 100,000. The treaty of Saint-Germaine brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – it was split up into racial elements. Two new states were made: Czechoslovakia, formed from the old Bohemia with Moravia and the Slovak area of Hungary, and Yugoslavia, an enlarged Serbia. Poland was restored along with the republics of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

When the troops were demobilized the cry was, ‘Back to Normal’. Lloyd George had promised, ‘Britain would become, a land fit for heroes’. A General Election in 1919 retained the Coalition Party, of mainly Conservatives, in power; led by Lloyd George… they remained in power until 1922. Unemployment was the most persistent problem. The returning troops were allowed to return to their old jobs. This naturally forced out those who had replaced them - those who were used to new production standards and methods brought about by mass production techniques. It also turned out most of the women who filled the jobs of conscripted men. The men returning were four years older, some had been promoted to senior ranks – given authority and responsibility. They found it difficult to cope with dissatisfied workers clinging to the shirt tails of Trade Union officials. Soon many began to feel disillusioned believing that they had sacrificed much for a few to become rich. Industry began to feel the pinch as customers cut back. Factories lost their contracts for armaments finding it hard to turn to peacetime products. Overseas customers had been neglected the retooled factories had to compete with the then existing manufacturers. All this led to firms laying off workers. Unemployment soared and an economic crisis loomed ever larger. The dole queues lengthened…!

Acknowledgements: It has been difficult to achieve a chronological order: correct bodies of troops, key non-commissioned personnel - names and rank concerned with outstanding events, and the Kensington Battalion’s precise movements. Please excuse any misrepresentations. I have used the date of each battle during the war on the western front to build some order out of chaos, for future scholars.

In my researches: To gather together all the information about The Volunteer Force, 1907 – 1918, and the part played by The London Division - in particular, the Kensington Battalions during WWI, I have used many dates, of battles fought, from Wikipedia. [These do not always confirm other accounts] I have tried to link them up with the writings and accounts made by my father, Company Sergeant Major, Albert Edward Kearey DCM, [Future, Regimental Sergeant Major]. For a personal account of life in the trenches I have dipped into Johnny Get Your Gun by John F Tucker; the Years of Combat by Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook, The Somme by A H Farrar-Hockley and World War One by Philip Warner. An almost complete history of the regiment is told within the pages of ‘The Kensingtons’ published by the Regimental Old Comrades Association, although too few names mentioned of senior non-commissioned officers. Richard Van Emden has written a series of books about the war and times including many personal accounts. To obtain a political view of the times I have consulted As It Happened by C R Attlee, PC, OM, CH., and A Portrait of Britain, 1851-1951, by Lindsay & Washington. For the economics of the period I have turned to The People and the British Economy, 1830-1914, by Roderick Floud. As for history, Hope and Glory, Britain 1900-2000, by Peter Clarke, served me well. I thank the Family and Children’s Services, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for their kind assistance and interest.