This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the day to day activities of the army.
In general, the detailed history of the heavy artillery is not well documented. Specific Batteries and Brigades get relatively few mentions in the British Official History, for example. Here, we use a combination of the 283 Battery and 51st Heavy Artillery Group war diaries, the Official History and other references to compile an overview of the movements and activities of the Battery in as far as it is possible to do so without extensive additional research.
The Battery was initially formed on 14 November 1916 and by February 1917 it was at Lydd.
On 21 February 1917, the Battery moved to Devizes in Wiltshire, the headquarters being at Codford, and the battery office being in the no doubt pleasant surroundings of the Bateson Conservative Club. Four days later, an advance party left Devizes for Southampton. On 27 March, the main body followed, and embarked the “Mona’s Queen” for the overnight crossing to Le Havre, where it disembarked by 8am next day.
After a couple of days in rest camp, the advance party left, in lorries belonging to 286 Siege Battery RGA. On 31 March 1917, the main body moved off, entraining at 4.50pm and consisting of 5 officers, 118 other ranks, 1 interpreter and 4 guns. They arrived at 11pm next day at Bailleul, where the men were billeted in the cinema, the officers going into huts at the Church Army Camp.
On 2 April in very bad weather, the commanding officer reported to 51st Heavy Artillery Group HQ at Dranoutre, and there received orders for the Battery to relieve 176 Siege Battery RGA and take over their gun positions. By noon on 5 April (the Battery having to borrow lorries as its own motor transport had not yet arrived), the guns were in position, and began registration shots on the ‘Brickstack’ and ‘Martin Farm’. By 13 April, the enemy had spotted the Battery position, and from this point onwards the position was a dangerous one.
51st Heavy Artillery Group (which from time to time was also called 51st Brigade, as the artillery changed nomenclature) at this time consisted of a number of batteries, including 136, 182, 236, 255 and 6 Canadian Siege Batteries in addition to 283. It was arrayed around the Locre area, firing on targets between Ploegsteert and the Dammstrasse area just to the south of Ypres.
Group HQ moved to Little Kemmel in June 1917 and remained in the same area until February 1918.
The Battery was to fire in support of those Divisions that been ordered to play an important part in a large-scale attack to take place on 7 June, which is now known as the Battle of Messines Ridge. The preliminary bombardment was the heaviest yet fired on either side in the war, and it paved the way – along with the novel and surprise tactic of blowing 19 huge underground mines under key enemy positions – to an undoubted tactical victory. Further attacks took place over successive days, the Battery firing on targets in the Ypres-Comines Canal area.
On 11 June 1917, the Battery moved forward to the Peckham position, recently captured. It was moved again to Grand Bois in August and in December 1917, 283 Battery is reported as being at position O.9.a.6.9, which is on the Dammstrasse near Oosthoek Estaminet (all on ground captured on 7 June). A trench map shows a, light rail track running into the battery position on the Dammstrasse. The Battery moved up soon after the Messines action, and was soon ready to fire again.
The British Army was about to launch another large offensive, that would in time be called the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly as Passchendaele. The Battery would once again be part of the enormous array of artillery firing the preliminary barrage. The initial targets were in the Sanctuary Wood – Shrewsbury Forest area, and the second line objective at Lower Star Post and the surrounding rear areas. The bombardment opened on 23 July 1917and continued without a break – even though under regular enemy counter battery fire – until the infantry attack went in on 31 July 1917.
The Brigade remained in the Ypres area, continuing to support further infantry attacks in this vast offensive.
On 15 February 1918, the 51st HQ moved into GHQ Reserve, and rest camps near Arques, although 283 Siege Battery has temporarily disappeared from its command, returning on 1 March, by which time it has moved via Flavy-le-Martel to Frieres-Faillouel. This is a little to the north of Tergnier, in the area of Fifth Army, only taken over from occupation by the French Army in January. 283 Siege Battery moved to a position near Liez, on the Crozat Canal.
Here on 21 March 1918, the enemy launched an overwhelming offensive, Operation Michael. The battle opened with an unprecedented bombardment, which was aimed primarily not at the infantry, thinly spread and holding posts that were still not fully ready for defence, but on the British artillery.
A few weeks later, in common with all artillery unit commanders in Fifth Army who were still alive and not captured, Major J.H. Speeding was requested to report on what had happened his 283 Siege Battery RGA, following the initial enemy assault. Fifth Army had been forced into a precipitate retreat, and even though there is today much evidence of staunch defence and great gallantry, at the time this was a subject of great concern and enquiries were being made. His report is filed in the 51st Brigade war diary, and makes very interesting reading. He describes the position and adds, “The fire of the battery was never stopped by reason of hostile shell. Communications were maintained and meals served throughout the day under similar adverse conditions. The former was an arduous and extremely dangerous duty, and the latter involved the passing through the enemy barrage, and was effected by Battery cooks”.
Nonetheless, the Battery had been forced to withdraw, even if only tobe in conformity with a wide-scale retreat. By the evening of 22 March, the Brigade HQ had reached Guyencourt, and by 26 March was as far back as Moreuil, not too far from Amiens. The heavy artillery had withdrawn some 35 miles under very trying circumstances. It did not stop here, but was rushed into the French sector near Compiegne, in order to halt further enemy attacks there.
So on 27 March 1918, the Battery was once again in action, at Marest sur Matz, firing across the river valley on the village of Samson.
In the first week of April 1918, the Brigade moved once again to the Amiens area, arriving at Boves on 10 April.
Here the guns of 283 Siege Battery RGA fired in support of the localised but key action at Villers Bretonneux, in which the first ever tank versus tank battle was fought. This was the furthest reach of the German advance, brought finally to a standstill at Villers Bretonneux. The Official History mentions 51st Brigade as being at Boves during this action, as part of III Corps Heavy Artillery which comprised a total of 89 guns, with most of them on the line Fouencamps – Bois de Gentelles – Bois de Blangy.
Things had quietened in this sector by mid-May, and the Brigade was moved again, to Hangest where it arrived on 17th, Camon on 18th and finally Lahoussoye (between Amiens and Albert), where it would remain until August. All units suffered considerably from bombing from the air at this time.
On 8 August 1918, British Fourth Army struck a heavy and highly successful blow against the enemy, in front of and the south of Amiens. Later, Erich Ludendorff would call it the “Black day of the German Army”, not so much for the loss of men or ground, but the signs of loss of cohesion, command and morale. From mid August, successive attacks along all parts of the British front struck again and again. Despite heavy and continuing losses to themselves, the British and allies had gained the upper hand, and forced the enemy into headlong, fighting, retreat.
Late on 8 August, 51st Brigade RGA moved to Corbie. Four days later they were at Sailly le Sec and by 31 at Suzanne, as the advance continued along the Somme valley. During September, more moves forward were made, and at times the infantry advance out-ran the ability of the heavy artillery to keep up. On 2 September, the Brigade was at Feuillers, on 6 at Peronne, 7 at Buire, 9 at Hamel, 13 at Tincourt, 17 at Roisel and 19 at Hesbecourt.
A major battle took place on 29 September 1918, now long forgotten but in all probability it was the battle that finally decided the outcome on the Western Front, for several British Divisions penetrated through and broke the enemy’s immensely strong Hindenburg Line system. 283 Battery was in position to support this attack, near Roisel.
During the month, 283 Battery suffered Lieutenant Phillips and 1 other rank killed, and 16 men wounded.
The advance continued through October: Hargicourt on 1st, Nauroy on 6th, Wiancourt 9th, Busigny 10th and finally Saint Souplet in the valley of the River Selle on 23rd.
Back in the area where the British Army had first clashed with the enemy back in August 1914, the Battery remained. On 11 November, the Armistice brought fighting to an end.
Demobilisation began here in December and by 16 March 1919,it was only a cadre that was left in 51st Brigade, which moved for the last time in France, to Boussieres, a little east of Cambrai.
283 Battery and 51st HAG war diaries are held at the National Archives in piece WO95/473. The diary covers only the period 21 February 1917 to January 1918, although May to August 1917 is missing. After this, the diary is not too useful, giving only targets and rounds fired: no names or places are mentioned. 51st Brigade diary covers August 1916 to March 1919, but inevitably is even less detailed.
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