from ‘The War Illustrated’, 15th June, 1918
'Toughness of the Thin Brown Line
at Noyons'
by Hamilton Fyfe
The Famous War Correspondent now on the Western front

My Impressions of the Great Offensive

Noyon taken from the Germans - from 'the War Illustrated'


Two days after March 21st I drove into Noyon and found the streets of that ancient town filled with blue-coated French soldiers. That proves how quickly the allied reserves were thrown in to stem the German torrent which had pressed back the British front from the Oise River to Croisilles and Bullecourt.

This quick apparition of French troops behind us in the moment of peril was stirringly dramatic. They seemed to have arrived by magic. Two months earlier I had seen Noyon full of them. We had then just taken over the piece of line opposite and below the city of St. Ouentin. But, although they had been relieved, the French were still in friendly Noyon, the sleepy, comfortable old place, with immense twin towers to its majestic cathedral, and the narrow, winding lane in it where Calvin was born.

The French did not want to leave Noyon and I did not wonder at it ; but early in February they were all gone. Placards in English appeared in the shop-windows ; tea-rooms hung their signs out. The huts of the French society which calls itself Le Foyer du Soldat (the Soldiers' Home) were turned into Y.M.C.A. reading-rooms. The streets were full of "chocolats" as the French children nickname British soldiers.

Now, on this sunny Saturday morning of March 23rd there were no British troops to be seen. The French had come back. It was inspiriting to see them, for our position there was serious.

Against Enormous Odds

Our Fifth Army had struggled against enormous odds. The enemy's troops were so thick on the ground that they had a division to every two thousand yards. Their divisions numbered from seven to eight thousand fighting men. Not all these were in the front line, but you will see that their front line was sufficiently well garnished when I mention that the average length of front upon which the German battalions (800 to 1,000 men) attacked was five hundred yards.

Our divisional sectors averaged nine thousand yards, and as this method required a smaller number of troops, we held the front with posts, redoubts, garrisons of a hundred or two men in miniature fortresses, instead of one continuous line. Most of these had been constructed by us ; here and there either Nature or the military art of the past gave us positions ready-made.

At a place called Vendeuil, on our side of the Oise, which flowed in its broad, marshy valley between us and the enemy, there is an old fortress, built by the famous French war architect Vauban. This was occupied by a party of the Buffs. They had food and water brought to them every forty-eight hours, and always enough ammunition to last for two days. They knew they were there to delay the enemy, when he attacked, as long as possible. They would be more or less isolated as soon as the offensive began, so that their situation was certainly one which required great courage.

I cannot conceive any sharper test of soldiers' nerve and bravery than to be put in to defend such positions as these. They did defend them magnificently. This party of the Buffs kept the Germans at a distance for several hours. If our men had had the enemy in front of them all the time he would never have got through — at all events, not until their ammunition had run out. But the Germans, in unceasing waves of attack, were able to get round the fort so as to fire on the garrison from several directions.

Heroism of the Buffs

Again and again the Buffs were almost surrounded, but they managed till the afternoon to stave this oft. They were terribly diminished in number. Most of those still able to use their rifles or to work machine-guns had been wounded, some of them more than once. They fought until the sun was at their backs ; they were grimed and hoarse, the sweat dripped from their foreheads. They had no time to eat except by mouthfuls: Late in the afternoon they were still holding out. with the enemy all round them. Up to six o'clock they were signalling with lamps through the early darkness. Then the lamps flashed no more — the end had come.

Do you recollect Sir Francis Doyle's fine poem called "A Private of the Buffs," and the noble lines with which it ends ?

Vain, mightiest fleets of iron framed, Vain, those all-shattering guns, Unless proud England keep untamed The strong heart of her sons!

Not less strong was the heart in those men of the Buffs at Vendeuil than in the private of their regiment whom Doyle made famous long ago.

In another strong post — the Keep, opposite La Fere, a fortified factory on our side of the river — there were men of the London Regiment. They were there to defend the crossing of the Oise, and they had the same orders as the Buffs — to "stick it" as long as they could.

The Germans began to try to get across the river early on March 21st. Our post at Travecy was surrounded in the fog, and communications with it became very difficult. The enemy did not think that it would be difficult to fulfil their programme for the first day, which was to be an advance of five miles. At the very start they found themselves held up by the Londoners at La Fere.

"Sticking It" at the Keep

All the morning the unequal battle went on. Attempts of the Germans to cross in the neighbourhood of the Keep were wisely abandoned ; they were too, costly. The garrison's machine-gunners swept the Germans into the stream as they made them, and their heaped-up bodies made small islands near the bank, or were carried away by the sluggish current, tinging the water as they drifted, bleeding from bullet wounds.

The enemy now tried a different plan. They crossed at other points which could not be so stoutly defended. They went to a place called La Frette. Four pontoon bridges were put down for them by their engineers. They were in considerable force. But of all who confidently went over those bridges only a few went back.

Our troops — these were London Regiment men also — not only beat the enemy off, but they pursued him as far as the river. In that disastrous expedition one German battalion was reduced to thirty men.

Unhappily, our party of Londoners had heavy losses, too, and when they fell back from the Keep they left many dead comrades within it, and they had to leave their wounded also. There were no means of getting them away. Those who were left retired, after "sticking it," stubbornly, killing a great many Germans and delaying their advance for many hours which were of the greatest value to us.

Farther to the north some Royal West Kents were doing equally good work, making an equally valiant stand. Messages were received all the morning from the colonel commanding. The attack became heavier as the day wore on. The last message that got through was this":

"Holding out 12.30 p.m. Boche all round within fifty yards, except rear. Can only see forty yards, so it is difficult to kill the blighters."

If it had not been for such gallant and resolute defences as these, those French troops whom I saw in Noyon two days afterwards would not have been in time to reinforce our British troops who had taken on a huge task. I knew on that Saturday morning that our men were falling back in places under the weight of vastly greater forces than their own.

Pathos at Noyon

The divisions of the Fifth Army could not be expected to stop nearly three times their number, the force with which the enemy had begun, reinforced already, on March 23rd, by eight or ten more. In one sector eight British battalions had been opposing eight German divisions — say, 6,000 men against 60,000. That was an extreme case, but in every sector we were heavily outnumbered.

The arrival of the French troops was therefore urgently needed for the avoidance of a big German success. It certainly put heart into some of the people of Noyon, though they were leaving in large numbers none the less. It is pitiful always to see folks forced to leave their homes, and that morning I had been witness of several pathetic scenes. I went into the hotel at the angle of the pretty old market-square in Noyon, and found Madame la Patronne and all her staff undecided whether to stay or go. Madame had come from Paris in the autumn. The Germans had been turned out of this district, and an hotel was needed. All the furniture, all the carpets, all the crockery, everything had been brought from Paris ; therefore everything was fresh and bright. Even the gay wall-papers and window-curtains were imported. Nothing could be got in the town after the German occupation. It would be impossible to find anywhere a pleasanter, more friendly inn. I have thought of it sadly very often since.

Madame and her maids, buxom Lisette (who waited so deftly at table) and talkative Therese (who looked after the rooms), luckily got away in time. Three days later so fierce and sustained was the onrush of the huge German forces that Noyon was again in Boche hands.


from 'the War Illustrated'


Back to Index