Painting: The Last Stand of the 2nd Devons at Bois-des-Buttes, 1918 by William Barnes Wollen.
At Bois des Buttes, a single British battalion fought to the death rather than give up their position, despite overwhelming German numbers. Their devotion to duty, and to the defence of France, earned them the highest French military honour: the Croix de Guerre.
The 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment was entirely wiped out in this last stand during the First World War when attacked by overwhelming numbers of German troops. The Devons’ sacrifice bought time for other units to regroup and offer resistance along the River Aisne at a crucial moment in the campaign. For their selfless actions that day, this entire regiment of stoic West Country men was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest decoration France could bestow on an ally.
In early 1918 the mood among the Allies was, at best, one of grim determination. Germany had knocked Russia out of the war the previous spring. It had inflicted such heavy casualties on the French in Champagne that mutinies had broken out on the Chemin des Dames. Italy had been dealt a body blow at Caporetto by a combined Austro-German force. The Allies could at least celebrate the fall of Baghdad, taken from Turkish control, and they could look forward to the influx of American troops now that the United States had joined the war, but there was little optimism. Everyone knew that Germany would bring fresh divisions from Russia across to the Western Front, and that they would swarm over the Allied defences. Britain had already lost so many men that some units had to be dismantled and new composite formations created. Divisions were reduced from four brigades to three. There were many conscripted men with little heart for the war, and when the German offensive finally began, the barrage of gunfire (Trommelfeuer) tore apart the Allied front lines. Many troops, finding German storm troops infiltrating their positions, simply packed it in and surrendered. Staff officers, riding forward to gauge the situation, found dejected soldiers streaming towards the rear, some unarmed, having cast away their weapons.
But not every regiment behaved this way. The 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment, led by Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. Anderson-Morshead, fought it out to the last man. These proud British soldiers clung to their smashed and pulverized trenches, and stubbornly battled on to buy time for units further back. Certain of their own destruction, 29 officers and 552 other ranks refused to let the Germans pass and went down fighting. The last man to see them alive described the Commanding Officer, surrounded by a handful of soldiers, still calmly giving orders. He told his surviving troops: ‘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 [Aisne]. There is no hope of relief. We have to fight to the last.’ Fetching his pipe from his pocket as the Germans showered his trench with stick grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire, the colonel listened to his orderly’s warning that the Boche were closing in. He told the young soldier, without any emotion: ‘Well, Jordan, we shall have to make the best of it.’ This was the sort of quiet courage that had made the British army famous in countless other battles, but it was surely displayed to an extraordinary degree at Bois des Buttes.
Having already completed a gruelling period in the trenches around Ypres, the Devons had been reallocated to a so-called ‘quiet sector’ at Bois des Buttes on the River Aisne in late May 1918. The German offensive had begun in March, and it still retained its potency. As a mixture of more experienced men and the new battle casualty replacements marched up to the front line, they were aware of the general situation. There was the usual grumbling, but something of the regiment’s traditions and pride kept the troops at their posts. No one was going to let their comrades down, or besmirch their reputation.
The position the Devons were ordered to occupy consisted of two small and sandy hills surrounded by woodland. The badly constructed trenches in front had almost no field of fire, and could be approached through the foliage. Worse, all the positions were well known to German gunners. As the British troops tried to gain some sense of the ground in the dark, their artillery kept up a steady bombardment of the German lines. The Germans, for their part, sent over an occasional gas shell, forcing the Devons into stifling masks.
On 27 May, Anderson-Morshead just had time to call together his company commanders and inform them that a major German attack was to be expected at 0100 hours before, with Teutonic precision, the firestorm was unleashed at exactly that moment. A hurricane of HE (high-explosive rounds) caused trench walls to cave in and the soldiers had to shelter as best they could in dugouts, masks on to ward off the poison gas. The defences in front of the Devons were completely obliterated. Trees were smashed into matchwood. Heavy boughs were hurled across the battlefield, wire cut through by white-hot shards of shells. The bombardment exacted a heavy toll; no one outside a trench or dugout survived, and it soon became evident to the Commanding Officer that his communications had been completely severed.
As the first streaks of dawn appeared, Anderson-Morshead knew he could not risk his men being caught sheltering underground. Lieutenant Clarke, commanding B Company, ordered his men to fan out into the ruins of the trenches facing northwest. To their right, in the centre of the line and facing north, was D Company under Lieutenant Harris, and a little further out, facing north and east, was C Company under Lieutenant Tindal. A Company and Battalion Headquarters held the highest knoll in reserve. German shelling had barely abated, and wounded men could not reach the aid posts to the rear of the knoll. Lieutenant Kane, an American medical officer, did what he could in a hopeless situation. Worse, the heavy shelling also meant that runners could not get forward to the companies, effectively blinding the battalion. Messengers to brigade headquarters never arrived, and a combination of heavy mist, dust and smoke obscured the front. Then news started to trickle in. The Germans had simply marched over the Allied front lines to the north and were already making their way past the Devons to the east. Small parties of survivors trying to escape from the front were being cut down by the thousands of German troops in pursuit. Grenades, often clustered together, were thrown into every dugout the Germans encountered during their advance. The Allied defence was collapsing.
As the German gunners lifted their sights to bombard the area behind the Devons, the companies got their first sight of the advancing masses. They could see them streaming forward, their transport and guns coming on behind. Above, German aircraft made ground-strafing runs. It was clear that any attempt to withdraw would mean death in the gunfire, but it was also evident that the handful of Devons could not hope to survive against the numbers now approaching. B Company was the first to engage, using its two Lewis machine guns to mow down the lines now coming on. The Germans closed up, paused to launch a cascade of rifle grenades and again dashed forward. Corporal Leat of B Company described how he and his comrades had ‘blazed away’ until the first attack had been cut down. A second wave met the same grisly fate, but the third wave was simply overwhelming: the Germans closed in using stick grenades and rifle fire at close quarters. Isolated groups of Devons were wiped out, but the few who remained kept up their defiant resistance. Individuals dropped back, returning fire until the last safe moment, then dashed back again – some moving further in towards their battalion headquarters.
In fact men from Headquarters Company had started to get forward to bolster the line. Lieutenant Maunder grabbed any men he could from the old front line units and formed a ragged defence. It was becoming evident that B Company had practically ceased to exist, and a good deal of fire was now pouring in from the west. But to the east the situation was also critical. Lieutenant Tindal, the commander of C Company, was told by the survivors of the old front line that the Germans were going to envelop his right. The defences they had, such as they were, would offer no protection against this, but Tindal believed that a counter-attack might knock the Germans off balance and stem their advance. The company’s single Lewis gun suppressed the enemy for a while, but all too soon it was knocked out and the Germans were once more coming on in such numbers that Tindal feared his little force would soon be overrun. More than half his command had been killed or wounded. In this moment of desperation, he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge: they did so, scrambling over the parapet into a hail of fire. Within a few yards they were stopped, caught in a barbed-wire entanglement and sprayed with fire from an entire German battalion. Those who survived went to ground.
Within minutes fire was coming in on C Company from several directions. Wounded Devons kept up what fire they could from shell holes, and some, such as Private Greenslade, personally hunted down German machine gunners by crawling from place to place, and shooting from any available cover. Tindal was killed sniping against a German officer. Private Knight and five others, finding themselves completely surrounded in an old trench, fought back to back. A party of five men on the road that ran to the east of the knoll engaged in a close-quarter battle out in the open, and were all cut down. D Company was also being overwhelmed. One trench was disputed by both sides but the Devons, although outnumbered, fought their way into the opponent’s half in textbook fashion, lobbing a grenade and dashing forward after the blast to shoot or bayonet whoever was left alive. Twice they lost, and twice they recaptured this position, until shells and bombs destroyed what was left of the fortification. Survivors of the battle spoke highly of the young British officers who did their best to cheer their men on, find them good firing positions and set an example of physical courage.
At this point the Germans were inside the Devons’ position and fighting their way up to the battalion’s headquarters. The remnants of D Company refused to give in and kept up their fire from shell holes and broken trenches. C and B Company were almost wiped out. Anderson-Morshead gathered together what remained of his force and positioned them to the rear of the main knoll, although this provided scant shelter against the machine-gun fire that rained down from three directions. A second move was therefore made – and three parties were formed to create a final defensive ring on the road at the base of the hill.
By now the Germans had closed to within a few yards of the survivors, and the final hours were a desperate battle between the dwindling band of Devons and the determined, experienced and more numerous soldiers of the Kaiser. The German troops believed this was the final offensive of the war and so were motivated to finish off the resistance of the Western Allies. But to secure victory they needed to push on quickly, bypassing any strongpoints to reach the rear areas of the British and French forces. The Devons were holding things up. Vital time was being lost by the Germans. Indeed, the attacks at the end of May were to be the last push of the German army on the Western Front, as the impetus of their offensive petered out. By July, the Germans were on the back foot.
At Bois des Buttes in May 1918, however, the Germans were still confident of victory. Anderson-Morshead knew that there was no way out for the 2nd Battalion. The last man to leave them, an officer of the Royal Artillery, noted the coolness of the men that remained behind, and of the colonel in particular: he was ‘calmly writing his notes with a perfect hail of HE round him’. The Regimental Sergeant Major, and the Adjutant Captain Burke – the only other leaders left alive – also gave their words of encouragement to the last few soldiers.
Then, finally, the last men were cut down; grenades and bullets finished them off and the Germans surged on past the hill. But the Devons had achieved their mission: the Germans had been held up for a precious few hours that allowed the Allies time to organize the defences to the rear. It must also have sounded a dread warning to the German army: against all the odds, and contrary to the hopeless nature of their position, the British had proved that they were not yet willing to be beaten. The Kaiser’s army had expected everything to give way before their overwhelming mass, but the defiant resistance of the Allied units on the Western Front – units such as the Devons – must have caused doubts to creep into the minds of the German High Command. Indeed, the spring of 1918 marked the high point of the German tide on the Western Front. Within six months the German army was bundled back towards their own frontier and in November they were compelled to sue for peace. The Devons’ sacrifice, small as it was in the context of a brutal war, had not been in vain.