from 'the War Illustrated', 10th July, 1918
'Blowing Up the Bridges'
My Impressions of the Great Offensive
by Hamilton Fyfe
The Famous War Correspondent Now on the Western Front


How British Engineers Hindered the German Advance

the opposite pole ; British engineers repairing a blown bridge


On the second and third days of the Lys Battle our men were fighting hard to hold the enemy on the river. As they fell back on both sides of it they had to blow up the bridges one after the other, and in the doing of this dangerous and urgent task there were many who showed conspicuous courage and devotion.

First I will tell of some men of the Yorkshire Regiment who were in a little town called Estaires. This was attacked by the Germans on the evening of April 10th. To the south-west of the town there was a bridge which could be raised to let barges pass underneath. The enemy strove desperately to seize this, but that night the Yorkshireinen kept them off.

Next morning, very early, there was a rush and a tremendous machine-gun barrage, and the Germans swept over the bridge into the town. In the streets the Yorkshiremen tackled them. There was fierce fighting. The roadways were filled with dead and dying men. Step by step the enemy were forced back, and at last, with a cheer and a charge the Yorkshires sent all that was left of them across the river whence they had come.

They kept within a short distance of the bridge, though, and made the ground near it too hot to be held. So we retired, too, and fixed our machine-guns in positions which commanded the river. Thus the bridge was in the centre of a wide, empty space, swept by bullets, where for the moment nobody could live. But it was not long before some of our men got over to the side on which the enemy were. They established a little post with a machine-gun and enfiladed the Germans so gallingly that they had to get a field-gun into position to compel the Englishmen to move back.

By this time it was clear that we should have to continue our movement west-wards, so orders were given to blow the bridge up. So it often happens in battle that some position which has been long and gallantly fought for must needs be given up just when the enemy pressure has become less violent.


defending a bridge over a canal prior to destruction


The Action at Estaires

In order to blow the bridge up it was necessary for us to take the enemy's attention off it, so that our engineers could put in the explosive. By this time . the Yorkshiremen had done all they could. Fresh troops had to be found to make the needed diversion. A trench-mortar detachment was given the job. Armed with rifles they went out to re-establish the post from which we had been shelled, and to keep the Germans away from the bridge.

Many times lately the trench-mortar men have proved their worth and gallantry as they did in this case. They gave the engineers time to put in the charges properly; then they got back as best they could, and the bridge went up in the air.

Next day the same kind of struggle was going on in and around the town of Merville. Here we were almost "snowed under" by the German superiority in numbers. At one time there were twenty thousand of the enemy attacking between two and three thousand of our men. We held them off by keeping up a deadly fire whenever they showed themselves. But they poured in a fierce fire also, and we had to fall back steadily. By the evening the hope of regaining the ground which the enemy had taken across the river had to be given up. All our efforts were to be concentrated on holding our side of the Lys. The bridges had therefore to be destroyed.

Heroism at Merville

The Germans were trying very hard to prevent this, and to get across before we could blow the bridges up. The laying of the fuses was difficult. On to one bridge several of the enemy rushed while our engineers were engaged in this final operation, and there was a hand-to-hand fight.

The first lot of Germans were thrown into the water, and the engineers went on with their task as quickly as they could. But very quickly more Germans, and this time a larger number, ran on to the bridge and threw themselves upon our men.

Much, then, depended upon the young officer in command of the blowing-up party. He was a subaltern in the Royal Engineers, and was only twenty-two., By cool and vigorous action this young man both got his men away and managed to blow up the bridge with the Germans on it. Unfortunately, a bullet hit and killed him just as he was leading his party into safe quarters. They, had done very valuable work in stopping the enemy's advance and giving our infantry time to get back to fresh positions.

Another of the bridges at Merville was blown up with Germans on it, just after the last of the British soldiers had got clear. I came across an Australian engineer-afterwards who had been engaged in destroying bridges and culverts during the Battle of St. Quentin, and he said he made a point of waiting until there were some of the enemy on them, before he blew them up. He would put in the charge and lay the fuse, and then go a little distance off, behind a hill or in a ditch, with a wire connected to the explosive. There he would wait until he saw Germans right on the spot. Then he would "press the button." The dynamite did the rest.

One bridge at Merville was not completely destroyed by the explosion. An officer came to it after dark, and decided that he would finish it off. He had been out to visit some of the troops, had crossed this bridge, and meant to return by it. He had heard a noise which he took to be a German shell bursting, but when he got back to the bridge he realised that it had been the noise of the sappers' charge going off. As it had not gone off effectively enough, this officer resolved to supplement it with another. He knew where some sticks of dynamite were concealed. These he fetched, and was putting them into position when a party of the enemy surprised him, and by throwing bombs, drove him away, very much annoyed at not being able to carry out his plan.

By these fine acts of bravery and -sacrifice at the bridges across the Lys the advance of the Germans in this region was brought to a standstill very soon afterwards. The .5oth Division, which had fought day and night from the 9th till the I2th, both inclusive, facing masses of the enemy stayed in the line until the German advance had been checked. Then it went to rest.

Six Against Forty

The place in the line of this tired division, which had worked back as far as the Forest of Nieppe, and stopped the Germans in front of it, was taken by troops who were fresh and full of buck. The Germans came up against a nasty snag, when they found that instead of the men who had been fighting for days, they had to do with battalions ready and eager for the fray. There was a scrap a few hours after the reliefs had taken place, and the enemy were taught to respect the new- comers. They kept quiet for some time after that;

How respectful they were was proved by an amusing incident. A party of five King's Own Scottish Borderers went out with a young officer on patrol. They spotted a number of Germans, about forty, digging a trench round a house. The officer saw that in an exchange of fire six men must be worsted by forty. His one chance was to scare the enemy into flight. So he gave the order to fix bayonets and charge. Half a dozen Germans were killed. The rest ran away. They evidently did not feel like taking any chances.


makeshift repairs to a bridge in the Somme area


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