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Thomas Woodcock VC, part 2

1916-1917

Pte Woodcock. 2nd Battalion at war.

Private Woodcock joined his Battalion on 23 Dec 1915 as one of many replacements after the bloody battle of Loos (Sept-Oct 1915).

The Battalion was in the front line at Laventie (just North of the Neuve Chapelle battlefield).

One would suspect that if the Battalion was not involved in great battles then they would be stationed in 'quiet sectors', but there was no such thing as a 'quiet sector' on the Western front. Men battled every day; trench foot, frostbite, random artillery fire, trench raids and of course the dreaded sniper. Replacements had been trained to fight, now they had to learn how to survive.

1916 has gone down in history as the "year of battles".
The mighty battle of Verdun.
The battle of the Somme
The naval battle of Jutland.

These great conflicts can easily be studied but we will just follow Pte Woodcock and the 2nd Battalion.

The Guards were taken out of line in March 1916 and sent to Calais for a week of R&R and bonding.

On 17 March they were ordered into the salient around Ypres.

Ypres was a Flemish medieval cloth town where great battles were fought in 1914-1915. It had become a symbol of German determination to take, and British determination to hold. It was on this front that Germany launched its first gas attacks on the Western front and in 1915 became the area in which the flamethrower was first used.

Attacks and counter attacks were constant and every day was a battle of survival.

In May, June and July around the town of Hooge, the Guards were thrown in to stem attempted German advances, casualties mounting after every engagement.

In September 1916 the Guards were transferred to the Somme battle that had been raging since July 1st, at Ginchy and Morval taking once again heavy casualties.

Pte Woodcock was engaged in all these battles and had clearly, through good luck and good soldiering, learned how to survive. The only documented medical reports for Tommy Woodcock was treatment for dysentery in October - November.

1916 ended with very little change in the front lines despite over 2 million casualties, the war dragged on.

1917 began with some success for the allies.

On 9 April the Canadian Corps (fighting for the first time as an independent command) launched a major attack on crucial heights of Vimy ridge, and in a Four Day battle captured that supposed impenetrable position.

Further south, the British moved two divisions through the underground caves and cellars below the French City of Arras and gained surprise, advancing seven miles before being halted by lack of reserves and enemy counter attacks resulting in stalemate.

At the same time two Australian divisions attacked at Bullecourt in two separate assaults in April and May, with the result being once again stalemate and high casualties.

These assaults were merely diversions to draw off enemy reserves from what was to be the main battle of Champagne, also called the Nivelle offensive.

Robert Neville was a French artillery officer who had persuaded his superiors that the German defences could be breeched.

In April he launched his French offensive against the Chemin des Dames ridge, some 70 miles north-east of Paris.

Achieving initial success the French army was buoyant, little knowing that the enemy was in the process of withdrawing to the very strong Hindenberg line to shorten their front. The Germans let them come on and then launched a devastating counter-attack. The French were beaten but, even more seriously the French army mutinied. Front line troops refused to attack, reserves refused to move up to the front, this was serious, had the German high command grasped the situation the war could have ended in 1917 with defeat to the Allies.

Marshal Joseph Joffre (Commander-in-Chief of the French army) brought in Henry Petain (hero of Verdun) to rectify the situation, then turned to Douglas Haigh (Commander of the BEF) to commit to a major offensive to relieve the pressure.

Haigh reluctantly agreed to do all he could.

On June 7th 19 underground mines were detonated beneath the German positions on the heights of Messines ridge, south-east of Ypres, in an explosion that was said to be heard as far away as London.

Herbert Plumer's second army advanced and took the heights with relatively few casualties, it was a good start.

On July 31st the British Fifth army attacked on a wide front in what was to become the 3rd battle of Ypres, (later to be known simply as Passchendaele).

For the first couple of weeks,in dry, sunny weather, things went to plan, but then the rains come and turned the battlefield into morass, the advance became bogged down in knee deep mud.

After the Guards division had taken the Belgium town of Boesinghe in early August they were moved into reserve at Elverdinghe and Bleuet farm, close to Ypres, where they were told they would probably stay till the Brigade goes into line on 14 September or possibly the 17 September.

CONFUSION AND HEROISM AT THE BROENBEEK.

'Beek' is a Dutch/Flemish word meaning brook or stream. Flanders area is a low-lying area below sea level with very poor drainage; these beeks are designed as drainage ditches and can sometimes be as large as a small river in the rainy season.

Between the British front line and their objective (Houthurst forest), there were two of these streams to cross: Steenbeek and Broenbeek.

The Steenbeek was crossed in early September and the Guards went into line just short of the Broenbeek.

From here I will let the war diary of the Irish Guards take over the story, with quotations taken directly from the diary.

7th September.
"2nd Brigade to attack across the BROENBEEK on 15 September, to make a jumping-off place along the N edge of Ney Copse and Ney Wood for 29th division to do further advance".
"3rd (Battalion) Grenadier Guards and 1st Coldstream to attack with 1st Scots in support. 2nd Irish Guards in reserve at Bleuet Farm. We go into the line, however, for the night 13/14 Septemberand will be relieved on night 14/15 by 1st Coldstream".

10 September.
"The Battalion was told it would go into the line for an ordinary trench tour commencing on 12/13 September".

11 September.
"3rd Coldstream from who we take over in line tomorrow, have just been raided and lost nine men. This was due to some mistake, as their Liaison Officer with the French could not talk the language".

12 September.
"Enemy planes bombed the camp. 20 x casualties in Battalion but nearly 200 in camps around, with 148 horses and mules. A most terrifying experience".
"At 1730 Battalion parade to go into line. As some 3rd Coldstream Guides lost themselves the relief took longer than expected. Reported complete with only 2 casualties at 2340."
"Our position is a ridiculous one from a tactical point of view. Six platoons are placed in posts in Ney Copse and Ney Wood on the North side of the Broenbeek, within 100 yards of the enemy line of strong points. The Broenbeek is a stream waist deep in water, the bed of which is strewn with barbed wire. There is one stone bridge between Ney Copse and Ney Wood, and a line of duck boards like stepping stones at the South corner of Ney Copse. The banks for some 30 yards on that South side consist purely of swamp. This position could easily be cut off by the enemy, as the line of the stream gives a definite barrage line, and if any rain set in the stone bridge would be the only possible means of crossing".
"The six platoons holding this impossible position are made up by the whole of No 2 Company and 2 platoons of No 3 Company".

13 September.
"At 0245 the enemy put down a very heavy barrage on all our posts across the Broenbeek; at 0310 the barrage lifted and came down on our side of the stream, then along our front line and then along the road just behind Battalion HQ. The moment the barrage lifted, two company's of Wurttemberger in body armour tried to rush our posts. Lt Manning, on the right of Ney Wood, was surrounded and is thought killed. The barrage had blown our positions to pieces, and the enemy endeavoured to account for the survivors. All our posts East of Ney Copse were either blown up or bombed".
"Capt Redmond, commanding No 2 Company, happened to be visiting his posts when the barrage fell. He entered the shell hole forming post 6 and when that was blown up he collected the survivors of posts 5 and 6 and organized a fresh strongpoint on the South edge of Ney Copse. Here he resisted all the attempts of the enemy to turn us out of Ney Copse. This officer behaved with remarkable coolness and control, all the more noticeable because during almost the entire time he was suffering from a dislocated knee. At 0445 the enemy put down a second artillery barrage on positions across the Broembeek and maintained it there till 0530, to enable his raiding party to withdraw in safety".

This establishes the fact that 6 forward posts were placed on the North side of the Broenbeek on, or just after midnight of the 12/13 Sept.

One of those posts, 2 platoon, 3 Company was commanded by Lance-Sergeant Jack Moyney. Moyney with 14 others, including Pte Woodcock was Given two days iron rations, one small bottle of water and orders to maintain his position as long as possible.

Moyney's command was situated on the North-East corner of Ney Copse,

It was a perfect hiding place, about 25 yards from the North edge of Ney Copse, situated in a large shell hole and hidden by one very large tree and a clump of smaller trees, there was a clearing in front, a clearing behind and a clear view on the East flank. Moyney, not knowing the situation around him decided to stay put, follow orders and wait for developments.

Patrols were sent out on the evening of the 13th, " 1. to find out where the enemy's new posts were located. 2. To clear up our casualties of the preceding night. 3. To cover the withdrawal of the remaining posts in Ney Copse".

Moyney's small command was not spotted, they now became the lost platoon.

For 76 hours this small command slept during the day, stood guard during the evening and contemplated life and happier days.

At 0430 on the morning of the 16th, the enemy, knowing they were there, but not knowing the strength or location sent approx 250 men to clear out Ney Copse.

Moyney allowed the enemy to approach to about 20 yards ordered his men into action. The Lewis gun came into action on their flank taking a large toll on the enemy, while the infantry expending three boxes of grenades charged out, beyonets fixed, scattering the raiders.

Knowing the enemy would surely be back in greater strength. Moyney gathered his small command and decided to to try to gain their own lines.

The enemy had a strong machine gun post at the South center of Ney Copse, and a very strong presence on both flanks, still, having the cover of darkness Moyney gave his orders, distributing the last 3 boxes of grenades, Moyney gave the signal and the platoon charged out of Ney Copse. Moyney and Woodcock headed for the stream and set up the Lewis gun covering the men while they escaped over the stream. Just then a tremendous barrage from their own artillery opened up and caught the enemy in the open. (Just before then, Brigade had received a message that a prisoner captured at St Julian had told his interrogators that a full scale offensive was planned for 0630 on this very front), this information and the firing of an SOS flare had alerted the whole front line and undoubtedly saved the lives of some, if not all of the men fighting their way back.

Making sure all the men were across Moyney and Woodcock crossed last.

At 0630 much to the surprise of Brigade, Moyney turned up at Brigade HQs with his missing platoon. On crossing the stream Moyney and the other men headed South and ran into a French patrol who gave them coffee and rum then transported them to Brigade HQs.

But 2 men were missing, Pte Woodcock and Pte Hilley.

So what happened to those 2 ?

Woodcock crossed the stream East of the duck board bridges, on crossing Woodcock turned to join the others when he heard a cry for help behind him, retracing his steps he came across Pte Patrick Hilley.***

Pte Hilley had also crossed at the same point but just as he was turning to join the rest he was caught by a mortar blast, shrapnel had pierced his hip and the blast had blown him into the Broenbeek. Half in and half out of the stream, badly concussed, his only hope was someone hearing his cry for help.

Pte Woodcock never hesitated, in the midst of bombs and bullets Woodcock jumped in and helped the severely injured Hilley up the bank. Still having the cover of darkness and the protection of the artillery barrage Woodcock had to decide what to do.

Looking round he saw the outline of farm buildings about 300 yards to the South-East, the 5 ft 8in 150 pound ex coal miner decided that was his only escape.

Hauling the badly injured Hilley onto his shoulders Woodcock headed for craonne farm. With what seemed like the whole German army firing at him he set off.

We don't know how long it took Him to cover these 300 or so yards, but with having to negotiate 30 yards of swamp, ankle deep mud, shell holes, rifle and mortar fire it must have seemed like 300 miles.

Woodcock deposited Hilley close to craonne farm and went for help. Medics soon arrived and evacuated Hilley to hospital.

*** Patrick Hilley was transported back to the UK and after treatment was given a medical discharge. Patrick Hilley passed away from his injuries on 8 November 1918, three days before the armistice.

Private Woodcock and Lance-Sergeant Jack Moyney were both awarded the Victoria Cross for this action at the Broenbeek accounting for two of only six Victoria Cross recipients from the Irish Guards.

Total casualties in this engagement amounted to, one officer missing, one officer wounded, eighty men missing, fifty-nine men wounded and seventeen men killed.

History is about facts, if the facts and/or dates are wrong then we are doing a disservice to history.

Unfortunately the citation for Thomas Woodcock is erroneous on two accounts.

1... The citation states, Awarded 13 September 1917. This is clearly wrong.

It was in fact the morning of 16 September that Pvt Woodcock rescued Pvt Hilley from the Broenbeek. Of this there is absolutely no doubt.

2... Holding out for 96 hours. This too is clearly wrong. The platoon crossed the North side of the Broenbeek around midnight on the 12 Sep, arriving back to their own lines around 0600 on the morning of the 16 Sep. this adds up to 78 hours.

This takes nothing away from the heroism of these two soldiers, or indeed any of the fifteen men who were involved in this action, but simply to put the record straight.

As this citation was gazetted on the 17 September it is hard to see how such glaring errors could be made. One can only accept that in the confusion of battle mistakes are often made. After 100 years I can categorically state that the anniversary of Thomas Woodcock winning the Victoria Cross is September 16th.

On Oct 19th the citation was approved and Woodcock was awarded the VC.

Woodcock was also promoted to Lance-Corporal (without a rise in pay).

That wasn't the last time he and Moyney saw the Broenbeek, on 9 Oct the Guards launched another attack over that nasty stream, this time with success, one can only image what was going through the mind of Thomas Woodcock, as he once again fought his way over the Broenbeek and through Ney Copse.

Much worse was to come. In Nov the Guards were once again thrown into the heat of a battle.

This was the battle of Cambrai, some 20 miles south-east of Arras. The 2nd Battalion entered Bourlon Wood on November 27th and got themselves surrounded, suffering over 400 casualties, Woodcock once again survived.

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