Published By Ben Hillidge
Marcoing and Battle of Welsh Ridge. 23-31 December 1917. Hood Battalion, Jan 1918.
1/4 Bn King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.
Nelson Battalion, RN Division.
Since the end of November and into December the 1/4 Bn King’s Shropshire Light Infantry had been in billets at Houtkerque in the rear area behind Poperinghe. Over 13-15 December they marched south to arrive at Metz en Couture on the Somme. On 16 December they went up to the front line opposite Marcoing to relieve the Royal Irish Rifles. They spent their time improving trenches, wiring, laying duck board tracks. The tour was relatively quiet with only the occasional shell.
On 23 December they were relieved in the front line by 1 Bn Artist’s Rifles and moved back into the support line. They spent the next days and nights on working parties strengthening the lines and improving communication trenches. The enemy was active and frequently shelled the working parties – the War Diary records 10 casualties for this period. On the night of 27/28 December they returned to the front line, during which no casualties were reported. Again they spent the time improving defences. It is possible that Private Samuel Vaughan was wounded at this time and DoW on 28 December or is wrongly listed as KIA.
Action at Welsh Ridge, 30 December 1917.
The action at Welsh Ridge was a relatively small engagement fought when the enemy counterattacked in the last days of the Battle of Cambrai. Welsh Ridge was a short stretch of higher ground forming a salient bulging out towards Marcoing. It had been captured during the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans determined to re take the ground. The salient was centred to the front of Villers Plouich; the trenches held by the British were in the Hindenberg Line along the crest of the Ridge. The enemy had early success and managed to infiltrate and overrun sections of the British lines but by evening, after hard fighting all day, the lost ground was re-captured.
The 4 Bn KSLI was positioned in the northern part of the salient at between Ribecourt and Couillet Wood; Nelson Battalion was to their right in front of Villers Plouich. Over the night of 29/30 December, patrols reported enemy transports moving up through Marcoing and that the enemy seemed to be preparing for an attack. At 6.30am that morning the attack came with an artillery barrage followed by assault troops. German troops wore white coveralls as camouflage against the snow covered ground and were armed with flame throwers. The enemy had brought the full force of their attack on this sector. They rushed and captured a section of trench held by Nelson Battalion and Royal Fusiliers battalions to the right of the KSLI.
On the sector held by 188 Brigade, including Nelson Battalion which was in reserve, the Germans captured Corner Trench, Welsh Trench and Welch Support. At 7.25am Nelson Battalion was ordered forward to reinforce Drake Battalion. The assault was held and at 10.25am Nelson Battalion occupied the old British front line to the north east of Viller Plouich.
On 190 Brigade’s front, including 4 Bn KSLI, the enemy broke into Eagle Trench. At the 1/4 Bn KSLI position the telephone lines to HQ went dead shortly after the assault started. Runners were sent back to find out the situation. News came back that there was vicious hand to hand fighting and the defenders were driven back. The Shropshire men quickly deployed to form a defensive line to protect their flank. At 8.00am the Germans pushed forward along a sunken road against the KSLI but they fought off the attack.
The British then organised a counter attack to re take the lost ground. Two companies of 4 Bn KSLI were to support and assist the 1 Bn Artist Rifles which would lead the assault timed for 10.45am. They went over the top on time. The KSLI men suffered heavy losses but managed to re take and hold their section of trench but elsewhere things were not as successful. The Artists’ part is depicted in the painting ‘Over the Top’ by war artist John Nash who took part in the action; the painting shows the Artists Rifles leaving their line and advancing over a snow covered battle landscape.
The KSLI men captured their objectives but only after two determined bombing parties. The first was lead by Lieutenant GH Morley (CWGC) who bombed down the trench forcing the enemy back, resorting to using enemy stick grenades when his own supply ran out. He was recommended for a VC but it was not awarded, he was hit by a stray bullet and killed as he returned from his exploit. The other was lead by Lieutenant Philips when they captured 5 enemy dressed in white smocks as camouflage in the snow covered ground. Elsewhere the Artist’s Rifles were forced back.
By midday the situation had quietened down. Later in the afternoon a second counter attack took place, this time involving Nelson Battalion which was to cooperate with Drake Battalion. The attack went over at 4.30pm and was successful with Nelson Battalion capturing and occupying Welsh Trench. Both Nelson and 1 /4 KSLI battalions remained in the front the line through the night and all the next day. Although there were no more infantry attacks there was frequent shelling, machine gun and sniper fire. The 1/4 Bn KSLI had casualties of 3 officers (in addition to Morley above, Lieutenants W Atherton CWGC and N L Smith CWGC) and an estimated 40 ORs killed, among them MotG Lance Sergeant Thomas Jones, with 5 officers wounded and over 100 ORs wounded or missing. Nelson Battalion casualties were 3 officers wounded and approximately 100 ORs KIA, wounded or missing.
Over the Top by John Nash. 1Bn Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30 Dec 1917. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUMS. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)
GOOGLE MAPS Satellite view centres on Villers Plouich, Cuillet Wood the stretch of woodland to the north and to the east of Ribecourt.
Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division – La Vacquerie Sector
WAR DIARY National Archives WO 95/3115/1-5 Hood Battalion.1916 June – 1919 Apr. on file = in action at Welsh Ridge
References and Sources WAR DIARY 4Bn KSLI and Regimental History KSLI. WAR DIARY Nelson Battalion
B&O 1917. Somme. Marcoing & Welsh Ridge. 1/4 Bn KSLI & Nelson Battalion. 23-31 Dec 1917.