286 Brigade at the Front
57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division was sent to France in February 1917. Whilst in France, the men were not fighting all the time and fighting was more intense at some times than others. The graph shows the casualties suffered by the West Lancashire Brigades from 1917 to 1920 and hence the periods when they were most active.
May-July 1917 was the defence of Armentières,
October 1917 was the Second Battle of Passchendaele,
April 1918 was the Battle of the Lys in the German Spring Offensive
and September 1918 was the Allies’ final push especially the Battle for Cambrai.
This embroidered postcard was sent by Chris Halpin to his mother. It features the emblem of the Royal Field Artillery.
From the War Diaries of 285 and 286 Brigades it is possible to gain a glimpse of what conditions were like, especially at the peak periods of their engagement.
June 1917 and the defence of Armentières (text in italic is a direct quote from the War Diary)
14 June, the enemy's promiscuous shelling of Armentières during the week has done considerable damage to the town, and battery positions have been affected, two very considerably.
21 June (good flavour of what it was like). A raid was carried out on enemy lines at 1am (22nd) preceded by a preliminary barrage of two minutes. The raiding party consisted of 3 officers and 100 other ranks. They sustained a few casualties by following the barrage too closely, but no difficulty was encountered in entering the enemy's trenches. Resistance was met with from parties of the enemy in dugouts and trenches, and time prevented the completion of the plan, no prisoners were obtained but several enemy were killed. Our party withdrew according to timetable except one was missing and succeeded in bringing back all our casualties. The enemy's artillery retaliation was very light and developed gradually. During the morning Lt Col W A Short CMG Commanding 286 Brigade RFA was killed by a shell when accompanying the GOC 57 Division on an inspection of battery positions. The GOC was hit by the same shell and died of wounds later in the day.
28 June. Enemy artillery continues to devote most attention to Armentières. His policy is apparently to fire intermittently at unexpected moments, particularly in the evening, in the vicinity of battery positions and roads, to harass our activity. ... Our artillery on all sections carried out routine firing, harassing movement and working parties, and destructive shoots on machine gun emplacements, dumps etc.
Lens is between Armentières and Arras (where the men would end the War) so this landscape is typical of what they would have experienced. The postcard was sent by Chris Halpin to his mother; it has no date but must be 1917 or 1918.
In October 1917, 57th Division was moved from the defence of Armentières to Flanders to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres, which had been raging since the end of July. The weather in August had been very wet and the battlefield had turned into a quagmire. September had been drier and the Allies had made some slight progress in pushing the Germans back from Ypres. As the battle for Passchendaele began in October, the weather worsened once again.
The painting of Lancashire gunners hauling an 18-pounder through the mud of Flanders is by Desmond Bettany.
October 1917: Passchendaele
26 October. The sort of day we think of as perhaps typifying the First World War (during what was later to become known as the Battle of Passchendaele).
5.40am the 14th Corps attacked in conjunction with the Corps on the right and left. The Right Artillery supported the attack of the 57 Division (at the time 285 and 286 were part of the Left group, so were not directly involved in this action). The weather was bad all day, and the absence of visibility prevented observation of the progress of the attack. The final objective appears to have been reached in most places but the enemy were encountered in great force and our infantry were unable to hold the positions reached and many casualties were sustained from machine gun fire. Contact aeroplanes were unable to go up early and in consequence, information as to the resistance met with was scanty and received too late to enable artillery fire to be concentrated on to positions where it would have been of assistance. The situation in fact remained obscure throughout the day, and when it was cleared up it became evident that severe casualties had been sustained by the attacking infantry and the line finally held approximated to that held at the commencement of the attack. Hostile artillery fire was moderate.
The following telegram was received from the Corps Commander:- 'I thoroughly appreciate fine effort made today. Only ground and weather ruined your chances. Please thank all ranks for their work and keep smiling'. (I think the O/C’s remark is phlegmatic rather than cavalier – at least I hope so!)
During October 1917, the Brigades had 43 men killed, 240 wounded and 290 horses incapacitated.
April 1918: German Spring Offensive
Worse was to come during the German Spring Offensive, particularly in April 1918. On 21 March the German’s had launched the Spring Offensive in an attempt to break through the Allies’ defences before American troops could join the war effort. The first attack was on the Somme and had great success but crucially the Germans were stopped before they could take their principal objectives, Arras and Amiens. In April they mounted the second phase of their offensive, further north on the River Lys, which is where 285 and 286 Brigades became involved.
286 Brigade’s diarist records:
9 April 1918, at 4.15am an intense bombardment of hostile gas shell commenced on the whole of the Corps front. Our batteries, which were standing to, to support a raid by the 121 Infantry Bde, were immediately ordered to open counter-preparation fire. The gas shell bombardment lasted until about 9am when the enemy placed an intense barrage on the front line system. The enemy broke through the British line on the Right of the 4th Divisional front, and turning to his right outflanked our Batteries. The guns of B and C Batteries and two howitzers of D/286 were captured. A/286 were able to withdraw their six guns and D/286 four howitzers, after engaging the enemy up to within 300 yards of the position. The Brigade withdrew and took up position on the N side of the river LYS near LE POINT MORTIER, where batteries engaged the enemy with harrassing fire. When a battalion of enemy infantry were reported to be in CROIX DU BAC a further withdrawal was made to LE VERRIER. 7 Other Ranks killed. 3 Officers and 26 OR wounded. 3 Officers and 22 OR missing.
By 8pm the Division Command diarist conveys some of the confusion of the day: later information has shown that our batteries south of the Lys were attacked in their original positions by infantry advancing from their right flank and were under machine gun fire both before and after withdrawal which was carried out under great difficulty. In some cases the enemy attacked from the right rear. C/286 had all teams destroyed by m-g fire as they were endeavouring to limber up. It was very difficult throughout the day to ascertain the general situation either of the enemy or of our own line owing to the fog, the enclosed nature of the country and its features. It was in consequence very difficult to put down any effective barrage before the enemy was close up to the guns. In cases where enemy appeared in front no difficulty was experienced in keeping them off by firing over open sights.
April 11 is an intense day of action for 285 and 286 Brigades, first being forced to withdraw, then setting up barrages to try to halt the enemy advance, supporting counterattacks by the 93 Infantry Bde. The following morning the brigades set up barrages to support infantry holding the line but in the face of enemy attacks all along the line, they were forced to withdraw. Just after midday Outtersteene was reported taken by the enemy and the brigades were forced to withdraw further under intense fire.
On April 13, the enemy again attacked along the whole front. 285 and 286 Bde ... broke the attack on the 92 Bde front, but outposts in front of Merris were driven in. In many places however owing to the thick mist the enemy were able to work round the flanks of weakened companies and compel further withdrawal.
During the Battle of the Lys, 9-29 April, 285 and 286 Brigades had 9 Officers and 108 Other Ranks killed or missing, 6 Officers and 144 Other Ranks wounded, with a further 14 wounded but remaining at duty. The German Second Spring Offensive failed to achieve its objective. Although the Germans recaptured the hard-won Passchendaele Ridge, they failed to break the French and Allied Lines. In the process, they suffered over 330,000 casualties and lacked reserves to replace them. This failure marked a major turning point in the War.
September 1918: the Final Push
In their final major engagement of the War, 285 and 286 Brigades supported the Allies’ advances, forcing the Germans back, but meeting fierce resistance. A flavour of the action: Sept 11, an attack was carried out by 170 and 171 infantry brigades with object Canal du Nord. This was supported by creeping barrage and box barrage on the right. Moeuvres was captured and our line established east of the village. On the left, the Right Battalion of Left Brigade reached its objective but had to withdraw to original line owing to heavy enfilade machine gun fire from the canal bank on the left.
285 and 286 continued to support the slow advance until withdrawn to reserve at Boisleux St Marc on 17th, and on 19th they joined the Canadian Corps. On 26th 57 Div moved to the Hindenburg front line. On the following day the infantry succeeded in crossing the Canal du Nord. During October, the Brigade participated in the capture of Cambrai under the command of the Canadians.
In mid October, they occupied Lille, and by the end of the month had withdrawn to Arras, which is where they were stationed at the Armistice. The postcards above were sent by Chris Halpin to his mother and show the destruction of Arras.
The postcard on the right shows a seminary near Lille which served briefly as a billet for the Brigade. The back of the seminary postcard says Chris hopes to be home by the end of the month (presumably December 1918) but it would take longer than that.
Demobilisation began in February the following year and was finally completed by June.
The photo right shows men from "C" Battery at the end of the War, probably in Arras. The man seated second left is Harry Mercer. Do you recognise any of the other men?