Published By Ben Hillidge
Somme. Bray St Christophe. 6 Bn King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. 20 March- 2 April 1918.
The 6 Bn King’s Shropshire Light Infantry was to be heavily engaged during Operation Michael, Kaiser Offensive. On the 20 March 1918 the battalion was billeted at Cugny when, during the afternoon, the order was received to ‘Man battle stations’. On 21 March, the opening day of Operation Michael, the battalion moved off to occupy quarries near to Bray St Christophe arriving there late in the afternoon. The battalion was about 10kms from the battle front. Over the course of the day the enemy had broken through and at 11.15pm the battalion was ordered forward to man the rear defences on the Happencourt – Tugny road.
The morning of the 22 March dawned misty, all was quiet but the men were expecting an attack. At about 1.30pm the mist cleared and the attack came. The lines to the front of the battalion were driven in and men from the Royal Irish Rifle and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers began retiring back to the KSLI lines. The line became crowded as the units intermingled. After a brief pause the enemy assault continued at 4.00pm. To the right and left of the battalion the line was pushed back. On the right the Germans had used the canal as cover and managed to get around to the rear of D Company and cut off a great number of the men. At 7.15pm the Irish troops were ordered to retire, the Germans, on seeing the move, pressed on. They were able to bring down enfilading fire and by 7.30pm the situation was critical. A verbal order to retire was then passed on by a corporal from the RIR – the KSLI battalion C/O, Colonel Welch, unsure of the order’s provenance, waited on confirmation. While they did so a large force of the enemy came down the sunken road from Happencourt. A Lewis gun was brought to bear and opened fire – the Germans were surprised and scattered. Confirmation of the order then came through and by 8.30pm the battalion had withdrawn to dig in between Bray St Christophe and Aubigny in the area around Mill Wood and the Windmill SW of Aubigny.
At midnight A & D Coys were surprised by enemy patrols which had crept under the cover of a mist and set up machine guns and opened fire on their position. In the dark the situation became confused. A counter attack was organised lead by the battalion C/O but the enemy’s position was too strong and they were forced to retire. D Coy began to waver, also B Coy – here the enemy outflanked and encircled taking almost the entire company prisoner – taken prisoner at this time was Private 19732 Richard L Roberts. The remnants of the battalion fell back to Ham and the bridges over the River Somme. Here they were ordered to hold the bridgehead at Lannoy Farm. Another group retired to Pithon – here, it was discovered that the enemy were already behind them and they were forced to withdraw to a line between Ham and Verlainnes. The depleted battalion was put under command of 12 Bn King’s Liverpool Regiment.
On the morning of 23 March what was left of the battalion was collected together at Cressy. They were then ordered to hold a bridge head over the Oise-Somme Canal at Buverchy with a detachment to reinforce Calvary Farm. During the afternoon the enemy attacks came again. There was another withdrawal, this time back to the banks of the Canal where they dug in.
On 24 March the day began quietly – except for British artillery which was firing behind the battalion position, At 3.30pm the Germans came on again. They attacked the bridgeheads over the River Somme at Ham and soon crossed the river driving back men from 30 Division who streamed back to Buverchy and over the canal. Orders were then received for another withdrawal to take up a position on the Cressy – Ognolles Road. At 11.30pm the line was taken over by French troops and the battalion moved back to Roye where they spent the next day,
On 26 March, at 5.45am, the battalion, along with the Brigade, marched to Le Quesnel, arriving there at 11.30am. At first they manned the village defences before moving during the afternoon to a position in front of Arvillers. Over the 27 March the enemy offensive pushed on and during the afternoon men from 36 Division fell back through the KSLI men. The next day the battalion came under attack as the enemy pushed on. At 9.30am a bombardment began falling on the battalion lines and Arvillers, the infantry assault came 45 minutes later. It was beaten off, the bombardment came again followed by a second infantry attack. This time the battalion took heavy losses – the C/O sent a desperate message to Brigade HQ, that he could not keep his part of the line unless reinforcements were sent, but he would hold out to the last. Orders to retire came through at 11.00am. The Brigade withdrew and concentrated to the east of Hangest and then to Rifle Wood where they spent the night. The next day, despite a counter attack, the British continued the retreat and by evening the 6 Bn KSLI was at Thennes to defend the bridges and river crossing with orders to hold at all cost. The 30 March was quiet except for the occasional shell.
On 31 March the enemy renewed their offensive along the 20 Division front. The KSLI were deployed to protect the Division’s right flank. The Battalion succeeded in stopping the enemy attacks causing, as the War Dairy describes, ‘great casualties to him, both with Lewis and Rifle Fire’ but the defence was by now weakening. Fortunately the enemy assaults abated and during the early evening reinforcements came up and the flank was secured. The battalion stayed in the line until late on 1 April and were then withdrawn to Quevauvillers west of Amiens.
GOOGLE MAPS Satellite view centres on Ham
References and Sources WAR DIARY 6 Bn KSLI. History of KSLI
B&O 1918. Kaiser Offensive. Operation Michael. Somme. 6 Bn KSLI. 20 March- 2 April 1918.