If you’ve read my earlier blog about my Great Grandfather, George Burlingham, and the summary of his journey from Private to Second Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, you’ll see this blog is very much a supplement to that initial compilation of facts, and focuses on the actions of the Battalion in a few days during March 1918, and in particular March 27th. All this stems from a recent walking Battlefield tour with friends Paul and Steve. Steve in particular is a qualified Battlefield Guide, and a walking encyclopedia of WW1 information. It was him who helped demystify some of the gaps and inaccuracies I had in the earlier blog, but it also helped in that he’s writing a book on the Norfolk Regiment and its exploits during the Great War, so has a shared interest in ‘Grandad B.’
As described before, George held the Military Medal and Bar – an award for “bravery in the field” issued to non commissioned officers and ordinary ranks (officers got the Military Cross). We know that George appears in the London Gazette in early June 1918 for the award, meaning late March is the ideal timing for the action necessary to gain such a medal.
It’s at this point a certain degree of latitude is necessary, but unless we consider George was awarded for a minor incident in the trenches, the obvious significant action in that period was the German Spring Offensive or ‘Kaiserschlacht’ between March 21st and April 5th. His first award neatly coincides with the Battle of Cambrai in late November 1917.
Briefly, the Spring Offensive was a German plan to smash through the Allied front and charge to the channel ports, cutting off the supply lines and strangling the war effort. The Allies were aware of the plan but not certain of where or when the attack would come: it came with massive force on March 21st. At that time the 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment were based at Estaires in northern France, some sixty miles north of the fiercest fighting which became known as the Battle of Bapaume. Initially there was complete chaos on the front and the British divisions were dealt a heavy blow; however despite the weight of German forces, an organised, but bitterly fought, withdrawal commenced.
The 7th Norfolks were part of 12th (Eastern) Division and part of 35th Brigade, along with 36th and 37th Brigades. From this point on I will generally concentrate on the Norfolks part in the action.
In short, once the German attack began, preparations commenced before it was decided where the 35th Brigade would go to help. In the small hours of March 24th they began to march south towards the town of Albert in The Somme district. They marched and rested all day until 11pm when they were picked up by motor lorry and began a 10 hour overnight drive south across France. They arrived at a village called Senlis at 10am the next day, and slept at the side of the road. By 5pm on March 25th they had orders to march to Fricourt and support the withdrawal near Contalmaison on the old Somme killing grounds of 1916. They marched through Albert and towards the rapidly advancing enemy, only to be met by the rapidly withdrawing 9th Division at Carnoy. Initially they dug in and expected imminent contact with the enemy, but renewed orders saw them withdraw back to Albert, arriving at midnight and sleeping in a shed on the west of the town. Albert, and the River Ancre, was to become a line in the sand.
At 4am on March 26th, the Norfolks took up positions along the River Ancre, north of the town, and reaching the outskirts of the village of Aveluy. Outposts were placed on the river, with the line of resistance along a railway line. Battalion HQ was in the brickworks to the rear. To their right were the 7th Suffolks who were on the very edge of Albert. To their left were 36 Brigade. In summary, the Germans advanced towards them across the Somme plain which had been so bitterly contested on July 1st 1916, and reached the river, and also entered Albert itself and began taking the town. The Norfolks had a simple task; to dig their heels in and delay the enemy for as long as possible in order for the retreating divisions to get behind them and organise a defence in their sector. This was going on all along a wide front, but there was an increasing risk that the division would be outflanked on either side.
The above two maps give the perspective of the Norfolks position from March 26th 1918. The town of Albert is just to the south of the map, and Aveluy village to the north. Of particular focus are the smaller ‘Brickworks’ marked on the 1918 map, and the Y-shaped track to the left of the modern building on the 2018 map near the 104m spot height, centre left on the map. This I believe to be the position of the Battalion HQ. The sunken track will become of increasing significance in due course.
The above pictures show the view from Bouzincourt Ridge across the River Ancre, which is hidden in a steep valley below the horizon. The 7th had been here before. It was the same railway line that formed their front at 3.15am on July 3rd 1916 as the division faced the task of crossing Mash Valley and assaulting Ovillers. It had been a near massacre then. This would prove equally bitter.
What transpired during March 26th was the German advance pushed up hard against the 35th Brigade front, on which the Norfolks were in the centre. At this time their Battalion Commander was a Welshman named Lieutenant Colonel Evan Thomas Rees, who was by all accounts a bit of a footballer from Barry. With the Germans in view across the valley, pressure mounted, and slowly the enemy began to infiltrate the forward positions of the Norfolks and the Suffolks to the right. The decision was made to withdraw carefully to the higher ground on the Bouzincourt Ridge to the rear. As can be seen in the maps above, a track runs roughly north to south along the crest of the ridge, with a ‘Y’ fork running back to the village of Bouzincourt. At the junction of the track, the lane becomes sunken, just to the rear of where Battalion HQ was sited. It can also be seen that the track puts you at eye level with the opposite side of the Ancre valley, and thus exposed to the advancing German guns. The lane is pictured below.
As the day wore on, the Norfolks and Suffolks struggled to maintain contact with each other, and at dusk the enemy attacked on both flanks. Being extremely hard pressed, companies of the Essex and Northamptonshire Regiments were sent up to bolster the defence. Enemy attacks were repelled by counter-attacks. During the night, the defenders dug themselves in near the track on the crest of the ridge, and Battalion HQ was moved back to the crest.
The 27th of March broke with continued enemy attacks, and the new positions being heavily shelled by German guns and attacked by enemy aircraft. Enemy troops were now on their right in the town of Albert, and by 11am, large numbers could be seen crossing the river entering Aveluy on their left. The war diary describes the position as serious, with a grave concern that they would be surrounded and decimated – as they had been at Cambrai in November 1917. Lt Col Rees took the decision to take out a party of about 40 men to an exposed position, somewhere near where the sunken lane is now, and to try and delay the German attack, allowing the remainder of the Battalion to reach the relative safety of the high ground. Other men moved out to the right in an attempt to maintain tenuous contact with the Suffolks. Rees gave the order for the Battalion to withdraw in waves to the crest of the ridge.
The position of the 7th Battalion is just to the right of the picture above.
What followed was a day of terrible fighting as the line moved gradually back to the crest in a desperate effort to halt the German advance. Units from the 2nd line, including the 4th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, of 190th Brigade, also found themselves defending the high ground above Aveluy to bolster 35th Brigade. The Norfolks were eventually withdrawn by 6am on March 28th.
I have not researched in detail the casualties for the Norfolk Regiment during that period, but a cursory search shows over 30 men fell, and by the end of the engagement 12th Division had sustained 1634 casualties.
Lt Colonel Rees and his men had eventually been surrounded and overrun – he was wounded and taken prisoner – but his actions had delayed the enemy and allowed a safe retreat for the battalion.
There were a number of notable deaths in the defence of Bouzincourt Ridge on March 27th. Of the Norfolks, a number of officers fell, including Captain Charles Frederic Wybrow Nash MC (Bar). Charles Nash was the Vicars son from The Vicarage, Norwich Road, Watton. He was aged just 20 when he died. Further to the left on that track, Lt Colonel John Stanhope Collings-Wells DSO died with the 4th Bedfordshires. He would win the Victoria Cross posthumously. Lt Colonel Evan Thomas Rees, the footballer from Barry, would survive his wounds and win the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership of the 7th Norfolks over those brutal hours.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, him) wrote in ‘The British Campaign in France and Flanders, January to July 1918’: “The whole of the Twelfth Division was now rested for a time, but they withdrew from their line in glory, for it is no exaggeration to say that they had fought the Germans to an absolute standstill.”
And somewhere, amongst all that, was Great Grandad George.
Barely a week earlier he’d been recommended for promotion to 2nd Lieutenant. In early June the London Gazette announced he’d been awarded the bar to his Military Medal ‘For Bravery in the Field.’ Although he could have won his award for something far less significant, something draws me to this bitter little scrap on the banks of the River Ancre as the most likely place. Whatever George saw or did in March 1918, the Norfolks did their job, the line held, and by April 5th the Spring Offensive was over in The Somme sector.
Whatever happened on that muddy sunken track never left George’s lips for the rest of his life. The Norfolks that fell also never left Bouzincourt Ridge.
Along the track now stands Bouzincourt Ridge Cemetery, a few hundred yards behind where the Norfolks made their stand. The cemetery was begun in September 1918 when the dead were finally brought in from the field. Of 709 men buried there, 313 have no name. Only two Norfolk men are blessed with headstones that bear their names. The remainder of those who fell are only found on the Pozieres Memorial to the Missing.
The 7th Norfolk men who lie there unnamed, close to where they fell on those dark days of March, still hold the line as ordered by Lt Colonel Rees. George never told their story, but this is why I am compelled to tell it today.
With thanks to Steve Smith and Paul Durham for inspiration and comradeship