THE ATTACK ON HILL 35,
Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli.The
Battalion ordered to make the seventh attempt against
Hill 35.The task.A and D Companies
selected.The assembly position.Gassed
by our own side. Waiting for zero.The
attack.Considerations governing its failure.The
Battalion quits the Ypres battlefield.
‘At 4 p.m.’ said the 61st
Divisional Summary for the twenty-four hours ending
12 noon, September 11, 1917, ’we attacked the
Battery Position on Hill 35. This attack was
not successful.’ A grim epitaph. The
terse formula, as though wasted words must not follow
wasted lives, was the official record of the seventh
attempt to storm Hill 35.
Against the concrete gunpits which
crowned this insignificant ridge the waves of our
advance on July 31 had lapped in vain. Minor attacks
designed to take Gallipoli, a German stronghold set
behind the ridge, and against the sister position
of Iberian on its flank, proved throughout August
some of the most costly failures in the 5th Army operations.
The defence of the three strongholds, Iberian, Hill
35, and Gallipoli provided a striking example of German
stubbornness and skill, but added an object-lesson
in the squandering of our efforts in attack.
Operations upon a general scale having failed to capture
all three, it was fantastically hoped that each could
be reduced separately. Iberian, Hill 35, and
Gallipoli supported one another, nor was it feasible
to hold any without holding all. Yet to take
Hill 35 on September 9 the 2/4th Oxfords were
specially selected. The spirit of A and D Companies,
chosen by Colonel Wetherall for the attack, was excellent.
We confidently believed that we could succeed where
others failed. Optimism, so vital an ingredient
in morale, was a powerful assistant to the English
Army. It was fostered, perhaps unconsciously,
throughout the war by the cheerful attitude preserved
by our Generals and staff, but its foundation lay in
our great system of supply. The A.S.C., which
helped to win our victories, helped, too, to temper
On September 7 Brown and myself went
up through Ypres to view the scene of the attack.
At Wieltje, where Colonel Wetherall and B and C Companies
already were, we descended to a deep, wet dug-out and
that night listened to a narrative brought by an officer
who had participated in the last attempt to take the
hill. He dispensed the most depressing information
about the gunpits, the machine-guns, the barrages,
and last, but not least terrible (if believed), the
new incendiary Verey lights used by the Germans to
cremate their assailants. The description of
a piece of trench, which we were to capture and block,
particularly flattered our prospects. ’Wide,
shallow trench, enfiladed from Gallipoli, filled with th Division dead,’ it ran. The
tale of horror becoming ludicrous, we soon afterwards
clambered on to the wire bunks and slept, dripped
on, till the early morning.
The next day was misty. Our 15-inch
howitzers on whose ability to smash the enemy’s
concrete strongholds reliance was staked, could not
fire. The attack was postponed until September
10, but that decision came too late to stop our companies
quitting the camp according to previous orders and
marching up through Ypres. They could have stayed
at Wieltje for the night, but the men’s fear
that by so doing they would miss their hot tea, decided
their vote in favour of a return to Goldfish Chateau.
Tea is among the greatest bribes that can be offered
to the British soldier.
Accordingly the march through Ypres,
or rather, round it (for no troops chose to pass its
market place) was repeated on the morrow. The
tracks towards the line were shelled on our way up,
but we came safely through. Dusk was awaited
in a much war-worn trench in front of Wieltje.
As daylight fades we file away, each
man with his own thoughts. Whose turn is it to
be this journey?
Along the tortuous track of tipsy
duckboards we go for a mile, until acrid fumes tell
that the German barrage line is being passed.
This is a moment to press on! To get the Company
safely across this hundred yards is worth many a fall.
... Presently the shattered pollards
of the Steenbeek are left behind and flickering Verey
lights cast into weird relief the rugged surface of
the earth. At Pommern Castle our front trenches,
in which figures of men loom indistinctly, are reached.
At one corner, where the trench is littered with fragments,
we are cautioned by a sentry, whose voice is a little
shaken, not to linger; the entrance to a pill-box (which
faced the enemy) was hit a short time ago. From
the trench we proceed further into No-Man’s-Land,
where the Bucks are said to have linked up shell-holes
since nightfall. (Those will be our ‘assembly
position’ for the attack to-morrow afternoon).
By now all shells are passing over
our heads; we are level with where Verey lights are
falling, and the sweep of bullets through the air
shows that the enemy is not far off. Figures appear
as if by magic. All at once there is a crowd
of men, rattling equipment and talking in suppressed
voices. A few commands, and the relief is complete.
We are in No-Man’s-Land, strung in a line of
shell-holes, from which in sixteen hours’ time
the attack is to start.
Soon after 3 a.m. I set out to
visit all the scattered groups of men to give my last
instructions, for from dawn onwards no movement would
be possible. It was an eerie situation. The
night was filled with multifarious noise peculiar
‘poops,’ the distant crash of bombs, and
all the mingled echoes of a battlefield. At one
time German howitzers, firing at longest range, chimed
a faint chorus high above our heads; anon a hissing
swoop would plant a shell close to our whereabouts.
Lights rose and sank, flickering. Red and green
rockets, as if to ornament the tragedy of war, were
dancing in the sky. Occasionally a gust of foul
wind, striking the face, could make one fancy that
Death’s Spectre marched abroad, claiming her
Our guns fired incessantly. Their
shells came plunging down with an arriving whistle
that made each one as it came seem that it must drop
short and many did. Mist drifted fitfully
around and hid, now and again, two derelict tanks,
at which a forward post of my company was stationed.
This post I was on my way to visit, when, suddenly,
what seemed trench-mortar bombs began to fall.
About twenty fell in a minute, the last ones very
close to where I stood.
They were gas. It was a sickening
moment; surprise, disaster, and the possibility that
here was some new German devilry fired at us from
behind, joined with the fumes to numb the mind and
powers. Half-gassed I gave the gas-alarm.
By telephone I managed to report what had happened.
The Colonel seemed to understand at once; ’I’ve
stopped them,’ conveyed everything of which
it was immediately necessary to make certain.
For it was an attack by our own gas.
Some detachment, without notifying our Brigade staff
or selecting a target which sanity could have recommended,
had done a ‘shoot’ against my company’s
position under the mistake that the enemy was in it.
Two casualties, which I believe proved fatal, resulted.
Many men vomited. I was prostrated for two hours.
The effect on the morale of some of my men was as pitiable
as it was amply justifiable.
For this dastardly outrage I fancy
that no person was ever brought to book. Infantry
loyally condoned the so-called ‘short shooting’
by our guns. Out of thousands of shells fired
at the enemy some must and did fall in our lines.
But from such condonation is specifically to be excepted
this instance of a gas projection carried out with
criminal negligence upon my comrades. For or
by its perpetrator no excuse was offered; and yet
the facts were never in dispute.
Proverbially the worst part of an
attack was waiting for it. On September 10, from
dawn till 4 p.m., A and D Companies lay cramped in
shell holes on the slopes of Hill 35. In my own
hole, so close that our knees touched, sat Sergeant
Palmer, Rowbotham, my signalling lance-corporal, Baxter,
another signaller, Davies, my runner, and myself.
With us we had a telephone and a basket of carrier
At 8 a.m., while some of us were sleeping
heavily, there came a crash and a jar, which shook
every fibre in the body. An English shell had
burst a yard or two from the hole wherein we lay.
Voices from neighbouring shell-holes hailed us ’Are
you all right?’: and we replied ‘We
are.’ We had no other shell as close as
that, but all day long there were two English guns
whose shells, aimed at the Germans on the ridge in
front, fell so near to where we lay that we became
half-used to being spattered with their earth.
As the air warmed the error of these guns decreased,
but we counted the hours anxiously until the attack
should liberate us from such cruel jeopardy.
The intolerable duration of that day
baffles description. The sun, which had displaced
a morning mist, struck down with unrelenting rays
till shrapnel helmets grew hot as oven-doors.
Bluebottles (for had not six attempts failed to take
the hill?) buzzed busily. The heat, our salt
rations, the mud below, the brazen sky above, and the
suspense of waiting for the particular minute of attack,
vied for supremacy in the emotions. The drone
of howitzers continued all the day. Only at 2.30
p.m., when a demonstration was made against Iberian,
did any variety even occur. There was no choice
nor respite. Not by one minute could the attack
be either anticipated or postponed.
Of the attack itself the short outline
is soon given. Promptly at 4 p.m. the creeping
barrage started. In a dazed way or lighting cigarettes
the men, who had lost during the long wait all sense
of their whereabouts, began to stumble forward up
the hill. Our shrapnel barrage was not good.
One of the earliest shells burst just behind the hole
from which I stepped. It wounded Rowbotham and
Baxter (my two signallers) and destroyed the basket
of carrier pigeons. Of other English shells I
saw the brown splash amongst our men. Prolonged
bombardment had ploughed the ground into a welter of
crumbling earth and mud. Our progress at only
a few dozen yards a minute gave the Germans in their
pill-boxes ample time to get their machine-guns going,
while correspondingly the barrage passed away from
our advance in its successive lifts. Heavy firing
from Iberian commenced to enfilade our ranks.
Long before the objective was approached our enemies,
who in some cases left the pill-boxes and manned positions
outside, were masters of the situation. The seventh
attempt had failed to struggle up the slopes of Hill
Despite the disappointment of this
immediate failure of the enterprise, I realised at
once the impossibility of its success. Yet on
this occasion less was done by the men than the conduct
of their leaders deserved. Almost as soon as
bullets had begun to bang through the air some men
had gone to shelter. Those who stood still were
mown down. A handful of D Company, led by the
company commander, by short rushes reached a ruined
tank, close to the enemy, but the remainder disappeared
into shell-holes, whence encouragement was powerless
to move them. Only in A Company was any fire
No sense of anti-climax could be demanded
of the English soldier, whose daily shilling was paid
him whether he was in rest-billets, on working-party,
or sent into the attack.
On the part also of the Artillery
less was done than the scheme promised or our attacking
Infantry had counted on. By shell-fire the issue
of Hill 35 was to have been placed beyond doubt.
When the artillery machine broke down, achievement
of success demanded more initiative on the part of
the Infantry than if no artillery had been used.
In a sense our loss of a hundred guns at Cambrai a
few weeks later became a blessing in disguise, for
it restored the scales in favour of the Infantryman
as the decisive agent on the field of battle.
So ended the attack on Hill 35.
Upon its slopes were added our dead to the dead of
many regiments. But our casualties were few considering
that the attack had been brought to a standstill by
machine-gun fire. Of D Company officers Guest
was wounded (he had behaved with gallantry in the
attack) and Copinger missing. Viggers, a very
brave sergeant, was killed. Three lance-corporals,
Wise, Rowbotham, and Goodman, had been wounded.
The total casualties to the Battalion, including several
in B Company Headquarters from a single shell and others
in passing afterwards through Ypres, were, happily,
A few days after its attack on Hill
35 the Battalion marched away from Ypres, never to
return. What credit had been earned there by the
61st Division was principally associated with the work
of the 184th Infantry Brigade and of the 2/4th Oxfords.
Improvement in morale flowed from the test of this
great battle. The losses of the Battalion had
been heavy; fourteen officers and 260 men were its
casualties. The final winning of the war could
not be unconnected with such a sacrifice. Like
others before and others after it, the Battalion at
Ypres gave its pledge to posterity.