4th (Territorial) Battalion KSLI : Bligny and the Croix de Guerre.
In June 1918, the 4th (Territorial) Battalion of the K.S.L.I. was a awarded the unusual distinction of a "unit award" in the form the French Croix-de-Guerre avec Palme for its gallantry in seizing the important Bligny Hill.
The 4th (Territorial) Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry had had an interesting war career by the summer of 1918. Mobilised in August 1914, it spent three years in the Far East on the type of routine imperial garrison duty designed to free Regular battalions for more active war service.
Its stay in Rangoon, Singapore and Hong Kong was a much more pleasant experience than that of the Regular and War Service battalions of the K.S.L.I.
Group of 4 KSLI in Singapore, 1915.
But the reality of the war eventually came to the 4th Battalion in the Autumn of 1917. Returning from the Far East, they were sent immediately to the Ypres Salient and pitched straight into the 3rd Battle of Ypres. On their first day of “real” warfare, they lost 130 men – compared with half a dozen lost to illness in the Far East over the past three years.
The attack on Bligny Hill, June 6th 1918
In the Spring of 1918, the Germans launched what was to be their last great offensive on the Western Front. On March 21st, their all-out attack began along the Somme and as this petered out in April, they renewed the offensive towards Kemmel until this too was fought to a standstill. 4 K.S.L.I. was involved in both these campaigns.
By May, there was a lull in the fighting on the British front, but the Germans then switched their attentions to the much weaker French sector in the Champagne region – an area where British troops had not previously been involved. Nevertheless, to support the French, it was decided to send to the area two British Corps, in one Division of which (19 Division of 9Corps) the 4 KSLI was serving. They moved by train via Paris to Rheims and had a very pleasant few weeks “behind the lines” whilst receiving drafts of recruits to make up their full strength. However, on May 28th, the Germans attacked in strength between the Marne and the Aisne and the 9 Corps was hurried into action to meet them.
Over the next few days, 4 K.S.L.I. (in the 56 Brigade with 8 North Staffords and 9 Cheshires) was pushed back in a fighting retreat from Chambrecy. The battalion was rapidly reduced to only 350 men by June 5th, when it was halted near the Montaigne de Bligny, a prominent hill dominating the area. The North Staffs and Cheshires held the hill itself, with the 4th in support a mile to their rear at Chaumuzy. Its only officers by now were the temporary CO, Major Warneford (of the Middlesex Regt.), and seven subalterns.
On the night of June 5th, the Bligny positions were heavily shelled and gassed and it was clear that a major attack was due at dawn, when shelling with HE and shrapnel intensified. At 6.00 a.m., the German attack began and by 8.00, the North Staffs and Cheshires were taking heavy casualties on Bligny Hill, their wounded streaming back towards Chaumuzy.
By 9.30 a.m., the Germans had stormed the hill and the Cheshires and North Staffs were fighting their way down its slopes towards the 4th KSLI position. Major Warneford was ordered by Brigade HQ to lead 4 K.S.L.I. in a counter attack against Bligny Hill at 12.45 p.m., after a brief artillery barrage; its aim was to retake the crest and drive off the German defenders.
The attackThe 4th were to advance in three waves, the first led by Lt. G.W. Bright with Lt. Colin and A Company; Lt. Graves led B Company in the second wave and Lt. Derbyshire led C Company in the third. A fourth wave, under Major Warneford, would come up as a reserve.
View from Bligny Hill towards Chaumuzy : 4 KSLI start line marked by horizontal row of trees in middle distance.
The initial ten-minute barrage never materialised, but the attack went in all the same. From their trench line near Chaumuzy, the battalion would have to cross about a mile of open fields, full of standing corn, in clear view of the Germans on Bligny Hill. As soon as the first wave set off, shrapnel was poured down upon them and as they neared the base of the hill, machine gun and rifle fire opened up.
Of the fewer than 200 men of 4 K.S.L.I. who attacked across the open fields, 80 were casualties by the time the foot of the hill was reached.
In the “dead ground” at the bottom of the hill, Bright met the remnants of the North Staffs and the Cheshires under Major Martin. Whilst Martin talked to Bright about launching a counter-attack back up the hill, the Major was wounded by shrapnel, so it fell to Lieut. George Bright himself to lead the assault right up the slopes of the hill under what he later recalled as “extremely heavy enemy fire”. In fact, anyone visiting the hill today – its lower slopes now as then shrouded with vines – has to be amazed that so few men could rush up this long, steep slope under heavy fire and reach the top alive, let alone drive off an entrenched enemy.
Bright led three lines of 4 KSLI, with the remains of the North Staffords and Cheshires as a fourth wave, straight up the hill and, as he later said, “it was soon over … the first wave was in the enemy trenches within five minutes” and as the other waves arrived, “Jerries were rushing out from their slit trenches with their hands up”.
The Germans, leaving 30 prisoners and many dead, fled the hill, retaining a foothold at its base, leaving Bright still in a dangerous position, left with only 150 men to hold a Brigade front extending over half a mile and with both flanks “in the air”. As expected, a heavy bombardment was directed onto the hill within thirty minutes – though this turned out to be the British barrage which should have preceded the attack!
By the time it finished, Bright’s total force was down to 100 effectives. Nevertheless, he ordered his men to dig in and sent patrols out to try to contact any other units on his flanks. Eventually, they contacted French troops and 5 Welsh.
To Bright’s surprise and anger, at 6.00 p.m. he was ordered by Brigade HQ to retire back down the hill so that a “full scale” attack on the positions could be launched by the Brigade and the French. He replied to the order saying that it was impossible to move and finally received a message from Divisional HQ asking the Shropshires to “stick to it” and promising reinforcements.
During the rest of the evening and night, the remnants of 4 K.S.L.I. on Bligny Hill were subjected to shrapnel shelling and sniping, but sent out patrols to “deal with” Germans parties probing the defences. Bright’s main fear was that as daylight came the Germans would put down a heavy barrage and assault the hill. Fortunately, late at night, as “a great relief to all of us”, the Northumberland Fusiliers came up as an advanced party of reinforcements, with others following.
Around midnight, 4 K.S.L.I. – reduced to only 100 men - was relieved, and left the hill they had fought over for 12 hours. The exhausted men reached the Brigade Reserve trenches just as day broke.
Not surprisingly, Bright was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his actions on Bligny Hill – though one wonders why he was not rewarded by the British.
The French Croix-de-Guerre avec Palme.
More to the point, the attack had been witnessed by the French General, Berthelot, who was so impressed with the gallantry and dash of the 4th K.S.L.I. that he secured an immediate award of the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for the whole battalion – a fairly rare example of a “unit award”.
The Camp Colour of 1/4 KSLI with Croix-de-Guerre displayed.
This is a replica of the original, which was destroyed in the fire of 1992.
The citation stated :
On the 6th June 1918, when the right flank of a British Brigade was being seriously threatened by the progress of a heavy enemy attack, the 1-4th Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which had been held in reserve, was called upon to counter-attack an important position from which their comrades had just been ejected.
With magnificent dash, this Battalion rushed the hill on which the enemy had established themselves, inflicting heavy losses on them and in the course of hand-to-hand fighting captured an officer and 28 other ranks.
Thanks to this gallant and spirited recapture of the key to the whole defensive position, the line was completely restored. The dash, energy and intrepidity with which, on this memorable occasion, the 1-4th KSLI carried all before it, was largely responsible for the retrieval of a situation which had temporarily become critical.”
Needless to say, the award of the French medal to a Territorial battalion of the K.S.L.I. was deemed a signal honour and greeted with great pleasure. General Berthelot himself came to Shrewsbury in June 1922 to personally pin the Croix de Guerre avec Palme to the Regimental Colour of the battalion.
From then on, all ranks wore a cockade of Croix de Guerre ribbon in their Service Dress caps and a small flash of the ribbon on their shoulders.
After the demise of the 4th K.S.L.I. in 1967, the tradition was continued by their T.A. successors, the 5th Light Infantry, and after their disbandment in 1999, the flash continues to be worn by “E” company, the West Midlands Regiment (T.A.) based in Shrewsbury.
Bligny was conferred as a unique battle-honour on the 4th-K.S.L.I. and “Bligny Day” was celebrated as a “Regimental Day” on the nearest Sunday to 6th June. It continues to be commemorated and honoured in this way down to the present day.
Survivors of "A" Company after Bligny.
The French Croix-de-Guerre to other British units.
These “unit awards” of the French Croix de Guerre were rarely conferred during the Great War, but it may be of interest to see the total number granted :
56th Infantry Brigade (9th Cheshire, 8th N. Staffs, 4-KSLI) – Croix de Guerre for Bligny, 6.6.18
5th Field Battery RA – Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Pontavert (Aisne) 27th May 1918.
2nd Devonshire Regiment - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Bois des Buttes, (Aisne) 27th May
1-4th K.S.L.I. - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Bligny Hill, 6th June 1918.
8th West Yorks - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Bois de Petit’ Champ and Bligny, 20-30.7.18
6th Black Watch - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Chambrecy, 20-30th July 1918.
9th Tank Corps - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Souvillers/Moreuil, 23rd July 1918.
12th Cheshires - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm – for Doiran (Salonika), 18th Sept. 1918.
7th South Wales Borderers - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm - for Doiran (Salonika), 18.9.18.
12th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders - Croix de Guerre with bronze palm - for Doiran (Salonika), 19th Sept. 1918.
24th Field Ambulance, RAMC - Croix de Guerre with silver gilt star – for St.Amand, 22-25th Oct. 1918.