Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

Ten Heroes of Neuve Chapelle

The little French village of Neuve Chapelle gave its name to the first of the great battles fought by the British Army in 1915. In point of numbers engaged, it was a vaster field than that of Waterloo, although in this gigantic conflict of the nations it ranks as a minor battle. The British troops then, as ever, displayed the utmost bravery, and it was through no fault of theirs that Neuve Chapelle did not rank as a decisive battle. The village is south-west of Lille, which the Germans wrested from our sorely-tried troops in the autumn of 1914 after the exhaustion following the first battle of Ypres. The town is a great railway centre, and the seat of France's cotton manufactories. It was one of the tragedies of the war that Lille and the surrounding district passed into the marauding hands of the Huns.

With Neuve Chapelle we had to yield the more advanced village of Aubers; thus the Germans held the high ground surrounding La Bassée and were able to secure themselves from a flank attack on Lille.

The battle of Neuve Chapelle lasted three days—March 10, 11, and 12, 1915. It was our first big engagement since the terrible fight for the French coast towns in the preceding October and November. Throughout the winter our heroic men had been fast in the trenches, and as the spring of 1915 approached they looked forward longingly to the great advance which they, as well as the people at home, believed would be made. That a great movement was contemplated by the British commanders is proved by the battle of Neuve Chapelle, although the advance did not then carry us far.

Many heroic deeds were done on these three days; all regiments fought with valour, but a number of our men distinguished themselves above all others, and ten of these gained the Victoria Cross. Before describing the great deeds of these heroes, however, it is necessary to indicate the general plan of this battle, which cost us many valuable lives.

The preparations for Neuve Chapelle were carried out in the utmost secrecy and with amazing thoroughness. An excellent account was given by a writer in the Weekly Dispatch, from which we quote:

"Sir John French sat in his head-quarters, the nerve-centre of the British Army, watching the carrying out of each move as one might study a chess-board. The telegraph wire and the dispatch-rider told him all he wanted to know. They told him that the vast concentration of troops behind the Neuve Chapelle lines, which was one of the essential features of this plan, was being conducted in the absolute secrecy necessary to success. No German Taube or aviator came near enough for reconnaissance; otherwise the movement of masses of troops north and south of the British front would have warned the enemy that some big move was impending, and he could have made his dispositions accordingly . . .

"The concentration of both guns and men took place behind the road which connects Fleurbaix with Neuve Chapelle—the Rue Petillon. The reinforcements of men were arranged in billets six miles behind the British trenches. They included the 7th and 8th Divisions, part of the Canadian contingent, Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, and part of the Indian corps, with whom were several British regiments—in all some 50,000. Though no battalion from Kitchener's new army figured in the concentration, our new recruits were well represented, having supplied considerable drafts to most of the regiments.

"The concentration of guns followed the line of an arc, so that the full fire could be directed on any particular area. They were placed so closely together that there were no fewer than 350 machine-guns, 4.7 guns, and howitzers on a front of 2000 yards—a concentration of artillery which history had never before witnessed in such a restricted sector. Even the extraordinary German artillery concentration in the attack of Warsaw was outdone in point of close massing."

It is said that rehearsals of the plan of attack took place behind the lines. Every company commander closely examined through his field-glasses the position which his men were to assault, so that when the hour for advance came he would know exactly what to do.

The battle opened at 7:30 a.m. on the l0th March by a powerful artillery bombardment of the enemy's position. This bombardment had been well prepared and was most effective, except on the extreme northern portion of the front of attack.

At 8:05 a.m. the 23rd (left) and 25th (right) Brigades of the 8th Division assaulted the German trenches on the north-west of the village. At the same hour the Garhwal Brigade of the Meerut Division, which occupied the position to the south of Neuve Chapelle, assaulted the trenches on its front.

The Garhwals and the 25th Brigade carried the enemy's lines of entrenchments where the wire entanglements had been almost entirely swept away by our shrapnel fire. The 23rd Brigade, however, on the north-east, was held up by the wire entanglements, which were not sufficiently cut. It was in completing this unfinished work of our guns that several of our men gained the V.C., as will shortly be seen.

Meantime the artillery was bombarding Neuve Chapelle, and at 8:25 a.m. the advance of the infantry was continued, and the 25th and Garhwal Brigades pushed on eastward and north-eastward respectively, and succeeded in getting a footing in the village.

After being held up in front of the enemy's wire entanglements for some hours, the 23rd Brigade, thanks to powerful artillery support, was also able to move forward, and by 11 a.m. the roads leading northward and south-westward from the eastern end of the village were in our hands.

On the following day, March 11th, the attack was renewed by the 4th and Indian Corps, but it was soon seen that a further advance would be impossible until the artillery had dealt effectively with the various houses and defended localities which held up the troops along the entire front. We made efforts to direct the artillery fire accordingly, but owing to weather conditions, which did not permit of aerial observation, and the fact that nearly all the telephonic communications between the artillery observers and their batteries had been cut, it was impossible to direct our fire with sufficient accuracy. The result was that when our troops which were pressing forward occupied a house here and there, they suffered from our own artillery fire, and had to be withdrawn.

Unfortunately on the third day of the battle the same unfavourable weather conditions prevailed, and hampered artillery action. The 4th and Indian Corps most gallantly attacked the strongly fortified positions in their front, but they were unable to maintain themselves permanently in those which they succeeded in capturing. However, most of the objects for which the operations had been undertaken had been achieved, and the British offensive came to an end.

Most of the ten V.C.s were won on the 12th, a day chiefly remarkable for the violent counter-attacks, supported by artillery, which were delivered by the Germans. Thanks to the gallant work of our bomb-throwers these assaults were all repulsed.

The great deeds of individual bravery which are now to be described well illustrate the difficulties under which our men had to fight at Neuve Chapelle. The Germans had constructed barbed-wire entanglements in front of their trenches, and it was in breaking through these that several of our heroes gained their reward. Others performed prodigious feats with hand grenades, for in places the fighting was adapted to this revival of an ancient mode of warfare. Where the Germans could not be dislodged by rifle-fire or bayonet, the hand bomb proved efficacious.

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Of all the Neuve Chapelle heroes the most popular is Sergeant-Major (later Lieutenant) Harry Daniels of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, who, with his comrade, Corporal Noble, who also won the V.C., did a magnificent bit of wire-cutting under a terrific shell-fire. The story of these two heroes makes thrilling reading.

Sergeant-Major Daniels is known to his intimate friends as 'Dan V.C.,' and from his sunny disposition has been referred to as the 'Smiling V.C.' His exploit has well been classed as one of the finest of the war. Daniels himself, referring to the occasion, said later: "Neuve Chapelle was just hell. I suppose if I hadn't got the Cross I'd ha' gone under the turf."

Daniels is a native of Norfolk, having been born at Wymondham. His early youth was spent mostly in Norwich, and in that cathedral city the future hero went to school. There does not seem to be anything outstanding in his school life; he was an ordinary boy, fond of fun, and always of an adventurous disposition.

His life in the army has been successful; when he won his V.C. he had reached the highest non-commissioned rank. For nine years he saw service in India, then he came home with his regiment, and went to the front in November of 1914.

During the severe winter months he did his bit along with his comrades in the trenches, and, like all our splendid men, was greatly rejoiced when, about the beginning of March, it was rumoured that something big was to happen, that the long-expected advance was to take place.

There had been a great concentration of our guns, the object being to pound the enemy's trenches and positions and to destroy the intricate barbed wire in front. The infantry was then to finish off what remained of the Germans after the terrific bombardment. But things do not always turn out as expected, and the artillery failed in certain places to completely break down the barbed wire.

The 2nd Rifle Brigade had gone through the hottest of the great battle, and on March 12th, having pressed through the village of Neuve Chapelle at the point of the bayonet, had entrenched themselves.

In front was a mass of wire, twenty-five to thirty yards deep. In height it varied from a few inches to five feet. Only the ground fifteen yards immediately in front of the trench was clear.

This wire had to be cut at any cost, for the Germans had massed only 300 yards away. Word was given to advance and capture a certain wood. Two companies of the 2nd Rifles got up and dashed at the wire, hoping to break it down by sheer weight, but the German machine-guns were too deadly, and the attempt had to be given up.

Then the B and D companies were ordered out.

Daniels had seen the terrible losses incurred by the other companies, and boldly told his company commander that the men could not advance until the wire was cut. For answer he was ordered to get the wire cutters to work at once.

Daniels gazed at the formidable wire entanglement; he knew that death awaited those who attempted to cut it down. But the more the danger the more eager he was to be one of those to make the attempt. Something had to be done—the wood must be taken at all costs, and the network of barbed wire barred the way.

At first he thought of selecting a number of men for the task; then, realizing the awful risk, changed his mind.

He had remembered his chum, Corporal Noble. The two men had been inseparable on all the dangerous duties of patrol work at night. "The best chum I've ever had, the bravest man I've ever known!" was Daniel's tribute to his friend.

"Come along, Tom!" Daniels cried above the storm of bullets. "We must go."

They got a pair of wire-cutters, then shook hands, and went forth on their heroic adventure.

Lying on their backs, they started their stern task. Happily both reached the wire unscathed, although the machine-guns were spitting furiously. They attacked the lower wire and managed to break it.

Then ensued a race with death, the like of which it would be hard to equal.

It was a contest between quick, strong hands with a pair of wire-cutters and hundreds of German rifles and machine-guns. Lying on his back, Daniels cut all the low wires. Then he raised himself and cut those higher up, known as 'breast wires.' As the snap of his cutters sounded the bullets whizzed around, yet they failed to touch him. Quicker and quicker he worked, the perspiration pouring from his face.

Then came a few minutes of kneeling, in order to reach the highest wire. This was quickly accomplished, and Daniels was congratulating himself on having performed his perilous task, when a bullet struck him in the thigh.

He lay for five minutes where he fell. Then hearing a gasp he called out:

"What's up, Tom?"

His chum had done his work well, and had stuck to his clippers with as grim determination as Daniels. His voice, very faint, came back:

"I am hit in the chest, old man."

These were Noble's last words.

Daniels now set about saving himself. Near-by was a hole made by a shell, and, rolling over and over, Daniels managed to get into it. This provided cover from the bullets, and for four hours the wounded man remained there in safety. He was conscious all the time, and was able to apply the field-dressing to his wound. Eventually he decided to make an effort to drag himself to the British trench, but he had hardly started upon the painful journey when he was seen and picked up by his comrades.

He had the satisfaction of knowing that the work of himself and his chum had made it possible for our men to advance and capture the wood without the expenditure of many lives.

Sergeant-Major Daniels read the announcement of his V.C. in a paper when a patient at the Hammersmith Infirmary. He was reading the Daily Mail  at breakfast, and his eye was caught by his own name.

"I lay low and said nuffin," he remarked, "though my heart was beating hard. Then another man who was reading the paper turned to me quite excited. 'Your name's Daniels, isn't it? You're Sergeant-Major Daniels, of the Rifle Brigade? You've got the V.C. ' I looked at the paper. 'Yes, I reckon it must be me.'"

The proudest moment in a soldier's life is when the King pins on his breast the little bronze symbol, intrinsically of such little value, but standing for so much.

When Daniels was presented at Buckingham Palace, the King showed great interest in the hero of Neuve Chapelle. "Was there much firing while you were cutting the wire?" he asked. "Yes, your Majesty," Daniels replied, "it was pretty hot." Then the King, ever solicitous for his soldiers' welfare, asked about the hero's wound. Had it healed? "Pretty nearly, sir," Daniels replied. "I am almost well again now." He later commented laughingly on this reply; he quite forgot to say 'your Majesty,' and was ready to kick himself for it!

When Daniels returned to the front he was given a commission in another regiment. It was erroneously reported that he had been killed in action during the great advance at the end of September 1915.

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Two men bearing the name of Fuller have received the V.C. One of these two heroes is Lance-Corporal Wilfred Dolby Fuller, who, by his coolness and splendid soldier-like action, captured no fewer than fifty Germans at Neuve Chapelle.

To note first his life story, we may mention that Lance-Corporal Fuller is a native of East Kirkby, in the Mansfield colliery district. Before joining the Grenadier Guards in 1912 he was a pony driver at the Mansfield Colliery, where his father is employed. He is twenty-one years of age, and was for some time a bugler in the Mansfield Cadet Corps. The first Notts man to win the Victoria Cross, his county was naturally very proud of him, and its appreciation was shown in a fitting manner, as will be seen. A keen footballer, a teetotaller, and non-smoker, he is a member of the Warsop Vale Church Choir and the Mansfield St Lawrence Bible Class.

Fuller is a conspicuous example of the real British patriot, not the type who goes about shouting and flag-waving, but the man who sees his duty to his country, and does it quietly and earnestly. This is proved by his conduct. He was a garrison policeman in London when he volunteered for the front. Had he wished, he could have remained at home, doing useful and honourable work, but he knew the serious nature of the task confronting our Army, and at once left the comforts of the metropolis for the dangers of foreign service.

Fuller's deed at the battle of Neuve Chapelle has been compared with that of Sergeant O'Leary; he did things that no writer of fiction ever dared to put to his hero's credit.

Throughout the battle Fuller was in the thickest of the fighting. He tells how his comrades 'kept up a good heart' in this terrible and grim conflict. "Several times the Germans dressed themselves up as Grenadier Guards," he says, "and when we got over the parapet to charge them they said they were English. That was a dirty thing to do, and it was not playing the game. They had to pay the penalty."

We have described how the village of Neuve Chapelle had been carried by our men in spirited style. After its capture a lot of work fell to the Guards in clearing the enemy from trenches and consolidating captured positions. Our artillery had so battered some of the German trenches that those of the enemy remaining alive in them were easily captured. Other trenches were not so completely destroyed, and in these fierce fights took place before our troops could clear them.

Lance-Corporal Fuller was in the highest of spirits throughout this great battle. He used his brains to good purpose on every occasion, and particularly when he performed the valiant deed for which he was to be decorated. His eye happened to be on a trench which had not yet been visited by our men. As he looked he saw something which made his heart beat quicker. He observed some German soldiers endeavouring to escape through a communication trench. His soldier's instinct told him that after the great effort made by his comrades, a success bought with much loss, it would not do to let one of the enemy escape. But how to avoid it? A bayonet charge was out of the question.

Lance-Corporal Fuller at this time was attached to a grenade party. The bombs which he used are small shrapnel shells, the case made of serrated steel. They are thrown by means of a bit of rope with a tassel attached to it at the end, and a skilful thrower can hurl them forty-five or fifty yards. The grenade is a deadly weapon for clearing trenches where ordinary rifle-fire is unable to penetrate or the bayonet cannot be used.

Fuller rushed along ahead of his comrades, and, taking great risks, came up to the first man. Quickly he threw his bomb and the German who was leading fell dead. Without pausing for an instant, Fuller continued to hurl bomb after bomb. The remaining Germans were so cowed that they at once gave in.

Then was seen the amazing spectacle of a young Grenadier Guardsman, who only a few years before had been a Mansfield miner, receiving, quite alone, the surrender of nearly fifty Germans on the battle-field in France.

His action was the talk of the day, and all his comrades, when congratulating him, agreed that he would be noticed for the V.C. In a letter home soon after the battle he wrote: "Look out for good news." Later he wrote: "Barber and I have been recommended for the V.C. Don't you think it an honour?"

On visiting home Lance-Corporal Fuller received the congratulations of his fellow-townsmen of Mansfield. He was escorted to the market-place by the mayor, where he was presented with an address and a gold watch.

The Duchess of Portland shook hands with him, and the Duke of Portland paid him a tribute in a letter.

The Mayor, in reading the official account of Fuller's act, added a very interesting comment. "The Grenadier," he said, "used his grenade with unerring aim and marvellous effect, and certainly justified, if justification were needed, the name of the regiment of which the Grenadiers were so proud."

Fuller's speech was brief and to the point. "I only did my duty," he said. "I am going out again, and I don't mind dying for my country."

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Side by side with Fuller's great exploit must be placed that of the late Private Edward Barber, already referred to. Barber did not live to enjoy the pleasure that recognition of his brave deed would have brought him, for he was killed in action soon after. But for many a long day Barber's gallant fight at Neuve Chapelle will be remembered. He ran in front of a grenade company and threw bombs with such effect that numbers of the Germans at once laid down their arms. When the company came up, Barber was found quite alone, with the enemy surrendering all around him.

Little is known of Barber's early life. He was a native of Tring, and enlisted in the Grenadier Guards in October 1911. Before he joined the Army he had been a bricklayer's labourer.

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Another hero of Neuve Chapelle who laid down his life fighting for freedom and the right was Corporal William Anderson, of the 2nd Battalion (Alexandra, Princess of Wales' Own) Yorkshire Regiment. This fearless fellow led three men with bombs against a large party of the enemy who had entered our trenches. Seeing the danger he acted promptly and with determination, and so saved what might otherwise have become a serious situation. He first threw his own bombs among the Germans, then, when they had been wounded, those in possession of his three men. Having exhausted the supply of bombs, Anderson resolved to sell his life dearly and at the same time avert, if he could, what he knew was a dangerous situation for our men. He caught up his rifle and opened a rapid fire upon the enemy with great effect. Every shot told, and his coolness is one of the marvels of that terrible twelfth day of March at Neuve Chapelle.

The officer commanding his regiment, in a communication to Miss Dudley, of Port Clarence, to whom Corporal Anderson was engaged, gave the following particulars of this hero's death:

"May I tell you how deeply I sympathize with you over this great loss," he wrote. "I have known him all his service, and so he was the greatest loss to me also. He was one of the bravest men I have ever seen, and the honour he has brought to my regiment and to his country cannot be over-estimated. In your great sorrow, this, I hope, will be some consolation to you. He laid down his life in a most noble cause and in a most noble manner. When I saw him during his act he was untouched, and the Germans were driven back. I did not see him again, but from what I found out he was wounded later on in the day. I fear he must have been killed, as his pay book was eventually sent to us. We have tried to find out who found his body, and where he was buried, but without success. This has been a sad blow to us, and I know what it must mean to you, but he is at rest now. I am so glad to feel we have got into touch with some one who knew him. We have been quite unsuccessful in our efforts to do this before. I do wish I could give you more cheery news, but I cannot."

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A special interest attaches to another of the V.C. heroes of Neuve Chapelle, Lieutenant Cyril Gordon Martin, of the 56th Company, Royal Engineers, in that he won both this distinction and the Distinguished Service Order during the first year of the war at the age of twenty-two. The son of the Rev. John Martin, Principal of the Church Missionary Society College, Foochow, Lieutenant Martin was born in China. He was brought to England in early childhood, and was educated at Bath College and Clifton. The young officer's D.S.O. was won during the retreat from Mons. With a platoon of Engineers he captured and held a German trench, and although shot through the shoulder and bayoneted through the hand he stuck to his post until relief came.

Lieutenant Martin's wounds necessitated a period of inaction, and he returned to the front to win his V.C. a few days before the battle of Neuve Chapelle. On this occasion he was in command of a grenade-throwing party of six rank and file. Early in the action he was again wounded, but this did not daunt his ardour. He saw how critical the situation was, and with extraordinary pluck led his party into the enemy's trench, although exposed to a heavy fire. By his gallant stand he was able to hold back with bombs the German reinforcements for nearly two and a half hours, until the evacuation of the captured trench was ordered.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle


Lieutenant Martin had a remarkable escape earlier in the war. His company was leaving the trenches to attack, and noticing a pair of steel wire-cutters on the ground he picked them up and placed them in his breast pocket, thinking they might be useful. Almost immediately afterward a German bullet struck the instrument and smashed it, but left the officer uninjured. Had he not placed the cutters in his pocket the bullet would have found a billet in his heart, and he would not have lived to earn the V.C. This is but one of many cases of miraculous escapes which are on record in the war.

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It is pathetic to reflect that five of the Neuve Chapelle V.C. heroes never lived to enjoy their well-won honour. We have noted how Private Barber, Corporal Anderson, and Corporal Noble died at the post of duty, and we have only space for brief reference to the fourth in the sad group, Private Jacob Rivers.

Rivers was born in Bridgegate, Derby, and was thirty-four years of age when he gained his V.C. He first joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers, whence, in due course, he returned to private life and became a labourer in a Midland ballast train. When war broke out he at once re-enlisted and was passed into that famous regiment, the Sherwood Foresters. During the battle of Neuve Chapelle, on his own initiative, Rivers crept to within a few yards of a very large number of the enemy who were massed on the flank of an advanced company of his battalion, and hurled bombs on them. His action caused the Germans to retire, and so relieved the situation. Later in the day he repeated his brave act and compelled a force of the enemy to retire a second time. It was on this occasion that he was killed.

The loss of such men as this hero who single-handed saved a battalion, is part of the price we have to pay for freedom.

Rivers' mother, who resides in Derby, was proud to hear of her son's great exploit at Neuve Chapelle.

"Jake died a brave death," she said, on hearing the sad news, "and the knowledge that his heroism has been rewarded is very comforting. Poor Jake, how proud he would have been."

Mrs. Rivers treasures a relic of her hero son which was forwarded to her after his death. It is the metal box containing front received at Christmas 1914. As is well-known, many soldiers kept the metal box as a memento, and what more convenient place to carry it than the breast pocket! So 'Jake' Rivers carried his, as is apparent from the fact that it had been pierced by a bullet. He must have been carrying it when he met his death. Possibly some men have escaped death by the aid of this box carried in a pocket, but, alas, in Rivers' case it had not prevented the German bullet from piercing the heart of a true hero.

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Among the ten V.C.s awarded for heroism at Neuve Chapelle two were won by officers. We have already dealt with one of these, Lieutenant Martin, and the second officer-hero, who like Lieutenant Martin was already in possession of one badge of honour, was Captain Charles Calveley Foss, D.S.O., 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. The story of how he obtained his greater distinction may be briefly told.

The Germans had captured a part of one of our trenches, and our counter-attack, made with one officer and twenty men, had failed (all but two of the party being killed or wounded in the attempt), when Captain Foss, on his own initiative, dashed forward with eight men, under heavy fire, attacked the enemy with bombs, and captured the position, including the fifty-two Germans occupying it. This feat is one of the conspicuous deeds of the war, and the capture of the position was of the greatest importance.

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Hitherto the V.C.s noticed in connection with Neuve Chapelle were rewarded in each case for an aggressive military achievement. The deed of the next hero we are to briefly mention was as heroic as that of the others, but it was concerned, not with taking life, but with saving life and aiding the wounded. The popular idea of a V.C. hero pictures a man going into a hail of fire to bring in a wounded comrade. This is exactly what Private W. Buckingham did, and he rescued not one but many.

Buckingham has been referred to as 'a lonely hero'; he was left unprovided for at the age of six, his only relative is a brother in the Navy, and the only home he had in boyhood was the Cottage Home of the Leicester Board of Guardians at Countesthorpe. At the age of fifteen he joined the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment. When on furlough after Neuve Chapelle he revisited his old 'home,' and while staying there he read in a newspaper the news of his V.C. award. The Leicester Board of Guardians presented him with £100 worth of War Loan Stock, together with a purse of gold, and in handing the gift to Buckingham, the Mayor said that Leicestershire was proud of the heroic deeds he had performed and the way in which he had sustained the glorious traditions of his regiment.

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The tenth V.C. of this battle was awarded to an Indian soldier. He was not the first Indian to win this coveted distinction in the Great War, but he well deserved the signal honour. His name is Rifleman Goba Sing Negi, 2nd Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles, and his deed was performed on the opening day of the battle when, as we have seen, our splendid Indian troops fought with superb courage in face of overwhelming difficulties. Not much can be said concerning this hero, as after the battle no one had the opportunity of questioning him on his gallant exploit or his life-story, for he was the fifth V.C. hero who was killed during the engagement. What we do know is a striking tribute to the bravery and resource of our Indians and to Rifleman Negi in particular. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender.