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Remembered Today:

17th London Rifles (47th Division) at Bourlon Wood


Private Butler

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I'd really like to find out a little more about a very specific time period concerning the 17th London's at Bourlon Wood, Cambrai. My namesake was killed here with the Poplar and Stepney's and I believe, although I am not sure that he was either killed by shells on the approach or a by a gas attack the same evening - the 29th November 1917. He was killed on the 29th in any case.

History credits the 30th as being the start of the German counter and I am particularly interested in any links to anything about the Poplars during this period between the 28th November, when I think they relieve the 186th Infantry Brigade from 62nd Division, and the 30th November. I also understand through Ron Wilcox's title The Poplars that the 7 battalions put into the wood were protested given the density of men? Any help, insights, accounts, links to would be most appreciated.

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This may give you some idea..................

From the History of the 47th (London) Division 1914-1919 by Alan H Maude

1/18th County of London battalion, London Irish Rifles 141 Brigade

Battle of Cambrai November 1917 – Bourlon Wood

P122……Suddenly, on the morning of 20th November, without the slightest warning or sign of preparation, we opened an attack on the Hindenburg Line between Hermies and Gonnelieu, supported by an immense mass of tanks which swept through all the belts of wire and over trenches 12 feet deep, so that at the end of four days we had formed a great salient four miles in depth, reaching to the old canal de L’Escaut at Marcoing and spreading northwards along the ridge of Bourlon Wood and southwards along the ridge which runs from Bois Lateau to Gonnelieu and looks steeply down to the canal above Banteux.

This newly won territory is characterised on the north by the wide valley ……

between Flesquieres and Bourlon Wood ……..The enemy had lost valuable ground in Bourlon Wood and its village. Its retention by us threatened his line to the north, enabling us to observe and enfilade his trenches as far as Oppy and Gavrelle. From the high ground at Bourlon Wood too, we had excellent observation of Cambrai and the intervening country as well as that north towards Douai……………………….

P123/4…………When the Division finally took over the Bourlon Wood sector at 10 am on November 29th, the greater part of the Wood was still in our hands, the British line running west to east a mile to the north of the Bapaume-Cambrai road.

We relieved the 62nd Division on the night of November 28th-29th, the three dismounted regiments of cavalry, who were reinforcing them, remaining with us for 24 hours. This relief was not carried out without considerable difficulty owing to heavy shelling by the enemy who continually barraged all approaches to Bourlon Wood…..

The 141st Brigade took the right sub sector with the 140th Brigade on the left and the 142nd in reserve in the Hindenburg Line.

The 62nd Division, acting under orders from the Corps, insisted on the whole of 141st Brigade being sent in to Bourlon Wood to relieve their Brigade.

In protest against this Major-General Gorringe urged that to crowd seven battalions (four of the 141st Brigade, one of 140th Brigade and two of dismounted cavalry) and forty seven machine guns in to the Wood, which already contained one battalion of the 59th Division on the right, would only invite excessive casualties without increasing the adequacy of the defence.

For a Wood in modern warfare is more safely held by rifle and Lewis Gun posts suitably placed on the forward edge of the area under some sort of cover and machine guns in depth outside the Wood with a fair field of fire and observation, than by a mass of units struggling in the undergrowth, half blinded by the gas that clings to every bush…………

The protest was overridden and on the night of November 28th-29th seven battalions were all in position in the Wood. The enemy bombarded heavily with gas shells during the night and the 141st Brigade suffered many casualties. On the following morning the command of the sector passed to our Division whose advance Headquarters were in Havricourt Chateau and steps were taken to thin out the troops in Bourlon Wood so that by the 30th, only four Battalions remained there (one of the 140th Brigade and three of the 141st Brigade) with twenty machine guns, the remainder being sited in depth whence they could bring effective direct fire on the ground on our left and on both flanks of Bourlon Wood……….

P125/6……………On the morning of Friday November 30th, the enemy made a counter attack in force directed chiefly against the flanks of the salient and he renewed his efforts to capture the Wood. Our troops found themselves in circumstances particularly unfavourable for defence. The trenches when taken over were barely 4ft deep; there was no wire and few tools. In the sector held by the 24th Battalion there were no trenches at all. The support trenches were not continuous; the trees obscured the situation; the gas hung in the thick undergrowth. Efforts had been made during the twenty four hours of our occupation to get wire set out in front and the trenches fire stepped and dug to 6 ft in depth……

The enemy had shelled heavily during the night……breaking out again at 8.30 am into a heavy bombardment of our lines……Bourlon Wood was treated to an intense gas shell bombardment…………Three hostile balloons were seen over Bourlon village throughout the day……..directing fire on our positions. The front line of the Battalions on the left was continually harassed by the enfilading fire of a field gun from Bourlon village on the right and a small man handled gun on the left.

Heavy casualties among the defending troops.

The enemy continued to advance in waves from Quarry Wood but their advance was checked by the accurate fire of our machine guns and artillery……..Soon after midday the enemy were seen retreating in disorder………..it was the disposition of our machine guns which saved our line. The two batteries on the left of Bourlon Wood fired westward and enfiladed the advancing enemy while the frontal fire of the three batteries near the sugar factory and a fourth battery on the left caught each wave as it appeared over the crest of the hill……..

About 2 pm the enemy assaulted again after a heavy bombardment of our line west of Bourlon Wood. The right flank of the 2nd Division on the left of our 6th Battalion gave ground at the same time….A gap formed between the 6th Battalion and the 15th Battalion………6th Battalion thereupon counter attacked with the reserve company reinforced by all the runners, signallers and orderlies at Battalion headquarters and restored the line.

At 5pm another counter attack was made by two companies of the 8th Battalion, together with the remnant of the 6th Battalion and a line was established on higher ground which was held without incident that night……The 15th Battalion had however, been forced to yield a little ground……..A company reinforced by headquarters personnel….led a counter attack regaining a considerable part of the lost ground…….

Meanwhile attacks against the 141st brigade on the right were launched by the enemy but were broken up before they reached our trenches with Lewis Gun and rifle fire supported by the artillery and machine guns. The hostile bombardment was very severe and the 19th Battalion suffered many casualties from gas........

P127........It was a hard day for the 47th Division.....We were fighting in unknown country which we had little opportunity to reconnoitre.

Our casualties were heavy:

6th Battalion………13 Officers and 369 other ranks

15th Battalion…… 11 Officers and 288 other ranks

141st Brigade ...69 Officers and 1939 other ranks

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Sam,

I suppose that you have the war diary? if not let me know and I will send you a copy for the relevant period.

Andy

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Sam,

I suppose that you have the war diary? if not let me know and I will send you a copy for the relevant period.

Andy

No, I don't have the war diary Andy. The book by Ron Wilcox has been one of my few pieces of information, as well as Squirrel's post above. It all seems to link in with 47th's subordination to corps command and the possibility of a great number of guns brought to bear on this battalion's approach to, and consequent fight in the Bourlon Wood sector. That coupled with the 7, or so, battalions put into the wood representing a ridiculous density for an adequate defence of the British held areas, may have just done for my relative. That and the gas.

But, anything you've got Stiletto would be most appreciated.

Sam

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Sam,

November and December 1917 all sent to you, hope that it helps.

Andy

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  • 8 months later...
I'd really like to find out a little more about a very specific time period concerning the 17th London's at Bourlon Wood, Cambrai. My namesake was killed here with the Poplar and Stepney's and I believe, although I am not sure that he was either killed by shells on the approach or a by a gas attack the same evening - the 29th November 1917. He was killed on the 29th in any case.

History credits the 30th as being the start of the German counter and I am particularly interested in any links to anything about the Poplars during this period between the 28th November, when I think they relieve the 186th Infantry Brigade from 62nd Division, and the 30th November. I also understand through Ron Wilcox's title The Poplars that the 7 battalions put into the wood were protested given the density of men? Any help, insights, accounts, links to would be most appreciated.

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Abraham Butler,

Hi my great grandfather Walter James Hazelwood was in the 17th Bn London Regiment posted to 2nd Bn Rifle Brigade and was killed on the 19/11/1917.

This is only my third time on the forum but any help about the regiment would be very much appreciated.

Best Wishes,

Jim

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