Attack at Poelcappelle
20th September 1917
A Precis of the account from 'The History of the 51st Highland Division' by Major F. W. Bewsher D.S.O., M.C.
After the Third Ypres 154 Brigade relieved 152 and 153 Brigades and a week later, on 8th August, the Division was relieved and continued training. Less than two weeks later G.O.C. 51st Division assumed command of the left sector of the XVIIIth Corps front on 20th August with 152nd Brigade having taken over the line in the Ypres Salient.
The position was half a mile away from the remains of the village of Langemarck and just east of the Langemarck-Gheluvelt road, the Divisional frontage being about 1500 yards. The Division continued holding this line until 20th September, when the Poelcappelle [PoelKapelle] attack was launched.
Bewsher notes that the period prior to the attack was remarkable on account of three things:
- The mud, which reproduced conditions similar to, if not worse than, those at Courcelette. The ground throughout the whole front was so sodden with rain and churned up by shell-fire as to be impassable to troops in any numbers.
- A consistently lavish use of the recently-introduced mustard gas, which caused numerous cases of slightly-gassed men, and a lesser number of men seriously gassed.
- Great activity in aerial bombing, which the Germans suddenly developed, and which they maintained in an increasing degree to within a few weeks of the armistice.
On 6th September the 5th Seaforth Highlanders attempted a raid on the enemy's posts in front of Pheasant Trench 3 officers and 100 other ranks being employed. The raiding party failed to reach the enemy's lines owing to the intensity of his rifle and machine-gun fire; but they obtained some valuable information, and caused the enemy serious losses. The raiders could not regain our lines during daylight, and remained in shell-holes until dusk, when they returned, having lost 1 officer and 19 men killed, 2 officers and 18 men wounded, and 9 men missing.
On 19th September the artillery and trench-mortars began bombardment preparatory to the attack.
The object of the operations was to secure a "jumping off" place for an attack against Poelcappelle, and to secure positions in the valley of the Steenbeek from which the artillery could cover this attack. Dug-outs could not be constructed in Flanders; the Germans had therefore to rely for protection against shell-fire on concrete pill-boxes and shelters and reinforced farms. Any troops to whom this form of protection was not available would have little chance of surviving bombardments of the intensity which had by this time become the fashion. The Germans therefore tended to restrict the numbers of troops they employed on the stationary defence in accordance with the number of shelters available. It was therefore to be anticipated that the garrison would be a light one, but that it would in the main survive the artillery bombardment. There was a well-defined trench line, running right across the Divisional front about 150 yards from the British front line, known as Pheasant Trench and New Trench; and, again, some 1200 yards in rear, Kangaroo and Beer Trenches also traversed the Divisional front. The defense, however, primarily consisted of concrete pill-boxes and fortified farms distributed throughout the area to be attacked, supported by troops concealed in shell-holes
51ST HIGHLAND DIVISION OBJECTIVE
The Highland Division objective was some 1500 yards in depth, about 1500 yards in breadth in the first instance, but widening to some 1900 yards on the final objective. In this area the ground gradually rose from the river Steenbeek except in the centre, where a depression marked the course of the Lekkerboterbeek, a small stream running east and west about six feet broad, two feet deep, with banks five feet in height. On the left a slight ridge above Pheasant Farm forms the highest ground from which close observation of Poelcappelle was possible, and which covered the Steenbeek Valley. On the right a depression was formed running north and south by the Stroombeek, a tiny stream beyond which lay a slight ridge about Quebec Farm. From here also observation of the surroundings of Poelcappelle was possible. About the position of assembly the ground was broken by swamps and pools, but becoming drier and firmer as the higher ground is reached.
Sketch map of positions at Poelcappelle, 20th September 1917.
The 154th Infantry Brigade was allotted the task of carrying out the attack. Every known" pill-box," farm, or fortified post had a specific body of troops detailed for its capture. The sole business of these troops was to follow the barrage until they reached their own particular objective, to overcome the enemy in the objective as quickly as possible, and then take their appointed place in the scheme of consolidation. In addition, the very fullest use was made of the enormous artillery and vast supply of ammunition at the disposal of the Divisional commander
The part played by the gunners in this attack was considerable, the Divisional artillery, as usual, carrying out its allotted program faultlessly. The barrage was organized in depth in four zones. As the infantry advanced the whole of these different barrages also advanced, so that by the time the infantry reached the Germans the latter had had during the morning a good sample of most of the types of shells employed by the British artillery,
Before the attack barrage was opened the enemy's position was subjected to twenty-four hours intense bombardment. The infantry were also preceded by a barrage fired by thirty-two machine-guns, which engaged all strong posts, pill-boxes, &c. Twenty machine-guns went forward and assisted in the consolidation of the captured positions.
Two objectives were selected, the first being the dotted Blue line, the line of the Stroombeek continued in a northwest direction to Delta Huts. The final objective, the Blue line, was a line through Quebec Farm, Bavaroise House, Church Trench, Delta House. The 58th Division on the right and the 20th Division on the left were allotted similar objectives.
Brigadier-General J. G. H. Hamilton, D.S.O., commanding 154th Infantry Brigade, decided to attack on a two battalion front. The plan of attack was in two phases.
Phase 1. The 9th Royal Scots and the 4th Seaforth Highlanders, each on a two-company front, should take as far as the dotted Blue line;
Phase 2. The 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 4th Gordon Highlanders were then to pass through the leading battalions, each on a three-company front, to the capture of the final objective.
The 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, assembled about the river Steenbeek, and the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, assembled on the banks of the Canal de I'Yser, were held in readiness to move forward to assist the 154th Brigade should they be required. Twelve tanks were allotted to the Division, but only one was able to come into action effectively against the enemy.
The assembly was carried out successfully with casualties to 2 officers and 25 other ranks, after an arduous march. The ground through which the routes to the forward area lay had been badly ploughed up by shell-fire. The difficulties of traversing it were much aggravated by a heavy fall of rain, lasting for two hours, which occurred during the night. Each shell-hole became a miniature pond, while the natural marshes and pools increased in size, and the mud became softer and more slippery than ever.
Facing the 154th Brigade was the 36th German Division, whose frontage almost corresponded with that of the Highland Division.
The attack was launched at 5.40 A.M. The enemy's barrage did not open until five minutes after the attack was launched, and was then particularly heavy on the area between our original front line and the Langemarck road.
In the first phase strong resistance was encountered in and in front of Pheasant Trench. On the right "A" and "B" companies of the 9th Royal Scots were engaged with rifle and machine-gun fire from the start but assisted by assisted by "C" Company, they gained their objective. On the left, where "B" Company 9th Royal Scots, followed by "D" Company (dotted Blue line), was engaged, Pheasant Trench was occupied in the centre of the company front almost at once. The left two platoons of the company front reached the trench, but were heavily engaged by machine-gun fire, and returned to our lines. The company commander, the battalion intelligence officer, and the artillery liaison officer rapidly reorganized the men, and led them forward again, accompanied by some of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Assisted by the platoon which had already gained a footing in Pheasant Trench, and which fought its way along the trench to its left flank, this party captured its objective. The 4th Seaforth Highlanders on the left also encountered serious resistance. The company detailed for the capture of the trench advanced by twos and threes from shell-hole to shell-hole, rifle grenades, Lewis guns and rifles being freely used. Meanwhile the company detailed for the capture of the dotted Blue line, seeing what was afoot, moved round and attacked Pheasant Trench from a flank. The advance culminated in hand-to-hand fighting, in which the 4th Seaforth Highlanders signally triumphed. Their left company was engaged by three machine-guns firing from Pheasant Trench and from a pill-box west of it. These were all knocked out, but not before thirty Germans had been killed. Pheasant Trench on both battalion fronts was in some parts literally choked with dead.
THE ADVANCE CONTINUES
After the capture of Pheasant Trench, which was critical to the success of the attack, the advance on the dotted Blue line was continued. "C" Company of the 9th Royal Scots had some hard fighting round Flora Cot and later they came under enfilade fire from machine-guns on Hubner Farm (300 yards south of the Divisional right boundary). The company commander immediately detached two Lewis guns and two rifle sections to deal with it. This detachment fought for twenty minutes, during which they inflicted such losses on the occupants of the farm that the 2/8 London Regiment was able to capture it frontally.
On their left "D" Company of the 9th Royal Scots reached the Blue line successfully, but was much reduced in strength, having suffered serious casualties in the fighting round Pheasant Trench. The 4th Seaforth Highlanders had little difficulty in capturing the Blue dotted line, and in consolidating according to prearranged plan.
THE ADVANCE TO BLUE LINE
4th Gordon Highlanders and the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders detailed for the capture of the Blue line, had suffered serious casualties from having become involved in the fighting for Pheasant Trench before they formed up under the barrage. "D" Company of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. had also suffered heavily from shell-fire when advancing: from the old British front line.
The 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders reached the Blue line after having overcome, Flora Cot, Quebec Farm, and Bavaroise House. The 4th Gordon Highlanders, who had already lost five officers before forming up under the barrage, had their first fight after the barrage moved forward at Pheasant Farm Cemetery. Malta House, Rose House, and Delta House were all captured after stiff fighting. When 4th Gordon Highlanders reached the Blue line, they had only three officers and six platoons of about ten men each in the front line; the remainder of the reserve company with two officers was therefore sent, up as a reinforcement.
Because the neighbouring Division attacking on that flank had been unable to make progress the battalions of 51 Division on the left had to form a defensive flank some 1000 yards in depth. The Blue line was thus consolidated, as had been intended, as far as Rose House, and the line then bent round towards White House.
THE GERMAN COUNTER ATTACKS
Consolidation had not long been in progress before that series of enemy counter-attacks began which culminated in the late afternoon in a most determined assault. The enemy artillery began shelling the valley of the Steenbeek and Blue lineup to Pheasant Trench Ridge and across the Stroombeek. Many casualties were sustained by reserve troops, machine-gun teams, &c., moving forward, while heavy losses sustained by the runners made communication difficult.
At 11.45 A.M. there was a demonstration against the left of the 4th Gordon Highlanders which was beaten off by defensive flanking fire.
At 12.30 P.M. there was a second attack but in greater numbers. The defensive flank again wiped out the attack.
"A" Company of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were sent forward as reinforcements, and deployed two platoons on a line from the Poelcappelle road through Pheasant Farm Cemetery to north of Delta Huts and two platoons just west of the Poelcappelle road in Stroom Trench.
Throughout the morning machine-guns had been taking up their prearranged positions. During the afternoon the Blue line was held along its length up to Rose House, where the line bent back forming a defensive flank, until touch was obtained with the Division on the left.
In the afternoon the enemy were seen coming up in ones and twos from Poelcappelle moving from shell-hole to shell-hole towards the captured position, and concentrating for a counterattack in dead ground. Further in rear, larger bodies of the enemy could be seen massing.
At 5 P.M. the counter-attack, accompanied by a barrage of unusual intensity was launched. On the right the 451st Infantry Brigade of the 234th German Division advanced between York House and Tweed House, but it never reached the Blue line. In the centre the 452nd Infantry Regiment of the 234th Division continued to attack, the 5th Grenadiers of the 36th Division and the 208th Division attacking on the battalion left flank. The attack was firmly held all along the line until the rifle and Lewis-gun ammunition, of which there had been an extraordinary expenditure, was exhausted. Rose House continued to hold out, but was isolated. After the front line had given, the three platoons of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders north of the Lekkerboterbeek held firm and broke up attack after attack, punishing the enemy severely.
On their right, after every officer of the 4th Gordon Highlanders who had taken part in the initial attack had become a casualty, the small party in Beer Trench gave. Malta House was next overwhelmed, and the platoon garrisoning Stroom Trench was forced back.
About 6 P.M. a general withdrawal of the troops inside the V formed by the Poelcappelle road and the Lekkerboterbeek took place. During this withdrawal the local commanders, realising the necessity of reducing the area of the enemy penetration to a minimum, formed defensive flanks. On the right “C” Company 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, two platoons of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and "D " Company of the 9th Royal Scots; and on the left the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 4th Seaforth Highlanders, were all so disposed as to pin the enemy into the V; in this position he was caught under enfilade fire from both flanks, and suffered heavily.
Meanwhile the troops who had withdrawn from the V were rallied, and having collected ammunition from the dead and wounded, were led forward from Pheasant Trench. At the same time the company of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders which earlier had been sent forward to assist in countering any enemy counter-attack, also launched an attack from the same trench. This attack was successful in clearing the enemy out of the angle of the V, and it left him with his farthest point of penetration about Point 82 on the Poelcappelle road.
The front line was then reorganised so as to run from a point 500 yards north of Delta Huts through Pheasant Farm Cemetery on the south side of Point 82 to the Lekkerboterbeek, thence along the stream until it joined the original Blue line.
As soon as it was dusk the remaining company of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was brought up to reinforce the left, and consolidation was continued throughout the night.
The Germans 452nd Regiment in the V had suffered heavy losses and were relieved by 371st Infantry Regiment from a fresh Division.
On the night of the 21-22nd 152nd Infantry Brigade relieved the 154th Brigade. During the afternoon of 23rd September the position suffered an intense barrage culminating just after 7 P.M. in a heavy German attack. This attack came from south of Poelcappelle towards the centre of the position. They advanced in great columns, and while extending to the south and east of Malta House, were caught in an artillery barrage and in the fire of Lewis guns and Vickers guns and rifles. The attack was defeated and the morning disclosed the enemy's dead strewn in heaps about Malta House. The right battalion, the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, had most opportunities of inflicting losses on the enemy, and fully availed itself of them. One company alone had five Lewis guns firing on the enemy at the same moment, of which one fired twenty-eight drums.
The total casualties to the Division during the operations lost 46 officers and, 110 other ranks, the 154th Brigade, which carried out the attack, losing 32 officers and 891 other ranks, and the 4th Gordon Highlanders 12 officers.
On 26th September the 152nd Infantry Brigade was relieved by the 32nd Infantry Brigade, 11th Division, and on the 27th the G.O.C., 11th Division, took over the command of the line.
Bewsher’s summary makes interesting reading and is produced in full:
This battle affords an admirable illustration of the economic use of troops. It must be remembered that only five battalions were employed in the attack and subsequent counter-attacks; that these five battalions - though through want of ammunition they did not hold their entire gains - had established themselves for a while in their final objective, and had accounted for every German garrisoning the area allotted to them for attack. Moreover, these battalions were fighting not only facing their front, but also facing their left flank, as the Division on their left had not made equal progress in the attack. That it was possible for so few men to do what they did was due to two things: first, to the combination of gallantry and skill on the part of the men and the leadership and initiative on the part of the officers and N.C.O.'s. The men had been trained in the use of ground, movement supported by fire, and in platoon tactics in general, and they put what they had learned into practice from the outset of the attack. The enemy fought bravely, perhaps as bravely as our men, but he was outmatched in tactical skill, and was in consequence defeated.
Secondly, the handling of the troops by the senior commanders was such as to forestall every move. on the part of the enemy. It was anticipated that the enemy would do his utmost to prevent us from making ground towards Poelcappelle, and rightly so, for on the evening of the attack nine out of ten battalions massed against the XVIIIth Corps were directed against the 51st. The Divisional commander, having rightly appreciated the situation, solved absolutely the problems connected with the two important factors of time and space, - the problem of having the right number of troops at the right place at the right time. The reserve did not require to be moved after the enemy had disclosed his intentions; but his intentions were anticipated, so that in each case reserve troops (counter-counter-attack troops) were ready to deal with hostile enterprises. Thus the weak points in the line were strengthened before they were threatened and not after the line had been pierced, and the main counterattack was delivered by the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders while the enemy's troops were still on the move and before they had had time to reorganise or consolidate their gains. In fact, the Germans were on this occasion completely outmatched in generalship, leadership, tactical skill, and skill at arms.