46th (North Midland) Division – Lens 1st July 1917

A while back, I published a post about the 46th (North Midland) Division. I have decided that I will write a post about each of the main attacks that the division was involved in during the First World War, starting with the attack on Lens/Liévin in July 1917.

1st July 1916 was not a good day for the 46th Division. The disastrous attack at Gommecourt had left the Division with a reputation

“the 46th Division … showed a lack of offensive spirit. I can only attribute this to the fact that its commander, Major-General the Hon. E.J. Montagu Stuart-Wortley, is not of an age, neither has he the constitution, to allow him to be as much among his men in the front lines as is necessary to imbue all ranks with confidence and spirit.”

This comment of having ‘a lack of offensive spirit’ is, I believe, an unfair assessment of a division that had fought stoically on the Hohenzollern Redoubt in October 1915 and had previously had a good reputation. The attack at Gommecourt was never intended to take the village, but to draw away artillery fire from the main offensive, which it did. For an extended period of time after the offensive, the division was dogged by a reputation for being a formation of poor quality, until this was disproved in the divisions successful taking of the St. Quentin Canal in September 1918. In my own opinion, the 46th Division and its commander were unfairly treated in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme.

After Gommecourt, the division was immediately moved out to quieter sectors of the Western Front. The division was brought back to the Gommecourt area in December 1916, where it was noted by the troops who had been there in July, that there had not been much change, and not much maintenance either. They were still in the Gommecourt area when the Germans started their withdrawal back to the defensive position known as the Hindenburg Line. It was at this point, in March 1917, that the troops finally made their way successfully into Gommecourt, coming across their comrades who had still yet to be buried, 9 months after the failed offensive.

At the end of March 1917, the division was moved from the Somme up to the sector arounds Lens and Liévin, a sector the unit knew well, having served there during the Battle of Loos at the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt in 1915. Lens is, and was, a heavy industrial city associated with factories and coal mining, a scene most likely not unfamiliar to the men of the division. The division participated in many small scale raids and attacks on the German positions around both Lens and Liévin in the summer months of 1917.  These attacks were used not only to strengthen the British positions in a relatively quiet area but also to pin down German troops in the area, to prevent them from being used as reinforcements at Messines and Third Ypres.

Lens location (Google Maps)

One of the most significant attacks on the German positions occurred on 1st July 1917, the first anniversary of the Battle of the Somme commencing, and with it, the Gommecourt diversion. No doubt, this key date would have been playing on the minds of some of the veterans of the division. The attack at Lens was to improve positions around the town. Small scale raids and attacks had taken place in the week beforehand, in order to get the jumping off points parallel with the German lines, thus having the best starting positions possible and avoiding a repeat of the Hohenzollern redoubt attack. All three brigades of the division – 137th, 138th,139th – were taking part in the attack, all of them under strength and tired after carrying out a weeks’ worth of fighting before the main offensive.

The following write up of the attack has been supported by the use of brigade and battalion war diaries. We’ll start with 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade, with the 1/5th Battalion (Bn) North Staffords being the assaulting battalion right in the centre of the attack, thus being the linking unit between all elements of the attack.  The attack was launched at 0247 under the cover of a creeping barrage. The two companies on the right of the attacking front managed to reach their objective swiftly, but the two left companies were almost immediately held up by machine gun and rifle fire from ruins close by. By 0700, the right companies were holding ACONITE trench (all of the German positions were given names by the British that started with the letter A or C). The left companies were engaged in severe hand to hand fighting in ruins east of AGUE trench, capturing 5 prisoners. 137th Brigade were unable to contact either 138th or 139th. At 0800, Captain Wagner of the same Bn was sent to reorganise the left companies and push forward the attack. By 2030, Captain Wagner had succeeded in leading the companies to a position near to a church, capturing 8 prisoners and 3 machine guns. The last of the objectives were within reach, so the attack continued forward. Unfortunately, the cellars of ruined houses were filled with German troops, holding up the attack. The Germans were driven out of the cellars and had a lot of casualties inflicted upon them, as Lewis guns had been placed to cover their exits. During this, Capt. Wagner was wounded, and command fell to Lieut. Jones of 1/6th Bn South Staffords.

Whilst this was taking place on the 137th’s left flank, at 1300 the Germans carried out a counter-attack on the line that had already been formed by the companies who had reached their objectives. By 1430, the companies had been pushed back to AGUE trench after severe fighting. Support companies launched their own counter-attack at 1530, without artillery support, as it was unknown if any advanced posts remained, and as such, did not succeed in pushing back the Germans. A decision was then taken by the command on the ground to await further reinforcements before carrying out another attack, as casualties had been heavy and those that remained were exhausted after hand to hand fighting in the ruins of Lens. AGUE trench was now the main line of defence for the 137th Brigade. It is noted in the war diary that

                All ranks fought with great spirit and determination and in spite of the fact that nearly all the officers and a large number of the NCOs became casualties early in the operations, junior NCOs reorganised their sections and platoons, and constantly led them forward to the attack on their own initiative.

At 1800, a further attempt was made to reach ACONITE trench led by Lieut. Col. Lamond with any remaining troops available in support and reserve – 1/5th Bn South Staffords, 1/6th Bn North Staffords and 2nd Cav Pioneer Bn.

These units had received orders at 1500 to move forward to take part in the counter-attack. Lieut. Col. Lamond received these orders at 1800; to attack and clear the area between the Liévin – Lens and Angres – Lens roads up to ACONITE trench, which was to be held and consolidated. In conjunction, 138th Brigade were to establish a post to connect with the 137th in ACONITE trench. Zero hour for the attack was fixed for 2300 but due to a number of factors – the darkness of the night, the enemy barrage, the sodden conditions of the ground and trenches being unrecognisable – the orders did not reach the officer commanding until 2325, resulting in the attack being postponed to 0000. The difficulties stated above resulted in the troops not being ready to attack until 0020. Considering this, Lieut. Col. Lamond made the decision to not continue as the attack was impracticable, meaning the 137th Brigade ended their days attack in AGUE trench.

Next, we move onto the 139th (Notts and Derby) Brigade on the northern wing of the attack. The brigade had the 2nd Bn Sherwood Foresters attached for the attack from 6th Division to bolster numbers.  On the far right of 2nd Sherwood Foresters front, the attack was held up, again by a German position in a ruined house. Some elements of this attack established defensive positions and managed to consolidate ALARM trench. Far along the same trench, more elements of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters had been there since the morning of the 30th June. These troops advanced from their positions, having not been informed of a change in the Zero hour, resulting in being caught in their own artillery barrage. It is unknown why this company was not informed of the change in Zero hour. Nevertheless, the company advanced and reached some more ruined houses where intense fighting took place, with the company commander, Capt. Roberts, shooting 15 Germans himself. Capt. Roberts managed to gather together troops from across the battalion and consolidated his position. The far left of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters were successful in making contact and forming up with 5th Bn Sherwood Foresters. One platoon reached the junction of ALOOF and COLZA trenches, with another platoon advancing to some more ruined houses which were full of Germans. Heavy fighting took place and caused a significant number of casualties to this unit. An officer, a group of troops and 2 Lewis guns got out of this altercation and returned to ALARM trench.

DESTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 9956) The ruins of Lens. Before the War Lens was the chief coal-mining town in France, it was occupied by the Germans in 1914. Though enveloped on three sides from August 1917, Lens was not finally abandoned until 2 October 1918. Photograph taken on 15 January 1919. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205245671

Another attacking battalion from the 138th brigade – 5th Bn Sherwood Foresters – was to seize ALARM trench in its entirety, moving through COTTON and AMULER trenches. Soon after Zero hour, the men lost direction and became mixed up with support troops and elements of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters. Posts were set up in AMULER trench which parties of the battalion managed to move forward from under the leadership of Capt. Cole before he was killed.  The centre of this battalion was to advance and seize COWARD trench and then push onto the final objective. By 0500, a message was received at HQ stating that the objective had been taken. By 0930 a wounded officer who had been evacuated reported that the whole of the railway cutting in that sector was also cleared, having been met by severe opposition, causing a significant number of casualties to the Germans. Various German weapons were recovered, and a number of prisoners taken. At some point, elements of the left flank and the centre became mixed up. A corporal gave a report that about 0630, there was active enemy sniping in the area. It was also reported that 60 Germans who had been trapped by the unit’s advance had been able to get into No Mans Land. These Germans were dealt with by Lewis gun fire and grenades. These group, with the corporal, managed to advance further to CAVALRY trench. The far right of this battalion was to assist in the capture of COWARD trench and appeared to have reached the objective without much difficulty but did end up becoming mixed with the centre of the battalion. Positions were consolidated throughout this sector and contact made with other attacking battalions in the area. Soon after daybreak, the Germans attempted several counter-attacks, coming over the open in large numbers but were repulsed on each occasion. Eventually at 0630, an attack came through and a party of Germans managed to break into No Man’s Lane behind the Foresters. To prevent a situation where the unit would become surrounded, the men of the 5th Bn withdrew to CAVALRY trench.  

An additional battalion – 6th Bn – also attacked from 138th Brigade’s starting positions.  Two parties were to advance and set up forward posts – the first party moving up COLLEGE trench in order to do so. The second party was to move south along COLLEGE trench. Both parties move forward successfully, however the second party loses its officer commanding and 6 other ranks before reaching their objective. Much like other units, the parties became mixed up with other attacking battalions who have lost direction. Bombing squads successfully bomb an enemy up through COWDRAY trench supported by a Lewis gun. At 0430, a message was received at HQ from 2/Lt Dolley who was commanding No 1 Party that the objective was occupied with minimal casualties. Several counter attacks were made by the Germans, one of them resulting in either the death or capture of 2/Lt Dolley by a party of Germans who were seen to jump into COLLEGE trench close to where he was standing. Later that day, the NCO in charge of this post made the decision to withdraw up COLLEGE trench as his party had been reduced to 4 men and his right flank was exposed.

We finish up with the 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Brigade attacking on the southern flank. The war diary is not as detailed as the other brigades. It states that the brigades attacking battalions – 1/4th and 1/5th Lincolns were assaulting the Cite Du Moulin. This heavily built up area was littered with obstacles and at least six machine guns in various positions. 1/5th Lincolns suffered around the Moulin but 1/4th Lincolns were able to take their objectives with minimal casualties and opposition. However, the unit was to become a victim of its own success, being forced to drawback to meet with the 1/5th Lincolns to ensure they would not become isolated from their struggling counterparts.

When the dust from the attack had settled, it could be observed that there had been some success for a division that had suffered some very serious losses in their campaigns. However, the division found itself the centre of attention again, with accusations of repeat behaviour that led to what happened at Gommecourt – including the actions of junior officers who halted counter-attacks. However, it must be understood that the division was severely under strength at this point – as an example, on 1st July 1917, the 1/6th Bn North Staffords had a battalion strength of 28 officers and 696 officers – approximately 275/280 men under full strength. Regardless of these severe disadvantage and opinions surrounding it, the division continued to do what was asked of it, beginning with the assistance provided on the 15th August 1917 during the Battle of Hill 70 to the Canadian troops involved in this battle, which proved to be a success. After that, the division continued to stay in the Loos/Lens sector all the way until September 1918 when the division took part in what can be considered one of the most successful attacks during the First World War on the Saint Quentin Canal, which I will also compile a post for.

2 thoughts on “46th (North Midland) Division – Lens 1st July 1917

  1. Your knowledge never ceases to amaze me Beth, so proud of you.
    It saddens me to think that any soldier was thought as ‘not up to the job’. What heroes they all were!
    We must continue to honour the memory of these brave young men.


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