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The Battle of Bois des Buttes

Introduction

Over the last seventy three years much has been written about the battle of Bois des Buttes. It was fought by the 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment on the lightly wooded slopes a low sand store hill during the morning of 27 May 1918. The fact that after a gap of some years another account of the Battle has been written testifies to the Battles continuing importance to the Regiment. Not only is Bois de Buttes important regimentally, it also gives examples of the qualities of leadership, of sacrifice and endurance that are as important to soldiers now as they were during the First World War.

Situation in Early 1918

The collapse of Imperial Russia, releasing in excess of a hundred German Divisions for action in the West and the imminent arrival of American troops in significant numbers, led the German High Command to plan a series of offensives on the Western Front for the spring of 1918. From 21 March 1918 until 5 April the first German offensive codenamed 'Michael', pushed back the British Third and Fifth Armies some forty miles but just failed to break the line. This was followed almost immediately on 9 April by a second offensive, codenamed 'Georgette'; this time against the British First and Second Armies in the North. Once again hard won ground was lost by the British. Of particularly emotive importance was the loss of much of the Ypres Salient, including Passchendaele, the scene of heavy British losses in 1917, but the German advance was held short of the walls of the ancient cloth town of Ypres.

The French Army, though almost 'bled white' by the Germans in the deliberate battle of attrition fought at Verdun the previous year, sent troops to help the British in Flanders. The 'British Divisions most depleted by the spring fighting, the 8th, 21st, 25th and 5th, were so weakened that they could no longer hold an active stretch of the line. The 8th Division, for example, lost 8,513 men March and April and the casualties were replaced by barely trained men. As troops were in such short supply in spring 1918 the Divisions could not be sent out of the line. In consequence they had to be moved to a quiet sector to reorganise, train and take in the recruits from Depots and men transferred from the Army Service Corps. The Divisions were grouped into IX Corps and attached to General Duchenes French Sixth Army further to the South on the River Aisne. IX Corps, under command of Lt Gen Sir Hamilton Gordon, were allocated a sector line of fifteen miles long, between Craonne and Loivre. The 8th Division, of which 2nd Devons were a part, held a front of six miles in the area of Berry-au-Sac and Juvincourt.

The Aisne Area

The countryside that the Division found itself in when it took over from the French 71st Division on 12 May was new to British Troops. The country was more undulating than the drab battle-wrecked, Flanders Plain to the North. The weather was fine and 'The front on arrival', says one witness, 'was certainly the most peaceful that the Division had ever been on. It was seldom that a shell was heard'. The line itself, in contrast to the trenches they had just left, was dry, comfortable, with trees and 'even rosebushes'. The historian of the 8th wrote that to the Division, worn out by the spring fighting 'the Aisne front was a welcome and wonderful change'.

The sector occupied by the 8th Division was at the centre of the Corps front and formed a small right angled salient pushed out into the German position. 23rd Infantry Brigade, to which 2nd Devons belonged, occupied the left forward part of the line. All three brigades were in the line due to the length of the front and unfortunately the River Aisne and the Aisne Canal were to the rear of the position in a shallow swampy valley. The sector of Out Post Line taken over by the Devons was not in a good state of repair. Trenches were too deep to fight from, or to shallow or simply half dug. The trenches 'started nowhere and ended in the air'. Company commanders on first visiting the position found the French to be indignant when they were asked to show the Battle positions to the 'R' (Reconnaissance) Groups. The 2nd Devons were in the Out Post Line until 20th May. All was quiet to start with but veterans detected the signs of a coming German attack. Shelling increased perceptibly and on the 18th May the Germans mounted a raid which was driven off, after which the Battalion launched a successful counter raid.

The Coming Storm

On 20th May the Devons went into reserve south of the Aisne at Roucy and started a demanding training programme for what was virtually a new Battalion. Capt Cope was detached to form the IX Corps Machine Gun School along with a party of trainee machine - gunners. Meanwhile signs of the coming storm were exercising the British Generals. They felt that the current Allied dispositions did not reflect recent German tactical developments and that a lightly held Out Post Line should be north of the Aisne, with the Main Defence line south of the river. This would mean that British artillery and machine-guns from positions on the south bank, could barrage in depth the forward zone, over which the Germans would have to advance to attack the defended river line. This system of defence would also give ample time to destroy the few bridges needed to sustain the light force north of the river. The local French Commanders ignored General Foch's instruction that IX Corps' experience gained in the battles on the Sore and Lys should be used and overruled the British Generals. The results of the decision, as we shall see, were exactly as predicted by the British.

Two Germans, of a unit previously unknown in the area, taken as Prisoners of War on the 26th May, confirmed after interrogation that a German attack on IX Corps area by thirty five divisions was to take place early the following morning. So good had German security and deception been during their concentration that those who had hitherto been steadfastly refusing to believe the signs of an attack only now conceded that it would be a small attack when it came. Preparations were, however, started and during the late afternoon Brigadier Grogan walked into the Battalion Headquarters at Roucy and ordered the 2nd Devons to move north of the river and canal line. They were to occupy some dugouts built by the French and Germans on the sand stone hill of Bois de Buttes. Their mission was to be Brigade reserve 1200 metres behind the Out Post Zone and just behind the Rear Line of the Battle Zone. The Devons had to march forward four and a half miles to Bois de Buttes. The march was illuminated by the flashes from the British and French guns that had started a counter preparation and harassing fire programme at 2100 hours, just as the Battalion left Roucy. The Devons arrived and reported to Brigade Headquarters that they were complete on Bois des Buttes just before midnight on 26/27 May 1918.

The position at Bois des Buttes was on a twin crested hillock about thirty meters high and 500 metres across and was lightly wooded. The hill had featured during the heavy fighting in the area in 1916 and early 1917 and was a mass of trenches that the Devons had little opportunity to become familiar with. Only the "R" Group and company guides had seen the position in the failing daylight. There were a number of large and deep tunnels built through the hill, which were dry and lined with thick timber. The entire Battalion could shelter underground in company sized dugouts, where there was electric light, provisions for the Company and Regimental Aid Posts, as well as ammunition stores. However, they had little more than an hour to set up before, on the stroke of 0100 hours, the previously silent German batteries fired in a single devastating blow. One witness describes 'the night being red with sheets of flame'.

The German Bombardment

The German tactics so successfully used in both Michael and Georgette were now being used again in "Operation Blucher". The British fears were realised. The Out Post Line and main defensive lines were both subjected to a bombardment by massed German Trench Mortars at a range of 50 - 300 meters and the 2nd West Yorks in the Out Post Line suffered terribly. Trenches were blown in, dugouts collapsed and defensive wire was cut. Further back, the Devons and the British artillery positions, nearly all north of the Aisne, were subjected to a ten minute bombardment of gas shells. The positions were all well known to the enemy and an extremely effective concentration of gas was delivered by the German guns as far back as Divisional Headquarters, in Roucy, and the Unit Transport lines. Colonel Bruchmuller, the German Army artillery planning genius, to whom much of the credit for the German successes of early 1918 must go, had over six thousand guns under his command. He was insistent that mathematical survey was used to register targets rather than observed fire. Thus he reserved the element of surprise or at least doubt in the enemy's mind. The fire of field and medium gun batteries was concentrated on British positions in turn, though every known position was allocated a battery for the entire period of the bombardment. The time the maelstrom of flame and steel reached its peak, when all available German guns were laid on to Bois des Buttes, is not recorded by the Devons but 'its intensity passed all hitherto experienced'. Just to the rear of the Devons, 5 Field Battery RA was the fourth battery to receive the attentions of the massed German artillery at 0335 hours. The worst of their ordeal lasted five minutes. The guns and their crews in shallow dugouts on the Gun Position suffered heavy casualties and the survivors were left shocked, dazed and deafened with four serviceable guns.

In comparison the Devons still familiarising themselves with the position, had deep dugouts to shelter in. Just before 0045 hours the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Anderson-Morshead, was holding an 'O' (Orders) Group in the Headquarters dugout. Positions had been allocated for companies to occupy when ordered to deploy from the shelters. Runners and a fatigue party had been detailed to collect additional ammunition from a dump just south of the river. The CO was sharing a single glass of whiskey with his company commanders before sending them back to their dugouts. The assembled group were commenting on how quiet it was and, suggesting hopefully, that it was all another 'wind-up', when there was a dull thud as two gas shells exploded. They were followed by a 'mighty roar' as the German barrage began. The vast majority of the Battalion were underground so casualties were very light; however, it was impossible for anyone to move out of the dugouts. Consequently ammunition fatigue parties never left the position.

The first blow was mighty but brief and was followed by a concentration of gas that quickly crept into the dugouts. The uncomfortable but effective gas masks were donned and wet blankets were hung over the doorways to keep the levels of gas in the dugouts to a minimum. There was no panic as the longer serving Devons were familiar with gas and the newer members were well drilled and followed the example of their seniors. The night was already hot and soon conditions became almost unbearable for the men packed tightly in the airless dugouts but deep underground they were safe from 'the hell outside'. Time dragged without news of what was going on anywhere on the front as even the deeply buried telephone line had been cut and runners failed to return.

The Attack

It is unclear as to the time that the first German infantry crossed the lines but it is thought that 25th Brigade, the Divisions right wing, was attacked at 0345 hours. The Germans once again used the same tactics that had been successful in previous offensives. Coordinated with the fire plans of box barrages and the use of lachrymatory agents, sturmtruppen (storm troopers) probed for gaps in the line caused by the barrage and slipped through avoiding any pockets of resistance. The sturmbataillonen (Assault Battalions) consisted of the best and fittest soldiers, who were superbly equipped and expected to show great initiative. The first wave was to quickly break through the British Battle Zone, by-passing strong points and to attack the Infantry reserves and artillery positions. They were followed by the remainder of the sturmbataillonen that consisted of four pioneer companies, a machine gun section, flame thrower and trench mortar detachments. The role of these troops was to support the leading sturmtruppen and eliminate enemy points of resistance. The attack by infiltration was followed by conventional infantry regiments, who moved behind an Artillery barrage that advanced one kilometre in forty minutes. Their role was to reduce strong points and to mop up the remaining British positions. Reserves were only fed into support successful attacks thus deepening and widening the penetration. The fluid tactics were made possible by a flexible system of command which placed tactical decisions and initiatives, hitherto made by staff officers, with even junior commanders in the field.

The initial attack by troops of the German Seventh Army went well, achieving breakthrough in a number of places. This is hardly surprising as fifteen of the German Divisions were already familiar with the land as they had occupied it the previous year. All but five of the twenty eight Divisions of Shock troops had been out of the line for more than a month prior to the attack and all but three of these Divisions had taken part in 'Georgette' and Michael' earlier in the year. A combination of German experience, training and the weakness of the Allied dispositions were the main ingredients that made the initial success of the attack almost guaranteed. This unexpectedly easy success led General Ludendorff to change Blucher from a diversionary attack to the Germans main point of effort.

The British 25th Infantry Brigade around Berry-au-Bac salient, were quickly broken by the German attack and a similar attack on 50th Division, to the left of the Devons, progressed swiftly. The sturmtruppen made their way from Berry-au-Bac down to the line of the La Miette stream and into the rear of 23rd and 24th Infantry Brigades, who had by 0530 hours successfully prevented a German breakthrough on their front despite heavy casualties. Now attacked from front and rear the troops remaining in the Battle Zone were quickly overrun by the German 52nd Division, 7th Reserve Division and part of the German 50th Division. This left the 2nd Devons as the only significantly sized and formed body of troops north of the River Aisne. Thus the scene was set for one of the Regiment's greatest achievements - the battle of Bois des Buttes.

The Devons Deploy

At first light, approximately 0400 hours, Lt Col Anderson-Morshead ordered the Battalion to deploy to battle positions. The companies appeared from their shelters into the growing daylight and found that the Aisne Valley was shrouded in mist. Little could be seen on the open ground to the front. However, the high ground, to the rear at Roucy and to the front, at the Chemin des Dames stood out above the mist. As the Battalion made its way forward, through the mist and leaves shell fire it found that many of the trenches had been reduced to shallow hollows during the course of the 3 hour bombardment. Up to this point only a handful of casualties had been suffered from the initial fire and were mainly runners braving the barrage. From this point onwards the Battalion was to suffer a steady flow of casualties from the continual heavy shell fire.

B Company on the left occupied a line of partly blown in trenches looking North West towards Corbeny. Overlooking the ruins of La Ville-aux-Bois was D Company occupying similarly damaged trenches in the centre forward position. To their right was C Company covering the flat marshy ground to the north east. Once the Commanding Officer had sent out the Companies, all communication with them was lost. The telephone line was destroyed by shell fire and runners quickly became casualties as they ran in the open from shell hole to shell hole. From the trench above his Command Post Lt Col Anderson-Morshead could not see the forward Company positions due to the foliage, the shape of the ground and the mist. Smoke and dust from the barrage made matters worse. So from the outset the forward Company commanders, all lieutenants, were on their own to execute the 6th Army order that 'not an inch of sacred French soil was to be surrendered'. A Company was, however, with the Commanding Officer in the trenches surrounding the hill top.

Almost immediately after the Devons deployed to their battle positions, B Company came under attack from the left by elements of the German 50th Division. The Germans had moved quickly through the British 50th Division's position and approached Bois des Buttes undercover of the mist. The Battalion was initially attacked by heavily armed sturmtruppen infantry. The first wave that appeared out of the mist, soldiers of the 158th German Infantry Regiment, took cover from the rapid fire of the riflemen and B Company's two Lewis guns. Out of the mist, over the heads of the first wave, came dozens of rifle grenades that caused heavy casualties to the men of B Company sheltering in the trenches. After a while the German riflemen who had taken cover about fifty metres away in dead ground and shell holes 'Jumped up and rushed us' while a second wave continued to give covering fire. 'The boys kept blasting away and this attack was beaten off'. Fire from the rifle grenades resumed causing even greater casualties to the Devons. A third wave of Germans charged through the mist 'hurling stick bombs into our trench' and they too were beaten off with heavy casualties. Following this, the artillery barrage resumed, further thinning the depleted ranks of the Devons. The Battalions deployment under fire and B Company's success in beating off a surprise attack from a powerful force were the first examples of the determined defence against great odds that was to characterise the Battle.

The Fight for the Hill

Subsequent attacks on all three forward companies followed the same pattern except that as the mist burnt off with the rising sun great execution was carried out by the Lewis gun teams who were 'sweeping down great numbers of Germans'. The longer ranges after the mist had disappeared meant that the Devons, in the centre of the breakthrough, were able to disrupt the move forward of enemy artillery and stores essential for their continued success. The positions in Bois des Buttes, now recognised by the Germans as a point of stubborn resistance, drew the attention of the German Imperial Air Force. Planes, of a number of types, machine gunned and bombed the Devons at the edge of the wood and dropped smoke markers for the German field guns to aim at. The aircraft also dropped message containers with fire orders for their medium guns. Cpl Wotton, a survivor from C Company, recalled his section quickly learnt to change position after the over-flight of a German aircraft as it would invariably be the harbinger of another salvo of accurate shell fire. Another aspect of the air war in this battle was the German use of observation balloons tethered to tanks. These followed the advancing infantry at a safe distance. A couple of balloons to the east brought down accurate artillery fire on the Devon's position.

The Commanding Officer concerned at the failure of runners to return dispatched his trusted batman LCpl Jordon, to get information. However, hearing the attack on the left he also sent Lt Maunder and Headquarter Company were forward to reinforce B Company but they met groups of men coming back saying that there was no longer front line, the enemy were close behind them and that they had orders to retire. Lt Maunder had these men join his party of Regimental cooks and signallers to establish a line of sorts on the side of the hill. They took up positions in old trenches and shell holes and held the Germans who arrived shortly afterwards.

Out-flanked on the left and severely reduced in numbers, D and C Companies were forced back into the wood. Young inexperienced troops, many in their first battle, having endured so much shelling, losing so many of their Officers, NCOs, and fellow soldiers, could have been forgiven for heading for the safety of the river line as quickly as possible. But the Devons made the Germans fight for every inch of the wood. The following extract from a letter by Pte Borne, who died of wounds aged 20, exemplifies the spirit of the Battalion. He wrote:

I was with the Lewis gun team, and we were first in action. All my pals were speedy casualties Lads were falling right and left but I had a capital weapon in the Lewis gun, which I was firing steadily at the German hordes. I looked about, and I seemed to be all alone. Still, I kept on firing at them. Then, when the enemy waves were about 100 yards away, things got a bit too warm, so I picked up the gun, ran back about 100 yards, and had another go.

Pte Borne fought on alone for some hours before being wounded. He died as a prisoner of war.

The remains of C Company, on the right, were forced to change position when it became apparent that 24th Infantry Brigade were no longer protecting their right flank and that a German battalion, probably from the 7th Reserve Division, was advancing on them from the east. Lt Tindal decided that as no order to retire had been received, C Company would hold its allocated corner of the wood. The surviving officers and NCOs agreed, if necessary, to fight to the last man. The new position was in a trench at ninety degrees to the old one. It ran parallel with the Pontavert to La Ville-aux-Bois road facing Berry-au-Bac. The Company, at this stage only forty strong, was split into two. One group to give covering fire while the other, under Lt Tindal, was to charge the enemy, as this seemed to be the only way to break up the attack. The Germans were nearing the trenches when, on orders, the small party of Devons charged forward with a wild yell towards a whole enemy Battalion. Fortunately or unfortunately, the brave Devons never came to blood their bayonets, as hidden in the bushes and long grass was an old barbed wire entanglement. They took up fire positions and continued to fire at the Germans who deluged them with grenades, machine gun and rifle fire. Sgt Cosway eventually carried out a fighting withdrawal with the eight survivors of C Company. Never in the three hundred and six years of the Regiments history can a group of West Countrymen have given their lives so heroically in obedience to their orders.

D Company while deploying discovered a group of German Sturmtruppen already in the trench system. Sgt Hooper DCM led a party of Devons armed with hand grenades which they used to good effect. The trench was cleared at bayonet point. The Sturmtruppen counter attacked in a hail of stick grenades forcing the Devons to withdraw again. The dozen remaining Westcountymen from Sgt Hoopers Platoon attacked with bombs again and drove the Germans out but were soon dislodged again. A third time the Devons attacked and seized the trench. The survivors scattered and escaped the exploding stick grenades and machine gun fire from both the ground and air.

In another group from D Company a fine example was set by Lt Pells, who had lost his only child when the Lusitania was sunk. Not only was he using his rifle to good effect against the Germans who he hated, he also moved around coaching the inexperienced soldiers in the art of fieldcraft and continually encouraging his men. Lt Pells was killed in action.

By now the forward companies were reduced to small groups of men surrounded by large numbers of Germans. Pte Knight and five other men from C Company were one such group who found themselves in a short stretch of old trench with Germans all around them. Quickly they formed a rough circle and 'blasted away'. When an opportunity presented itself they broke out and occupied another trench further back and continued to shoot down the advancing Germans. It is a great shame that there were so few survivors to bear witness to the heroism of small groups and determined individuals such as these men from C Company.

Mention should be made of the German use of tanks during this offensive. The Germans had up to fifteen of their forty, ton giant A7Vs available for use. The tanks had a 57mm (6-pdr) gun and six machine guns, two engines, 30mm armour and a crew of sixteen men. In addition the Germans had twenty five captured British tanks of various types. The tanks crossed the line and made their way forward in groups of four with the infantry. At least two of them were active on D Company's front. The tanks were useful in helping to dislodge the British troops from positions at the edge of the wood but they had limited mobility in very heavily shelled or wooded areas. The Battalion had no anti-tank weapons so could do little about the tanks that shelled and machine-gunned them from the open ground.

LCp1 Jordan and Pte Staddon reported back to the Commanding Officer after having ascertained the situation forward. They reported that B Company had been all but wiped out and that the remains of C and D Companies could not be expected to last very much longer. By about 0700 hrs Lt Col Anderson-Morshead knew that he and the Battalion were surrounded. The Battalion was being attacked from the front, left and right with the enemy making their way south along both flanks of the wood. Capt Burke carried out a reconnaissance of the rear and confirmed that the Germans could be seen marching in columns of four along the road from Berry-au-Bac towards Pontavert, where they had set up machine guns that could be seen engaging groups of British stragglers and walking wounded. The Commanding Officer, at approximately 0830 hours, moved to the reverse slope and divided the remains of Battalion Headquarters and A Company into three parties. Capt Burke remained in the trenches on the forward slope with one group; the Colonel took the right and Lt Barrett the left flank. This new position was a great improvement on the previous ones as the fields of fire were good and there were plenty of targets. Unfortunately, most of the troops could not achieve the fourteen aimed rounds of the 1914 Regular Army but none the less, great damage was done to the advancing German Infantry. One survivor recalled that 'there were so many of the enemy, everywhere, by this time that it would have been difficult to fire in any direction without hitting them'. 'The shrinking group shot down Germans by the score'.

Lt Col Anderson-Morshead explained the situation to the soldiers in the following words "Your job for England, men, is to hold the blighters up as much as you can, to give our troops a chance on the other side of the River. There is no hope of relief we have to fight to the last." The Officers and RSM, WO1 Radford, continually moved around the position setting a good example and encouraging the men. At about this stage of the battle a Gunner Battery Commander's Observation Post party came up the hill to join the Devons. The Battery Commander wrote:

 

At a later hour in the morning, I with those of my men who had escaped the enemy machine guns and his fearful barrage, found the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Devonshire Regiment and a handful of men holding on to the last trench north of the canal. They were in a position in which they were entirely without hope of help, but were fighting on grimly. The Commanding Officer himself was calmly writing his notes with a perfect hail of HE falling around him. I spoke to hut, and he told me that nothing could be done. He refused all offer of help from my Artillerymen, who were unarmed, and sent them off to get through of they could. His magnificent courage, dauntless bearing and determination to carry on to the end moved ones emotion.

The Stand of 2nd Devons

At about 0930 hours, LCp1 Jordan, who was accompanying the Colonel spotted enemy troops marching down the road from Juvincourt with guns and transport following behind. When his orderly pointed out the oncoming Germans, Lt Col Anderson-Morshead calmly took his pipe from his pocket, remarking as he filled it, 'Ah well, Jordan, we shall have to make the best of it!' The fifty men from the Battalion that remained on the hill were now divided into two groups. One group was led by the Commanding Officer, and the other was commanded by Capt Burke, the Adjutant. The plan was to slow down the German advance along the road by gradually withdrawing in contact back towards the river line; the Devons would hopefully meet parties of other Regiments survivors to boost their strength.

The two groups moved a hundred meters from the crest of the Easterly "pimple" down to the Juvincourt/Pontavert road. The Colonel took his party across the road to take the right flank and Capt Burke remained on the left. The Germans were thrown into confusion and halted. They had been marching down the road un-informed that there was still resistance north of the river. An Artillery team was destroyed by rifle fire and fire from the remaining Lewis guns. The Germans eventually recovered order and attacked the Devons in force, but the surprise of meeting resistance had made them cautious and they did not press their attack home. Eventually, however, the two groups of Devons were forced back by bounds. Turning at each bound to adopt fire positions they continued to inflict casualties on the enemy who followed closely. The Colonel saw a group of Germans coming from the area of the hill that they had recently vacated. He dispatched Capt Mimer and six of his dwindling group of men to drive them off, but they were all soon casualties. It was about this stage in the battle that Lt Col Anderson-Morshead was killed, while directing the fire of his troops, with pistol in one hand and riding crop in the other. His name will be forever more revered by the Regiment and associated with stubborn defence of Bois des Buttes.

The Withdrawal

The RSM was forced to empty the ammunition pouches of the dead as the surviving riflemen were running out of ammunition. It was on one of these expeditions that his seemingly 'charmed-life' ran out when he was taken prisoner by six Germans who rushed him from behind. The stand of the Devons was now over. The few remaining soldiers of Battalion Headquarters and A Company, with Capt Burke who was wounded in the foot and unable to stand, now started to make their way back towards the river line avoiding the Germans who were moving towards the crossings in great numbers. Some horribly wounded, such as Lt Clegg, dragged themselves almost a mile to the outskirts of the river only to be taken prisoner by the Germans. Many of the fit men such as Lt Hill of B Company and survivors of his 5 Platoon fought all the way back to the riverbank and when out of ammunition, he and three soldiers were taken prisoner. Others swam the river and canal only to be captured by the waiting Germans on the "friendly bank".

2Lt Clarke of 6 Platoon had earlier successfully led the remains of his platoon to safety on the Southern banks of the canal and river. Having fought off attacks in strength, B Company was forced to retire. They quickly discovered that they were almost surrounded. The platoon struck off through the maze of trenches, encountered the enemy and "got rid of them and tried in the opposite direction, with the same result. Eventually, they found a clear route up to the crest of the hill where they made their way through the tunnels to emerge on the Southern side in a hail of bullets from every direction including from enemy aircraft above. 2Lt Clarke led the survivors through the wood towards Pontavert where through, as described in the Regimental History, his skill and coolness, he managed to cross the bridge and join Brig Grogan and a mixed group of soldiers on La Platerie where they held the Germans for a significant period of time.

Altogether a total of 552 members of 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment died or were taken prisoner during six hours of battle on the morning of 27 May 1918. The battle of Bois des Buttes is the Regiments bloodiest action even eclipsing that of Salamanca that earned the Devons the nickname 'The Bloody Eleventh'. Approximately forty men escaped to safety across the river and they, along with men from the Battalion Transport Lines and Devons from Capt Copes Lewis Gun School, continued to play a vital part in containing and slowing down the German breakout. The tale of the next five days is a story that is a worthy sequel to Bois des Buttes. Suffice it to say that the front was eventually stabilised on the River Marne and the Germans held forty miles from Paris.

The Reckoning

Historians when assessing the merits of a First World War unit actions use two main criteria when making their judgement. Firstly, they examine the facts to see if the unit had a choice of standing and fighting or withdrawing whilst they still could. The second criterion is one of whether the unit's action had a wider grand tactical or strategic impact on the outcome of the battle as a whole. The engagement fought by the 2nd Devons at Bois des Buttes, using the above criteria, is widely thought to rate amongst the top three unit actions of Great War. Faced with a bombardment of unprecedented ferocity, a flow of defeated men from the forward battalions, being outnumbered by the Germans and having a major obstacle in the form of the river and canal to the rear of the Battalion makes the Devons stand quite remarkable. Units in similar situations normally withdraw by the consent of the will of the majority. The tunnels were of course a significant factor in the battle but the key to the Devons stand at Bois des Buttes was without a doubt the leadership of Lt Col Anderson-Morshead whose spirit, determination and sense of duty had influenced the Battalion from top to bottom. In the words of General Berthelot's Ordres du Jour:

 

Inspired by the sangfroid of their gallant Commander the whole Battalion...responded with one accord and offered their lives in ungrudging sacrifice.

The 2nd Devons not only earned laurels for their glorious selfless stand but also influenced the course of this, the Battle of the Aisne, by delaying the German advance for crucial hours.

The Devons assisted the 21st Division, who had held the enemy in their Battle Area, to withdraw in good order. In addition they also bought time for Brigadier Grogan amongst others to organise ad hoc lines of defence that further delayed the enemy until the line was finally stabilised four days later. In Clauswitizian terms the Devons were a handful of sand thrown into the well oiled German Military Machine, causing friction that lowered the general level of performance and so caused the Germans to fall short of their intended goal. This was achieved by the Devons tying down large numbers of German combat troops urgently needed for other tasks. The Devons also in their position astride the Juvincourt, Ville aux Bois, Pontavert road delayed the move forward of subsequent echelons of infantry and more importantly guns and material necessary for the maintenance of the momentum of the offensives. It was not only for the Battalions heroism that the French awarded the Battalion the Croix de Guerre, but also for the concrete results that they achieved in delaying the Germans for a significant period. The 2nd Devons were the first British unit to be so singularly honoured with the Croix de Guerre.

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