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194 Siege Battery

 

         194 SB was commanded by Major E N Aston(19) from the time BSM John Kennelly joined it on 23 September 1917 until after he left for home on  14 May 1919(1).

        The official Brigade War Diary(20) shows that on 1 March 1918 194 SB was part of 87 Brigade RGA, Fifth Army. The Battery was situated at Courcelles Le Comte, to the West of Cambrai,  where the British Lines were at their weakest point and where a heavy German offensive was expected. 194 SB, along with 156 Heavy Battery (156 HB) and 219 SB, kept up day and night harassing fire on German positions from 8th to 20th March, firing hundreds of shells, and the War Diary states that ‘many enemy dumps were blown up by our fire’.

       BSM John Kennelly served in 194 SB from 23 September 1917 until 14 May 1919(1and much of the Battery’s background can be gleaned from the Brigade’s War Diary(20). During this period, the Germans initiated their notorious Spring Offensive, also known as the Ludendorff Offensive(21), which comprised 4 attacks code named by the Germans ‘Michael’, ‘Georgette’, ‘Gneisenau’, and ‘Blücher-Yorck’, with Operation Michael being the main attack, which was intended to break through the Allied lines, seize the Channel ports, and drive the British Expeditionary Force into the sea. It started on 21 March 1918 and was aimed directly at the British 5th Army.

       ‘In just five hours, the Germans fired one million artillery shells at the British lines held by the Fifth Army - over 3000 shells fired every minute. The artillery bombardment was followed by an attack by elite storm troopers. These soldiers travelled lightly and were skilled in fast, hard-hitting attacks before moving on to their next target. Unlike soldiers burdened with weighty kit etc, the storm troopers carried little except weaponry (such as flame throwers) that could cause much panic, as proved to be the case in this attack.

       By the end of the first day of the attack, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and the Germans had made great advances through the lines of the Fifth Army. Senior British military commanders lost control of the situation. They had spent three years used to static warfare and suddenly they had to cope with a German onslaught. Gough ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw. The German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front. Ironically, the British gave up to the Germans the Somme region - where so many British and German soldiers had been killed in the battle of 1916’.(21a)

       How this affected the 194 SB can be gleaned from the relevant War Diary(20), but official war diaries are impersonal and are short on subjective material.  I am fortunate in that I can remember much of what my Grandfather told me about his experiences during those terrible days.

       The 87 Brigade’s Diary records that at ‘5.00 am the German attack opened’ on 21 March 1918, and that The Brigade OP was manned by 2Lt A E Curtis, 194 SB. He has not since been heard of, and is reported ‘Missing’. The Diary continues to say that by 8.00 pm ‘After close fighting and many casulaties 154 HB withdrawn from Beaumetz to Lebucquiere. Loueverval and Doignies taken by enemy. Our batteries firing on Agache valley’. At 10.00pm it states, ‘219 SB withdrawn to Fremicourt with 5 guns with 1 being abandoned. 156 HB withdrawn to Fremicourt.’ Then, on 22 March, ‘4.00 am After some casualties, Brigade HQ retired to Fremicourt. 44 SB having exhausted ammunition retired to Albert. 194 SB & 154 HB withdrawn via Fremicourt to Avesnes-Les-Bapaumes. Lebucquiere lost. 5.00 pm Brigade HQ moved to Grevillers.

        For a more personal insight into what 194 SB experienced during the 21-22 March, see the private letter dated 7 December 1919 to BSM John Kennelly from his former Commanding Officer in 194 SB who had recommended him for the Military Cross (MC) for his part in these events. The whole of the letter is reproduced HERE (5 pages) as it contains some interesting background to the events and personnel involved not mentioned elsewhere.

       The part that BSM John Kennelly played during the 21-22 March resulted in him being recommended for the Military Cross (MC)(see HERE) and the French Medaille d’Honneur(see HERE & HERE) but, although neither of these were awarded, he did receive the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM)(2,23), and a Mention in Despatches (MiD)(2,23a & HERE & HERE) for his efforts those days and nights. His award of the MSM and the MiD are also referred to in his former OC’s 5-page post-war letter, a copy of which can be found HERE.

       In that letter, BSM John Kennelly’s former OC in 194 SB states, inter alia, ‘I shall never forget the evening of Mar. 22nd. I shall always regret losing those two guns, we certainly might have done them in much better than we did.’ The letter goes on to say that the OC had ‘met General Geddes shortly before he died and he told me that the battery covered itself with glory. I am very glad that you got the M.S.M. and a mention, it was considerably less than you deserved. As a matter of fact I recommended you for the M.C. at the same time as Bdr. Thorne (the signaller) the two cooks and the other Bdr. They all got M.Ms if you remember’.

       The mention of the loss of ‘two guns’ and the ‘two cooks’ in the letter quoted above reminds me of the story my Grandfather told me about the night in question. There was only 1 gun remaining in action in his battery and so many of the gun crew had been killed or injured that he had had to get the cooks to help him man it so that it could remain firing.

       Subsequent to the German breakthrough, there were a lot of movements back and forth in the fronts. The 194 SB moved around quite a bit and saw plenty of action because on 11 April the War Diary(20) records that, ‘Brigade became a Counter-Battery Group (C.B.S.O 4th Corps). Operations – destructive shoots, neutralisation of hostile batteries, area strafes, night harassing fire, and occasional trench shoots.’

Two examples of the kind of shoots 194 SB was doing can be gleaned from the ‘Active Hostile Batteries Engaged With Aeroplane Observation’ reports that were often taken by pilots of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) who were used as aerial spotters and observers. HERE is one such example of such a report, and HERE is another.

       On one occasion, the War Diary(20) notes that on 11 May between the hours of 1900 to 0400 next day, near the village of Foncquevillers, ‘194 SB and 219 SB near Foncquevillers gassed. 10,000 gas-shells put into the village. Total casualties during week following, when all developed, 7 officers, 160 men, also the Brigade M.O.. Only two deaths resulted.’(20)

       Per Martin Marix Evans, by the end of Operation Michael, ‘The Allies had lost nearly 255,000 men (British, British Empire and French). They also lost 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks. All of this could be replaced, either from French and British factories or from American manpower. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of them specialist shocktroops (Stormtroops) who were irreplaceable.  In terms of morale, the initial German jubilation at the successful opening of the offensive soon turned to disappointment, as it became clear that the attack had not achieved decisive results(17e).

       From May until 11 November 1918, when Germany finally surrendered, 194 SB was kept busy as things turned in favour of the Allies. The following selection of entries from the War Diary(20) gives an idea of these developments, but this is not a complete list, nor is the War Diary comprehensive in its descriptions of what actually transpired:

       16/06/1918: 194 SB establishment increased to 6 guns with transfer of 2 x 6” howitzers from 513 SB to 194 SB.

       24/06/1918: Brigade moved to GHQ Reserve at VAUCHELLES.

       29/06/1918: Brigade moved to CONTAY en route for IV ARMY (Australian Corps). ‘Whilst in the line, harassing fire was carried out nightly on enemy communications, suspected areas etc. Counter-Battery shoots by the Siege Batteries were done whenever the weather was suitable. During the month – one DSO, one MC, and one DCM have been awarded in the Brigade.’

       1/07/1918: Brigade, including 194 SB with 6x 6” howitzers, under Australian Corps Heavy Artillery and 69 Brigade RGA.

        4/07/1918: 3.10am Hamel offensive opened.

       10/07/1918: Brigade replaced French Artillery on the line.

       1-24/08/1918: 194 SB (6x 6” howitzers)& 219 SB (6x 6” howitzers) ‘fired 19,000 rounds at the enemy’.

       31/08/1918: 194 SB (6x 6” howitzers) & 219 SB (6x 6” howitzers) transferred to 2nd Brigade RGA.

       10/09/1918: Batteries pulled out - 194 SB to BOESCHEPE (Maj C E Morris)

       21/09/1918: 194 SB moved to COUTHOVE AVENUE

       27/09/1918: All Brigade’s Batteries in position in front of YSER CANAL, North of YPERS.

       29/09/1918: Assisted attack on PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE – Counter Battery and bombardment.

       30/09/1918: Brigade at  WESTOUTRE.

       1/10/1918: Brigade held in reserve at WESTOUTRE, including 194 SB.

       1/11/1918: Brigade at ROLLEGHEM, including 194 SB.

       11/11/1918: Germany surrendered, signed the Armistice.

       For what happened next to 194 SB and BSM John Kennelly, please go to the ‘Post WWI’ page.

Copyright © 2020 Liam ÒCionnfhaolaidh

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