21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

64th Brigade and the attack at Miraumont August 24th 1918.


64th Brigade and the attack at Miraumont August 24th 1918.

After a pause in the advances of the 21st of August and the defence against German counter attacks on the 22nd of August, General Sir Julien Byng order a commencement of further assaults in order for Third Army to finally capture Bapaume, the original objective of the Battle of Albert. Only a small section of the railway and the village of Miraumont were left to capture, with these gone then the route to Bapaume would be open. These objectives lay directly in front of V corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Cameron Deane Shute and he selected 21st division, already in the line and best positioned to carry out the assault on the spur to the east of Miraumont.

Orders were received by V Corps at 5.35pm on the 23rd of August. They were to advance to the south of Bapaume in the direction of Rocquigny and Morval, an advance of approximately eight miles in a north easterly direction.

However the time and objective for 21st division, who were in the line facing toward Grandcourt and Le Sars, was changed and Brigadier-General A J McCulloch in command of 64th brigade, was requested to divisional headquarters. An attack had stalled on the front of IV Corps and the Germans were holding out in the village of Miraumont. It was imperative that the high ground south-east of the village be seized. Speed was of the essence and the time of the attack was brought forward for 64th brigade to 11pm. They would be advancing with their flanks in the air, something hardly seen previously, but with the prevalent use of devolution of command now being more commonly used, officers on the ground were more able to use their own initiative thus making this more practicable.

Perhaps with this in mind McCulloch decided to advance with his brigade. Only recently promoted to acting Brigadier-General from the 9th battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) he may also have felt more ‘comfortable’ being at the sharp end. If 21st division and in particular 64th brigade could advance with speed to the knoll 1,500 yards south east of the village they could help with the capture of Miraumont, and hopefully stop the enemy from retreating and more importantly destroying the bridge within the village over the Ancre.

The German troops in front of them whilst in force were, after the fighting and in particular the counter attacks launched on the 22nd, well mixed up. Divisional reports had indicated that up to eight divisions were in the line opposite third army prior to the 21st August. This was augmented by some divisions coming into the area for rest near Bapaume-Cambrai after the fighting around Amiens on the 8th. With the initial attacks of the 21st and the German counter attacks of the 22nd, the use of all formations and with some degree of haphazardness had caused the units to become intermingled . This would not help with the co-ordination of the defence. Coupled with surprise, the German commanders probably believing that the British troops were worn out from the original attacks, would give the 64 brigade an advantage.

Before McCulloch left for divisional headquarters at Mailly-Maillet he issued instructions to alter the time of zero hour. Stipulating that 1st battalion East Yorkshire (East Yorks) would advance on the left with the 9th KOYLI on the right. The brigade reserve would be made up of a company each from these two battalions and a further one from the 15th Durham Light Infantry (DLI), who were unable to extricate themselves safely from their position in time for 11pm. These would be supplemented by eight machine guns. The battalions would advance with two companies in front with a third in support, each company moving in square formation, that is a platoon at each angle of a square, having twenty yards between each platoon in all directions (see diagram below). They were also ordered to form up in the ruins of St Pierre Divion as soon as possible with all the machine guns that could be collected in time. The brigade mortars were warned to be prepared to bombard the area north of Grandcourt along the railway, whilst the attached engineers were kept at work on the crossing over the Ancre.

21st was back near ground that was eminently familiar to them, just over two years previously they had advanced on Bazentin as part of XV Corps attack of the 14th July 1916. However now they were a few miles to the north west. The ground was dominated by two main features. The river Ancre, cushioned by valleys either side of it and the rising slopes towards Martinpuich. The enemy had intentionally flooded the Ancre, and a normally small stream had become a boggy marsh, at points some 300yds wide, made more defensible by the addition of not just barbed wire but fallen trees. 64th brigades objective lay beyond Grandcourt, a spur rising some 400 feet above the river valley about a half a mile north-north-east of Ovillers. But more significant than the incline was the fact the heights were mass of trenches, dugouts and fallen trees, coupled with shell craters and wire and deep gullies. It was this height that made the spur an important target. The Germans could clearly see the troops below them, any movement observed, making an attack by Fourth Army eastward from Albert or Third Army’s IV Corps striking at Miraumont on the left, impossible.

It was this ground that McCulloch was instructed to advance across when he returned from divisional headquarters. His brigade was crucial to the continued advance. With speed and agility being of paramount importance he issued further orders. They were to attack in light order. The divisional commander wished for the men of 64th brigade to carry only two Mills bombs, at least 170 rounds of SAA, rations for the 25th as well as the iron ration for the 24th.It was left to McCulloch as to how much entrenching equipment was taken, but as speed was of the essence and the divisional commander envisaged using existing trenches and shell holes to form the defence line, it is reasonable to assume that few were carried by the men, evidence from the 15th DLI history supports this assumption.

By this time in the war the artillery bombardment was no where near as long as two years previous, more of a hurricane bombardment to allow the enemy to gain cover only to re-emerge as the attackers arrived at the lip of the trench. The artillery was under the direct orders of the divisional commander and as the 21st division was on the left it is easy to assume that they benefited from the eight heavy howitzers that were told off to support the flanks. Corps artillery was able to fire from 144 field guns and 60 heavy guns across a 8,000yds front, small for this yardage of front but still enough to give each gun a 39.2 yards of attack ratio. The creeping barrage would be fired by the divisional artillery, with XCIV and XCV brigades RFA and 16 guns of XVII brigade RGA tasked with this. The remainder of the heavy artillery was tasked with firing on the converging areas until the troops from the divisions linked up. Major-General Campbell the divisional commander had also instructed 12 guns of the machine gun battalion to help with the initial assault, reverting back to helping the 62nd brigade after the initial assault had been completed.

The last few days had been hot and a night attack may have offered some respite for the attackers in respect of heat, however it is to be thought that the dangers of a night attack particularly co-ordination would also have been unwelcome. As some form of precaution McCulloch had a guide, Captain Ennals of the 9th KOYLI, out in front leading the way.

After a difficult assembly in the pitch dark, crossing the front of 62nd brigade and rough ground the brigade entered Battery Valley just after midnight. In this valley that runs from Thiepval towards Grandcourt the first casualties were taken, the divisional artillery fired short and caught some of the advancing troops. This was immediately supplemented by the first German resistance, small outposts only fifteen yards range. These positions were immediately rushed with some prisoners being taken. The advance then continued on to the mid-way objective of the Grandcourt-Thiepval road, with the troops in good confidence, rushing outposts as and when encountered. The first objective was reached at 1pm and McCulloch felt it necessary to reorganise the brigade, the men were eager to carry on and it was with some difficulty that the men of the 9th KOYLI were held back until Grandcourt was mopped up and a line was established. However once this was done the brigade began the second advance toward Boom Ravine.

By now the advance was out pacing the troops around it and whilst McCulloch had orders to push on he was aware that his command was becoming stretched. He decided to call a halt for a short breath, to allow the 110th brigade to come up and make contact with the troops of 17th division on the flank. At that time he was still waiting for the 15th DLI to arrive (they arrived at 2.15am) so he planned to wait until 3.15pm. The isolated position of the brigade drew enemy activity and the men had to beat off attacks from all sides until the 110th brigade arrived having fought there way through rough ground and enemy positions. They were able to take up a position on the flank and gain contact with the troops of 17th division a 1000yds north-west of Courcelette.

Positioning the DLI on the right, the brigade moved off via Boom Ravine to assault hill 135, south of Miraumont, on a three battalion front. The advance was in the region of 2500yds and almost immediately the enemy caused problems. Again the men attacked with vigour and after initial resistance and some enemy casualties, many prisoners were taken and reports were gained of others fleeing in all directions, throwing a way their weapons as they did so.

The KOYLI reached the final objective at 4.30am with the DLI arriving 45 minutes later who formed a position on the right flank. The East Yorks were unable to reach the objective in line with the KOYLI but were still able to throw out a flank guard on the left. Still consolidating the position as the sun came up the brigade became under increasing heavy machine gun fire. With some confusion in the position the men took cover in shell holes and any other that could be found. They still had no touch with their flanks and shelling was becoming increasingly heavy. Sniping was increased too by the enemy and it was midday before movement became possible in the position. It was before this time that McCulloch was badly wounded and command dissolved onto Lt-Colonel C E R Holroyd-Smith commander of the DLI. McCulloch was evacuated to the rear , carried by some German prisoners. Some strong attempts to counter attack were launched by the Germans and calls for the brigade to surrender were heard but the men of 64th brigade were able to with stand this and around midday the enemy became less vigorous in their attacks and sniping.

Major-General Campbell had received news at about 8.45am that 64th brigade had reached its objective and was under increasing pressure from all flanks. An hour earlier he had ordered the 110th brigade to advance to support McCulloch’s men and they had as we have seen already made some contact. Initially they were held up by enemy activity but were eventually able to reach the area of concentration around midday which helped to relieve the pressure some what on the 64th brigade, however it was not until 3pm that it could be said that the enemy were no longer pressing and that the position was secure.

At 1pm a battalion from 62nd brigade arrived on the other flank and made some contact with 42nd division who were in possession of the southern half of Miraumont.

The attack had shown what could be achieved by boldness and local command. The command skill of Andrew Jameson McCulloch, clearly shows how a commander making the decisions in the middle of the battle can help influence the outcome. Had he not called a temporary halt to the attack to let other troops get closer his command may never have reached the position on the spur. If they had done so it is likely they would not have been able to withstand the attacks of the enemy. As it was the line was taken and held. The guns of the brigade from there position were able to over sea the Germans lines and stopped the enemy from escaping Miraumont. This greatly helped the 42nd division in its capture of this village and thus the whole attack.