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Battle of Gavrelle Windmill - highest number of Royal Marine causalities in a single day

Battle of Gavrelle Windmill

Unit/ Formation: RMLI

Location: France

Period/ Conflict: World War I

Year: 1917

Date/s: 28th to 29th April 1917

(1RM: 169 killed & 29 POW; 2RM 166 killed & 176 POW)

The battle of Gavrelle saw the highest number of Royal Marine causalities in a single day in the history of the corps, with 846 recorded as killed, missing or wounded.

The 1st Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry was effectively wiped out when it charged a German Strongpoint, north of the village, with the barbed wire still intact. The 2nd Battalion suffered just as badly, particularly in the fighting around the windmill that formed part of the German Line, north east of the village. [1]

Capture of Gavrelle (23-24th April)

The remainder of the Royal Naval Division were now called on to take part in the Second Battle of the Scarpe and to attack; the 189th and 190th Brigades were detailed to capture the Gavrelle spur which they successfully accomplished after a very fine attack, on 24th and 25th April the 188th Brigade being in reserve.

British troops move up the line at Arras, April 29 1917 (Image: Royal Navy)

On 24th ‘‘ B ” Company 1/R.M.L.I. were ordered to proceed at 8 p.m. with about 250 men to a point east of Bailleul, opposite Oppy, and remove a large dump of ammunition, barbed wire, bombs, etc. to a position on the western edge of Gavrelle village (just captured), the way lay along a ravine running along the south side of Bailleul, across which large trees were lying, making progress very slow, especially on the return journey when the men were laden with rolls of wire and ammunition ; they reached the dump and started back for Gavrelle about a mile away and Captain Huskisson tried to cut across the ravine, but was warned by troops waiting to attack and had to go back through it, and then moved across the Arras-Gavrelle road and down an old German communication trench, successfully completing their job at 4 a.m. in spite of heavy shell fire.

On 26th the 188th Brigade relieved the 189th, 1/R.M.L.I. holding the left of the line, then 1/H.A.C., the 2/R.M.L.I. next, and the Ansons on the right.

Maps and Pins showing the actions at

Battle of Arleux (28th and 29th April) Capture of Gavrelle Windmill

On 28th the Ist and 2nd Battalions Royal Marines were ordered to attack; the objectives of 1/R.M.L.I. being the German trenches in their front, and of the 2/R.M.L.I. the Gavrelle Windmill and the German trenches to the south of it; The Ansons were to form a defensive flank on the right of 2/R.M.L.I. as the Army on the right was not to advance.

1 /R.M.L.I. were to attack the line that ran from Oppy to Mericourt, and endeavour to come up into line with the 2nd Battalion, but as zero hour was fixed at the same time for both Battalions, it was obvious that the 2nd Battalion would have both flanks in the air at the commencement of the attack.

Gavrelle Windmill

Dealing first with 1/R.M.L.I. “B” Company Major Huskisson had been sent on night 26/27 April to occupy a small isolated trench about midway between Oppy and Gavrelle. (C-D on plan), which was done at 3 a.m. 27th ; when the enemy’s wire was reconnoitred it was found to be very strong and uncut, and the two runners with this information were unable to get through during the 27th owing to the heavy shelling ; rations also were very short.

The tape had been laid out for the attack of the Essex Regiment on their left, but that for 1/R.M.L.I. was not laid out by the R.E., consequently on the night of the attack Major Huskisson extended his company on the jumping off line for the Battalion to form on in prolongation of the Essex Regiment’s tape ; the objectives of the several companies are shown on plan 19, “ B ” Company having to pass through the others to attack the furthest objective. The company commanders were “A” Company, Lieutenant N. Lion (killed), " C” Company, Captain Goldsmith (died of wounds), “D” Company, Captain V. H. Jones (died of wounds), " B ” Company Major Huskisson ; C.S.M. Rogers (Chatham) rendered very good service with the guides in bringing up both the Essex Regiment and the 1/R.M.L.I. to the jumping off line and was awarded the Military Medal.

Zero hour was 4-30 a.m. 28th, the Windmill to be attacked by the 2nd Battalion stood out very conspicuously on the sky line. The enemy were evidently expecting an attack as their guns replied immediately to the barrage. Our artillery had failed to cut the wire and when the Battalion advanced they found the wire absolutely impenetrable and were forced to consolidate in shell holes in front of it; one officer and about 30 men apparently did force their way through and when their ammunition was expended they were made prisoners ; the Essex Regiment also had failed to penetrate the wire as did the Battalions detailed to attack the following night.

Lieut.-Colonel Cartwright, soon after the attack commenced, in getting out of the trench to redirect a Lewis gun section, was shot in the stomach and died of his wounds on 30th April; a very great loss to the Battalion and Corps where his splendid character was highly appreciated.

Pack mules move supplies through the ruins of Arras, April 1917 (Image: Royal Navy)

The enemy constantly counter-attacked the 1/R.M.L.I. who maintained their position though unable to make any further progress in spite of the assistance of the very gallant bombing attacks by the H.A.C. from the flank. Major Huskisson was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in reconnoitring the position, and for his good work in organising the guides and aligning his company as a mark which enabled the Battalion to be formed up for the assault; the attack failed owing to several causes : the enemy were aware of the intention to attack, there was inadequate artillery preparation, and the jumping off place was on a forward slope so that all movements were visible against the sky line.

Meanwhile on the right, the 2/R.M.L.I. attacked the Windmill and trenches to the south of it. The Battalion advanced on its objective under the barrage, but the Anson company which was to form the defensive flank came under heavy fire and owing to their serious casualties were unable to connect up and a reserve company was sent up. The 2/R.M.L.I. had already passed on and at 7-45 a.m. Colonel Hutchison reported that the first objective had been taken and that the troops were going well to the second line.

Machine-gun fire and sniping from both flanks made it almost impossible for information to get back. The Commanding Officer reported later that the Battalion had gone on to its objective, but that the enemy had closed in on the flanks ; as a matter of fact the barrage was bad and the wire was only cut in one place, “ A ” " C ” and “ D ” Companies streamed through and reached their objective but they had overlooked a trench immediately behind the wire and were cut off; after very heavy losses the remnants were captured by the enemy.

In the meantime Lieutenant Newling with his platoon of Major Eagle’s company advanced and captured the Windmill with about 100 prisoners, whom they sent back without escort; he then most gallantly held the Windmill all day against violent counter-attacks ; the other three platoons of “B ” Company had followed the other companies but were held up by machine-gun fire and dug in. For many hours the old front line was held by the orderly room sergeant (Sergeant W. Love, Portsmouth) and two privates who patrolled it.

During the day, one of the headquarter runners (Private London) went out four times to the Windmill with messages, and Colonel Hutchison also visited the post to make what arrangements were possible ; "B ” Company had seized and were holding the German front line and during the night 28/29 they reinforced Lieutenant Newling at the Windmill; Lieutenant Newling was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry and determination.

At one time the attacks on the 1/R.M.L.I. were so threatening that Colonel Hutchison took his headquarters (signallers, cooks, etc.) and reinforced the left of the H.A.C. to help repel the attacks. The counter-attacks were all beaten off and the Windmill position was consolidated and held ; the Howe Battalion was sent up at night to hold the front line and the R.M. Battalions were relieved on night of 29/30th.

The 190th Machine Gun Company had participated in the attack and rendered most valuable service, suffering heavy casualties.

The capture of the Windmill position rendered this portion of the line secure for many months.

In addition to Lieutenant Newling, 2nd Lieutenant E. A. Godfrey was awarded the Military Cross for working the guns of the trench mortar battery with great skill and gallantry for 60 hours without a rest, under heavy enemy fire against an enemy strong point which eventually surrendered, whilst Lance Corporal T. Salt (Chatham) was awarded the D.C.M. for crawling backwards and forwards for three hours under heavy high explosive barrage to signal the effect of the Stokes mortar fire and Private Glyndwyer Davies (Plymouth) was also awarded the D.C.M. for advancing alone to a strong point, demanding its surrender and singlehanded bringing in 50 prisoners, a considerable number of Military Medals were also awarded.

The D.C.M. was awarded to Acting Corporal W. A. Watts (Plymouth) of the T.M. battery who kept command of his detachment though wounded, and continued to fire his gun for four hours until again severely wounded, when he had to be carried away.

In 1/R.M.L.I. in addition to Colonel Cartwright and Captains Goldsmith and Jones, Lieutenants Lion and Fielding were killed and Captain Pearson, M.C., and Lieutenants Atkinson, Evans, Roberts, Kenny, Perry, and J. W. Thomas were wounded.

In 2/R.M.L.I. Captains Burton-Fanning and J. Campbell, Lieutenants Kearney, W. A. Lake, P. R. Hardy, D. H. Walker, H. E. Markham were missing and later reported killed and Lieutenant R. H. Marsland, A. E. Hughes and Lieutenant R. S. Wilkie (machine gun company) wounded.

A man named Powell 1/R.M.L.I. is reported to have had a very terrifying experience ; a shell exploded and buried him up to his neck, and he remained buried for two days, when he was discovered by passing troops, who dug him out; although he was asked if he wanted to go back for a rest, he at once volunteered for company runner.

Among those taken prisoner was Company Sergeant-Major Chapman, who was wounded and died of his wounds in Germany ; he joined the Brigade at the outset as a bugler and after serving throughout Gallipoli, rose to the rank of Company Sergeant Major; he was a very fine non-commissioned officer, who like so many others, commenced his career in the Drums.

63rd Naval Division Memorial Gravelle (Image: Royal Navy)

The Division after a rest and re-organisation remained in this area. Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchison was promoted to command the I9th Brigade with rank of Brigadier-General and was succeeded in command by Major (T/Lieut.-Colonel) L. W. Miller. Capt. C. G. Farquharson who had recovered from his wounds, resumed duty as Adjutant. Major (T/ Lieut.-Colonel) H. Ozanne became Commanding Officer of 1/R.M.L.I. vice Cartwright. [2]

The Arras CWGC Memorial is France has 34,800 identified casualties, at least 424 are Royal Marines.

The Common wealth War Graves Commission Arras Memorial is France has 34,800 identified casualties, at least 424 are Royal Marines, all are listed in the Royal Marines Roll of Honour and Graves Database [3]

[1] Jack

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