Just a few photos of rolling hills this post. And two stories, one of defence, and one of attack.
Not that these are just any rolling hills. We are in the very north west of the Aisne here – a mile west we would back on the Somme, although still more than fifteen miles from the battlefields of 1916. On 21st March 1918, the first day of the Kaiserschlacht, the great German spring offensive, machine gunner Lance Corporal John William Sayer, 8th Bn. The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, aged 39, would be awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery right here, as his citation tells us, ‘For most conspicuous bravery, determination and ability displayed on 21st March 1918, at Le Verguier, when holding for two hours, in face of incessant attacks, the flank of a small isolated post. Owing to mist, the enemy approached the post from both sides to within thirty yards before being discovered. L/Cpl Sayer, however, on his own initiative and without assistance, beat off a succession of flank attacks and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Although attacked by rifle and machine-gun fire, bayonet and bombs, he repulsed all attacks, killing many and wounding others. During the whole time he was continuously exposed to rifle and machine-gun fire, but he showed the utmost contempt of danger, and his conduct was an inspiration to all. His skilful use of fire of all description enabled the post to hold out till nearly all the garrison had been killed and himself wounded and captured. He subsequently died as a result of wounds at Le Cateau.’
Map showing our current position, marked in orange, with Shepherd’s Copse, the purported site of Sayer’s stand, outlined in yellow. No signs of war on this map, except the ‘Trees cut down’ you can see in two places.
The vestiges of Shepherd’s Copse today – the small line of trees furthest to the left in this shot – and Lance Corporal John Sayer (inset).
Trench map from February 1918, the British trenches in blue, the German trenches in red, just sneaking into the top half of the map. Shepherd’s Copse, although unmarked, is in square 23 in the bottom half, the main line of British trenches to its left on the other side of the valley, along the ridge pictured below,…
…with outposts on the hills to the right of the valley, as this close-up shows, and the fortified village of Le Verguier in the bottom left hand corner. It’s interesting to note the names of the outposts in square 24, east of Shepherd’s Copse; Goat, Sheep, Lamb, Ewe, Bull & Cow. And behind these posts, and I don’t think the name is co-incidental, Shepherd Post, serving all six outposts, I would suggest, much like the shepherd and his flock. It requires more research, because I don’t know where the name Shepherd’s Copse first appears, but I would have thought it more likely that the action took place at Shepherd Post, as opposed to an unnamed (on the map) copse with no trenches marked within it, except a single small trench leading up the hill to Shepherd Post to the east – particularly as the citation uses the word ‘post’ more than once.
The six outposts served by Shepherd Post were up on the crest of the hill, Shepherd’s Copse now on the very far left. In the end Sayer and a handful of men, all wounded, were simply unable to fight any more and were captured; Sayer would lose a leg before dying in German captivity a month later, on 18th April. So what did Lance Corporal Sayer’s heroism achieve? Although the Queen’s lost about seventy men in the fighting north of Le Verguier, including the twenty men who fought and died alongside Sayer, the Germans were forced to postpone their advance on the village until the following day, allowing the British defenders to withdraw without losing a single man. A letter written later in 1918 between the two men who recommended Sayer’s award, Colonel Hugh Chevalier Peirs, commanding 8th Bn. The Queen’s, and Lieutenant Claude Lorraine Piesse, has been uncovered in recent years which shows that, in Peirs’ opinion, Sayer’s stand was the key factor which enabled the battalion to hold out longer than any other unit on the entire British front on that March day.
And yet John Sayer’s heroism at Shepherd’s Copse is virtually unknown today, for a variety of reasons, not least because his citation was not published until near the end of 1919, fifteen months after the event took place, by which time people were tired of tales of war heroes. Strangely, there is no mention of his exploits in the Regimental History, and very few of his papers, it seems, survive, one of those that does giving an incorrect date for the action at Shepherd’s Copse of 31st March, thus separating the action in which he gained his award from the award itself. In recent times, research has uncovered more about the fighting here, and perhaps John Sayer will now be given the credit he deserves when the first day of the German spring offensive is discussed.
Less than three miles away, roughly in that direction, lies the village of Maissemy*. Later in the year, during the fighting of September 1918 that led up to the breaking of the Hindenburg Line, the Gloucester Regiment would find themselves in the area of Maissemy as the Germans retreated. What follows is an extract from a book published in the 1970s and written by a retired school headmaster who, at the age of nineteen, had found himself advancing along with his fellow Gloucesters. There’s a photograph of the author on the inner sleeve of the book. He is in his seventies, bespectacled, smiling benignly at the camera, pipe, slightly removed from his mouth, in one hand. He looks like a very nice man, and very likely he was. But as a teenager he found himself at war; “In another half hour we shall go forward again. This will be the third time ‘over the top’ within forty eight hours. Behind us the guns stand almost wheel to wheel, and the attack of yesterday will be repeated on the same scale. We expect to advance at least two miles.”
*where R.C. Sherriff set Journey’s End.
The advance, behind a devastating barrage, “had the nature of a picnic” until they come under machine gun fire, “the bullets sweep us, shoulder high. We cannot see the Jerries. Our casualties begin. We keep on going forward”. Having dealt with the German machine gun post – the machine gunners surrendering at the last moment, the Gloucesters refusing their terms – the Gloucesters leave a corporal to guard the two machine guns found there. “He has often done enough for glory, but no-one has ever rewarded him. Twice he has been recommended, but nothing has come of it. This will mean a Distinguished Conduct Medal at least, and we reckon that he has often earned it. So we unanimously decide for him to sit tight, and to tell his own story when an officer comes his way. He thinks that if he says that we were held up by machine gun fire, and then he rushed them single handed, and shot the teams, the story will go down. We cannot think of anything better, and agree to back him up. He sits on a dead Jerry, pulls out a cigarette, and lights it. As we glance back, he looks as though the world belongs to him.”
The advance continues, the men picking off German soldiers who had survived the barrage in their dugouts and now appear among the devastation. The author continues; “They seem to come from nowhere as if the earth were sick of them and disgorged them. They converge as they run, and then disappear. We know what this means, and our next business is to try and discover their hiding place. In a few minutes we come across it. It is cleverly concealed, and from the air it could not be seen. All the earth has been moved to a distance, and there is nothing to indicate its presence. We do not know whether it is a deep dugout or a shallow one. But that does not worry us. We can very quickly find this out. What we do know is that it is probably the place into which the Jerries have disappeared. So many men do not suddenly exist and then cease to exist. We gave the enemy credit for more common sense and fieldcraft. In an attack, a dugout is a suicidal hole. You cannot defend yourself, and the other man has you entirely at his mercy. To remain underground is to court disaster.
We stand back from the mouth of the dugout, and shout out ‘Jerry!’. There is no reply. We call a second time. There is still no answer. We decide we cannot all be mistaken but we never think of going down to see if it is occupied. Instead, one of us takes out a hand grenade, and says that we shall soon know whether they are there or not. He pulls out the pin, counts two, and bends over the top of the hole. Then he hurls the bomb down. In three seconds it explodes. They are vicious things, and we hear the roar of the bomb as it bursts. This is accompanied by the screaming of the enemy. They realise that they are caught, and we hear them talking. They are like rats in a trap and there is no escape possible. The best they can hope for is captivity, and they cannot even be sure of that. We stand back in line, with our rifles ready. In each magazine there are fifteen rounds. We call to Jerry to come up. The talking down below is followed by silence. Then we hear footsteps as the first one comes up the steps.
He emerges from the dugout with his arms above his head and his back towards us. When he has walked forward twelve paces, one of us aims and fires. He just drops in his tracks. The talking down below begins all over again. But we hold the whip hand, and we determine to get rid of the lot of them. We do not know how many there may be, but the number must be considerable, judging from the volume of sound that comes up.
A second one comes out of the opening. He does exactly as the first man did. When he sees his companion, he utters a scream, as he knows that the same fate awaits him. We take it in turns to shoot. When the second shot is heard, they all know, without any doubt, that the end is near. Someone begins to whine, but we are merciless. For several days they have given us hell with their machine guns and their field guns. We have lost good men and good comrades.
It is not often that we are in a position to demand such ready retribution. We do not fail to take advantage of the situation. They would only eat good men’s rations. If the boot were on the other foot, we do not doubt what would happen. The position has often arisen, though this is our first experience of it. We are thankful that the situation is not reversed. We hurry them on by throwing another bomb down the stairs. There is not the rest of the day to finish off the job. They come out, one by one. In less than half an hour the dugout is cleared. Thirty six Jerries lie piled up twelve yards from the entrance. There are probably others down below. We do not go down to see, but in order to avoid any possibility of error, we throw our remaining bombs down the steps. The five of us feel that we have amply avenged Polly and those of our platoon who have gone west in the last few days. It has been hot work and the nervous strain has been terrific. We sit down and light cigarettes, and view the pile in front of us. If we could often catch them like this, the war would soon be over.”
I don’t really have any words to follow that.