As a result of the Germans’ Spring Offensive in 1918, many units of the allied forces went into hasty retreat. The 7th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops, with attachments from elsewhere, were working on laying a new railway track in the Peronne area i.e. Quinconce-Cleary line and Quinconce-Tincourt line. Their war diary recorded on 23rd March 1918: “At midnight Friday 22/23rd word was received from XIX Corps that Battalion should be moved to back area. All Companies were accordingly withdrawn and Battalion moved to ESTREES”.
One of those attached to the Canadian railway battalion was Royal Dublin Fusilier Second Lieutenant Frank Laird, who later reported in his memoir how the bridges at Peronne were being blown up as his entrenching battalion was beating a hasty retreat across the Somme.
The war diary of 16th (Irish) Division contains a map of the line of retreat and the work of the Divisional Pioneers (11th Hampshires) and 167th Company Royal Engineers.
They had, on 23rd March 1918:-
“ … fought a gallant action at Doingt where they held the enemy up for 2 hours while the Brigade (49th) was extricated.”
Four days later, Major Cecil Hazard of the 11th Hampshires who had done fine work at Doingt, was recorded as missing in the war diary, 27th March 1918: “Major C.J. Hazard was in command of a group of men belonging to various units of the Bde who were checking the hostile advance on the right. This is the last that was seen of him & it cannot be ascertained what his ultimate fate was”. In fact, he had been taken Prisoner of War following a hopeless counter-attack and survived the war. Second Lieutenant Frank Laird was also captured in the same action.
Had the National Archives not been out of bounds for the past year, Major Hazard’s personal file would have been on my list to consult out of interest to read his account of the action. It was the case that returned POWs in 1919 were required to write an account of the circumstances of their capture. As it happens, I had already consulted the file for Second Lieutenant Laird which contains his explanation, on the official form, Form 2.A, which had to be returned to the War Office in Whitehall. This document, however, commences from 25th March 1918, whereas the bigger picture from four days previously can be obtained from Frank’s memoir.
Frank Laird’s testimony dated 17th January 1919 Form 2.A, Confidential document reference number 139588/7
“On 25th March 1918, while with the 20th Entrenching Battalion, I received orders to join my regiment, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, with seven other officers and a number of men. We proceeded, under the command of Lieut. W. McHutchinson (sic) to the transport lines of the 48th Brigade near La Motte, & thence in search of our own battalions (1st and 2nd Dublins). We failed to get in touch with them on the 26th, but after two days continuous marching met, on 27th March, the remains of the 48th Brigade in retreat near Morcourt, Somme, under machine gun and shell fire. I was placed with 2/Lt P.R. Ellis (sic) RDF and between 20 & 30 men by Brigadier General Ramsey (sic) 48th Bde on a bluff commanding a cross roads outside the village (Morcourt, as I believe) with instructions to see the last of our men through before retiring. Here we lost one man killed and two wounded by a shell. Having seen the last man through, Lt Ellis & I withdrew our own men under strong machine gun fire and proceeded west, parallel to the Amiens-Peronne road. After proceeding some hundreds of yards we met a major of the Hampshire Regiment and Captain Cowley of the R.Dub.Fus. who ordered us to turn and counter attack. Accordingly we formed the men who were with us in line and advanced against the enemy. We were immediately brought under heavy shell fire. We continued to advance until close enough to see a number of the enemy running away about 300 yards ahead. We then came under machine gun fire at close range from the left flank which quickly brought us to a stand still. I believe that every officer, N.C.O., & man of our own party was either killed or wounded. Lt. P.R. Ellis was wounded over the kidneys by a piece of shell. I dressed him, and, having gone to a man shot through the legs, was myself wounded in the left side by a bullet which incapacitated me. It was now dusk, and after a short interval, the enemy advanced again and took prisoners those who remained alive. Two of their stretcher bearers dressed my wound and assisted me behind a haystack where I met Captain Duff-Taylor [and] 2/Lieut W.R.W Briscoe both of the R. Dub. Fus.”
Captain S. Duff-Taylor, MC and Second Lieutenant W.R.W. Briscoe survived their imprisonment, as per the Monthly Army List of January 1919.
Lieutenant W. MacHutchison was one of eight officers wounded, but was retrieved by colleagues and taken on their withdrawal to Villers-Bretonneux. However, he did not survive and was buried at that place.
Neither Captain Cowley nor Second Lieutenant Ellis made it into captivity in Germany, they both died of wounds. Ellis lies in Hautmont Communal Cemetery and Cowley at Le Cateau, having died in the makeshift hospital at Le Cateau where Frank Laird had been treated for his wound.
A longer version of this blog can be found in the second edition of the Great War Group’s Salient Points Journal.
An even more detailed account can be found in the forthcoming publication Frank Speaking, which is my full transcription of Frank Laird’s memoir with additions by me and also fills in the gap of the original memoir, following Frank’s early demise.
Frank misspelled names in his testimony of 17/1/19. He transposed 2/Lt Ellis’ initials and McHutchison does not have a middle *n* and Ramsay is with an *a* not an *e*.
War diary of 7th Canadian Railway Troops, Volume 12, 1st – 31st March 1918 can be downloaded online from http://www.collectioncanada.ca
National Archives references:-
Frank Laird personal file WO 339/64735
Cecil Hazard personal file WO 339/10673
WO 95/1972 16th (Irish) Division war diary
WO 95/1966 11th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (Pioneers) war diary