Cecil Slack
The Great War 1914 - 1918

Article From The Yorkshire Post

April 17, 1919

Stories of North Country Troops

In this section you will find an extract from the Yorkshire Post.

This article, written after the end of the war, records the achievements of the 4th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War.

The article includes an account of a trench attack, the action for which Cecil Slack, then a lieutenant, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

The 150th. Brigade

Hull's "Fighting Fourth" Battalion. A Glorious Record in France and Flanders

The 4th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment (T.F.) was raised in 1858 and was known for many years as the "Hull Rifles".

After having various titles, as the volunteer system of the home defence developed, it acquired its present title on the formation of the Territorial Force in 1908.

Under this scheme it became a unit of the York and Durham Infantry Brigade, Northumbrian Division, afterwards known as the 150th. Infantry Brigade, 50th. Division.

On August 4, 1914, the battalion, commanded by Lieut-Col. G.H.Shaw V.D., was mobilised at Hull, and proceeded to its first war station in Holderness. Shortly afterwards it was moved to Darlington, and thence to Newcastle, and it embarked for France on April 17, 1915.

On April 18, it entrained for Cassel, and thence, on April 19, marched to the Steenvoorde area.

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The Second Battle of Ypres

The 50th. Division was one of the divisions rushed up to stop the German advance.

The battalion first "stood to arms" on April 22, and proceeded by "bus" to Vlamertinghe on April 23rd.

The next day the men marched to the Yser Canal, and at 4 pm., from the chateau of Potijze, the whole brigade counter-attacked towards Fortuin, and through very heavy gun-fire drove the enemy back into St. Julien.

This counter-attack was carried out perfectly, and was successful, but at great cost, our casualties being very heavy both amongst officers and men.

The gallant commanding officer, Lieut-Col. G.H. Shaw, V.D., was killed early in the engagement.

The object, however, had been achieved, and the brigade received special thanks from General Plummer.

The battalion was then commanded by Major (now Lieut-Col.) Arthur Easton, who, being twice wounded in the next few days, was followed by Capt. (now Lieut-Col.) W.T.Wilkinson D.S.O.

A period of rough and tumble fighting ensued in and out of very bad trenches, and often under intense enemy bombardment.

Casualties were heavy, and when the battalion was taken out of the line on May 4th, 1915, it had only some eight officers, and had lost more than half its strength.

In a few day's time the battalion again moved up to the line, and was attached to various cavalry divisions, holding very hot trenches near Hooge Chateau. Lieut-Col. Beddoes took command of the battalion for a week or two, but was abliged to relinquish his command by reason of ill-health.

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Moving up to trenches near the Menin Road on the night of May 23/24, the battalion, on the 24th. took part in the great fight in which the Germans made a desperate effort to break through.

Seven or eight divisions were engaged, and less than half this number of our men were opposed to them.

At about 2am. the enemy commenced with his cloud gas, and a tremendous struggle took place.

We had many killed and wounded, but the attack was stopped.

After this "show", the men moved into front line trenches again in Sanctuary Wood, when the enemy exploded a mine, which, fortunately, was just short of its objective - one of our trenches.

Some of the men were covered with débris, but although it was rather a terrifying experience, they were not shaken, and the casualties were few.

Up to June, when a move was made to Armentières, there had been almost ceaseless fighting with an enemy superior in artillery and shells.

At Armentières Captain Wilkinson, D.S.O., left to take command of the 5th. Battalion D.L.I., and Lieut-Col. (now Major General) C.J. Deverall, C.B., D.S.O., took command. Early in November, 1915, he was appointed to the 21st. Infantry Brigade.

The command of the battalion devolved thereby for a few days upon Major Quebell, and then Lieut- Col. W.T. Wilkinson returned.

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Back to the Mud of Ypres

December saw the battalion again in the salient near Hill 60, where it remained during the whole of the winter in the trenches often thigh-deep in mud and water, and always under general conditions of a most miserable character.

In February, 1916, the Hun attacked the British line at the "Bluff", and succeeded in gaining a footing.

He was subsequently driven out again by a counter-attack, excellently planned and successfully carried out.

The battalion, though somewhat to the north of this point, co-operated by a feint attack, under a very heavy bombardment.

About this time three mines were exploded against the front line trenches held by the battalion east of Armagh Wood.

The explosions occurred within half-an-hour of each other, and fortunately just short of the trenches; but a heavy bombardment was put down at the same time, and caused many casualties.

Prompt action on the part of the company officers concerned, assisted by our artillery, prevented the enemy taking any advantage of his scheme.

Moving from Ypres, the battalion, after a short rest, went into trenches near Kemmel, and here experienced a most trying time with enemy trench mortars.

The battalion in this sector carried out a dashing trench raid, for which Lieut. C.M. Slack, the leader of the raiding party, was awarded the Military Cross.

A section of the trenches held by the battalion was badly gassed with cloud gas, and although at this time the gas protectors were very effective, some 70 casualties were suffered, the gas being of a particularly virulent type with delayed action.

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The Battle of the Somme

In July, 1916, the battalion moved to Millencourt, near Albert, to take part in the great Somme battle.

After some weeks of training, the battalion moved up into front line trenches, and on September 15, 1916, in conjunction with other units, attacked High Wood and Martinpuich, and succeeded splendidly in securing all the objectives and causing great loss to the enemy.

The tanks, which assisted our troops for the first time, helped the infantry greatly, but the battalion's losses were very heavy.

Several days of more or less intensive fighting took place.

In November the battalion was given a much needed rest.

Towards the end of this period the weather was so bad that officers and men returning from the trenches were so caked in mud and water that they could with difficulty be recognised, and pack ponies, more than belly deep in mud and water, had the greatest difficulty in moving along with rations and munitions for the troops.

Early in 1917, when the battalion took over a portion of trenches from the French near Berny, they were greeted, on the first night in this line, by a heavy gas shell bombardment.

The weather conditions were awful, some weeks of exceptionally severe frost being followed by a "black" thaw, which caused all the trenches to be impassable with water and mud.

When at last relieved from these trenches in February, some units of the brigade, more particularly the 5th.

Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, had the greatest difficulty in getting out.

Many of the men had to be hauled out with ropes, and the whole of the available transport of the brigade was sent up to meet and assist the men to their billets.

Fortunately, visibility was low, and therefore this action did not draw any greater shelling than the usual daily "hate".

Bombing from the air, which had been experienced by us at intervals for many months, in this sector became a nightly occurrence, and this method of warfare developed more and more as the war continued.

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Leading The Attack at Arras

The battalion was taken out of the French trenches to re-fit and be trained as a unit of the army of pursuit.

Arriving by route march at Arras in the middle of April, 1917, the battalion spent a few days in the celebrated caves there.

It then marched into the line and attacked on April 23, St. George's Day - a day never to be forgotten by the units of the 150th Infantry Brigade.

The battle commenced at 4.45 am., this battalion, with its trusted comrades of the 4th.

Yorkshire Regiment on its left, leading the attack.

Serious casualties to officers and other ranks immediately occurred, and it was not lomg before all the officers of the flank companies were either killed or wounded.

Still the battalion pressed on inchecked to its objectives.

On its way a battery of field guns was met with and captured.

With few officers remaining (some companies had none), the men tried to "dig in" and maintain their position.

The 4th. Battalion Yorkshire Regiment were in a similar case.

Neither the Division on the right nor the Division on the left of the 4th.

Battalion Yorkshire Regiment had made any progress, with the result that our flanks were "in the air", and entirely exposed to enemy counter attacks. About 7 am. the enemy launched a strong counter attack from both flanks and the remainder of the battalion of the 4th.

Battalion Yorkshire Regiment had no alternative but to fight their way back, and alas! few of them succeeded.

In this battle the battalion had lost all its company officers and the battalion signal officer, and only very few of its "other ranks" were left.

Some 800 prisoners were captured by the brigade early in this action, and a day that had promised so well for the battalion and the brigade was spoilt by being "left in the air".

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Fighting on the Hindenberg Line

After a rest and re-fit the battalion moved to the Hindenberg line.

On the night of June 25-26 the 5th. Battalion Yorkshire Regiment raided and captured a portion of a German trench opposite Fontaine Wood, which the next night was taken over by C. Company (Captain, now Major Morrell).

The enemy determined to recover this, and at 7 am. on June 27th. commenced a very heavy shelling of the whole forward area, particularly concentrating on C. Company's position.

This bombardment continued with more or less intinsity throughout the day, culminating with a great barrage of fire at about4.30 pm.

After this the Germans attacked viciously, and eventually overcame our men, only 15 of whom were left, all the remainder killed or wounded. D. Company (Captain Wilson-Barkworth, M.C.) under similar circumstances, and with about 70 per cent casualties, though pressed back somewhat, succeeded in holding its hastily constructed position.

The casualties this day were four officers and about 110 other ranks.

After this the Division held trenches astride the Cojeul River, and the enemy attempted a strong raid against the trench held by our B. Company (Captain H.N.Seed, M.C.)

The enemy, however, met more than his match, and was effectually punished and repulsed.

Another rest and re-fit, and in September the battalion was marched up to the Ypres salient again.

After a few days in the line just south of Houthulst Forest the battalion had a sanguinary affair to straighten the line, and gallantly attacked a series of concrete block-houses.

The condition of the ground was terrible, but our line was considerably improved by this operation.

The time spent in this sector, in and out of the trenches, with short intervals of rest until February, 1918, was a time of mud, blood and misery.

The fighting was often furious, and the enemy's shelling of the various "duck board" tracks was deadly.

So bad was it in the "shell hole" warfare that all rations, munitions and stores were taken to the front line at imminent risk of men's lives, and the casualties to ration and working parties was very great.

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The German March Offensive

Late in February, 1918, the battalion was taken out of the line, and was made pretty well up to strength by strong drafts of officers and men from the 12th. and 13th. Battalions East Yorkshire Regiment.

After a period of training, in March, 1918, it moved south to Guillancourt, and afterwards to Brie, whence it marched into the forward area, and "dug in", and in the evening went into action.

With strenuous rearguard actions and counter-attacks, the casualties to the brigade had been so heavy that on March 26, the battalions of the brigade were formed into one composite battalion, under the commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel W.T.Wilkinson, D.S.O. who, later in the day was wounded.

This trying rearguard fighting continued, with Lieut-Colonel G.R.Thompson, D.S.O. in command. On March 29, Captain J. Ruthven, M.C., with about thirty other ranks, joined the battalion, and later Captain C.T.A. Pollock, attached from the Inns of Court Battalion, T.F. (commanding "A" Company).

He, with about one hundred men of brigade details, had already carried out two counter-attacks with excellent results.

On March 30, Lieut-Colonel Thompson was wounded and Captain Pollock took charge.

On this day the battalion carried out two counter-attacks, and captured fifty prisoners and twelve machine guns.

Next day the Germans attacked our weak position, and got round the right rear.

Captain Pollock and Capt. C.M. Slack, M.C. with a handful of men, were still fighting.

Captain Pollock himself turned a captured machine-gun on the enemy, and killed a number of them.

He then ordered his whole party to retire, and, after destroying the machine-gun, this gallant officer was last seen speaking to his servant, who lay wounded in a shell hole.

On April 1, there only remained 88 officers and 108 other ranks of the Brigade Composite Battalion, now commanded by Captain C.M. Slack, M.C.

After nearly ten days of the most strenuous and bitter rearguard fighting, and many counter-attacks, the battalion was moved out of the line, the advance having been checked.

After a long and dreary journey "all that was left of them" arrived in the Bethune area on April 3.

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On April 7, two days after the arrival of a large draft, chiefly of young soldiers, the battalion moved to take over trenches held by the Portuguese troops.

However, two days before this, the Hun attacked the Portuguese very strongly, and came right through them.

The battalion, now commanded by Major H.B.Jackson, M.C., was rushed up, and came into action early on April 9.

The fierceness of the battle increased on April 10, and during the day the position became a "key position", and the orders were to hold at all costs.

This was a great task even for seasoned soldiers, and for young, inexperienced men almost impossible, but their behaviour in this, their first - and alas, for so many of them, their last - battle was splendid.

The Germans forced a break through the other troops on the right and left flanks of our battalion, and eventually pressed in on both flanks, and forced it from its position.

The casualties were very great, only some four officers and comparatively few men survived the battle.

The remainder, including the commanding officer, all the head-quarters officers, and the regimental sergeant-major, were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

A war correspondent records that " some East Yorkshires refused to fall back, and held their position.

Nothing more was heard of them.

It is calculated that one tired brigade for a time held up two and a half German divisions!"

The remnants of the battalion, with some few reinforcements from the transport line, continued rear-guard fighting until April 17.

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The Battalion's Tragic End

On the morning of May 27, the enemy commenced an exceptionally heavy barrage bombardment on the battalion's section, lasting for three hours, and he afterwards attacked in strong force.

He entered our line about half a mile on the right flank of the battalion headquarters and captured it.

Surrounded on all sides, overwhelmingly out-numbered, and with very many casualties (one company had only one officer and some eight men left), the position was hopeless, and resistance was eventually overcome.

Practically no one escaped from the front line - all were killed, wounded or captured (including the commanding officer wounded).

No reinforcements were available to back up the division, with the result that the battalion, and indeed, the whole brigade was practically wiped out, for the third time in about three months.

The casualties to the battalion had been so appalling in the three great battles of March, April and May, that it now ceased to exist as a fighting unit.

It came into action again with a hastily composed composite force until a bare skeleton only remained.

This was soon removed back to the coast, and continued good work for a time as a training unit, and here its old commanding officer (Lieut-Col. W.T.Wilkinson, D.S.O.) again took over.

The 4th, East Yorkshire Regiment, T.F., was a unit of the 150th. Brigade, 50th. Division, during the whole of the period covered by this record.

The divisional commanders were, until February, 1918, Major-General Sir P.S. Wilkinson, K.C.M.G., C.B., and afterwards Major-General H.C. Jackson, D.S.O.

The brigade commanders were:- Brigadier-General Bush, C.M.G., until early in 1916, then Brigadier-General B.G. Price, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., and afterwards Brigadier-General H.C. Rees, C.B., D.S.O.

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Except where otherwise stated, the copyright in all of the archives and letters on this site is held by Robert Slack (grandson) and the Slack family. Copyright in teaching resources and materials on this site belongs to the East Riding of Yorkshire Council. Please acknowledge intellectual property rights by giving the URL of any pages you use, and/or include the © copyright symbol. Thank you.

Robert Slack - "I am very happy for (the letters) to be used by others. If teachers ever wanted to see the original letters for teaching purposes etc, I would be very happy to loan them, or send good copies of the originals."

To contact Robert, or to comment on this site, please e-mail Chris.A.Brown@eastriding.gov.uk

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