RFA West Lancs Bdes
Little Priel Farm
30 November 1917
This painting is by David Rowlands, and it depicts the action at Little Priel Farm on 30 November 1917.
For further information and to purchase a copy of the print, click here.
I am grateful to Wayne Finch and Steve Thornley for alerting me to this episode and for providing a host of information, photographs and avenues of exploration. They have produced an excellent booklet which gives personal details of all the men from D/276 who received awards for bravery that day. They advise me that to their knowledge there have been very few, if any, other occasions in the history of the Royal Artillery where so many gallantry medals were awarded to Artillery officers and men in connection with one local action on one day. Even throughout the British armed forces in the 20th Century the award of twelve or more medals in connection with one local action was an extremely rare event. This great exploit was duly recognised by the award of the VC to Sergeant Gourley, the MC to Lieutenant Biggart, the DCM to Sergeant Thornley and Bombardier Edge and eight MMs to the remainder of the detachment.
The action itself is documented in the book “HISTORY OF THE 359 (4th WEST LANCS.) MEDIUM REGIMENT R.A. (T.A.) 1859-1959” Published in Liverpool 1959. The relevant section is found on pages 37 to 41 and these pages are reproduced below. The original typed copy of this document is available to view in the Liverpool Central Library.
But it was to the forward section of 7th Battery, near Little Priel Farm, that the great opportunity came. It did not find them wanting. Their gallant action is vividly told in this report made on the battlefield by the Battery Commander, Major J. Hudson, MC:-
From D /276 Battery R F A to 276 Brigade R F A
The following is the narrative of operations carried out by the section of this Battery in the neighbourhood of Priel Cutting yesterday, 30th November 1917.
At 7.10 a.m. in accordance with instructions from here the section opened fire on SOS Guillemont. After firing at rates laid down for seven minutes, fire was still carried on, as the position appeared serious, at a reduced rate until SOS Birdcage was received at about 7.30 a.m.. Fire had just been switched into this when the enemy barrage dropped right on the guns. Sergeant Thornley went to find Lieutenant Ridealgh for instructions as to whether to continue firing or to move out to a flank temporarily. He found Lieutenant Ridealgh wounded, arranged for his removal, and cleared the detachments out to a flank. He then saw a T M Officer (name unknown) who told him the enemy was 'practically on top of them'. Sergeant Thornley went to Lieutenant Ridealgh whose wound was serious, for instructions. Lieutenant Ridealgh told him to do what he could and hang on as long as possible.
The enemy was then observed advancing along Holts Bank. No. 114983 Gunner Clough Hartley, a member of the detachment, proposed going back to the guns and firing point blank at the enemy instead of trying to continue firing on Birdcage. Sergeant Thornley consulted 0C 6th King's (L'pool) Battalion who agreed. The original detachment, consisting of a total of ten men, was now scattered, some carrying away Lieutenant Ridealgh, and some in dugouts in Priel Cutting. Sergeant Thornley hastily collected the following available men-
681791 Gnr. Fred Backhouse (Signaller)
167717 Gnr. Thomas Arthur Jevons (Signaller)
114983 Gnr. Clough Hartley
switched one gun round and fired into the enemy with open sights. They had fired about twenty rounds with 106 fuse, when the enemy opened on them with a machine gun from a flank at close range. This made the position untenable. They removed the dial sights, dismantled the guns by removing the breech mechanisms, and got back to Battery HQ dugouts.
Meanwhile communications with the battery had been absolutely destroyed by the barrage put down and mentioned above.
I got rather sketchy information through by a runner, No. 681787 Bombardier Joseph Austin Pinnington, who told me Lieutenant Ridealgh was badly wounded, the guns temporarily abandoned, and the enemy close up.
I had no officer available, so sent down an NCO in whom I had the fullest confidence. Later events will show he fully justified it-No. 681886 Sergeant Cyril Edward Gourley. I gave him instructions to collect what men were available, proceed to the section, take charge, get information through to me as soon as ever possible, and meanwhile do all he could to keep the guns going up to the last minute.
On the way down, half way there, he detailed one signaller, No. 656259 Gunner Alfred George Oram, to work forward on the line, and on arriving there about 1O.30 a.m. started the two signallers mentioned above, Gunners Jevons and Backhouse, working back. These three signallers did exceptionally brave and efficient work on the line under very heavy shell fire.
Sergeant Gourley then collected all the men he could get hold of and held them in readiness to man the guns. From 10.30 a.m. to 11 a.m. there was a heavy barrage of 4.2's both in front and behind them, and it was not possible to put them in action.
About 11 a.m. the barrage moved a little south, though shells were still falling fairly heavily round the guns. The main part of the barrage moved down south along the Lempire Road where the three men mentioned above, Oram, Backhouse and Jevons, were endeavouring to repair the wire.
At 11 a.m. Sergeant Gourley reported to the CO 6th Battalion asking for information, and said he was prepared to carry out any firing the CO desired. He asked for a slow rate of fire on Birdcage. This was carried out until 12 noon, one gun being used at a time and detachments changed about.
At 12 noon, Captain Blackledge, of the same Battalion, saw Sergeant Gourley, told him he had information that the enemy was coming down Holts Bank and Cottesmore Road, and asked if the guns could do anything. One gun had meanwhile been put out of action by the breech mechanism lever, which had at one time been removed, being buried.
Sergeant Gourley collected the following men-
114983 Gnr. Clough Hartley
681770 Bdr. Thomas Edge
72339 Gnr. Charles Oliver
199319 Gnr. Reginald Charles Evans
pulled the sound gun out of the pit to about twenty yards away and opened fire on the enemy who were then in full view. First round well over, second direct hit on party-firing first charge, open sights 106 fuse. About twenty rounds were fired. Three enemy aeroplanes were above, flying very low indeed and shooting at the guns with MG, and they were subjected to much rifle fire from the left flank. Enemy planes evidently sent back information, as a 4·2-in. battery put over a sudden burst of about 100 rounds. The guns had to be left again. Sergeant Gourley again reported to C 0 6th Battalion, who asked him to stand by and be ready, but had no further information and did not require more shooting.
About a quarter-of-an-hour later Sergeant Gourley, thinking he might do some good, went out to the gun again with Gunner Hartley only with him. The two of them fired about eight rounds before they were again driven off.
Meanwhile, another officer having been sent to me to replace Lieutenant Ridealgh, I sent Lieutenant Biggart forward to this section to take charge.
He arrived there about 2 p.m. and reported to CO 6th Battalion. About 2.30 p.m., more enemy being observed on Holts Bank and in front of it, he collected the following party and went out to man the guns-
The enemy was firing heavily with rifle and M G. Each of them picked up two shells with 106 fuse and doubled out to the guns. Sergeant Gourley was No. I, Bombardier Edge laid and fired, Lieutenant Biggart loaded, Sergeant Thornley prepared the charges, and the other two carried up the ammunition.
After they had fired twenty rounds, the enemy opened on them with two M G, from the left flank at close range. They all took cover in the pit twenty yards away, except Bombardier Edge, who remained alone with the gun. He fired another round and then had to drop down to escape the two M G's. When they died down he jumped up again, fired another round by himself. This he did three times and then he had to retire to the gun pit. From there the party crawled out one by one back to Battalion HQ, having first taken the dial sights off the guns. CO 6th Battalion was consulted but did not desire any more firing at the moment.
At 4 p.m., enemy were seen running over the Villers Ridge from Holts Bank. Battalion HQ expected an attack through Priel Cutting. All the detachments set to work with the Infantry to build a barricade and carry S A A and bombs.
By the time this had finished, darkness had set in. I had by then a fair knowledge of the situation and sent off a party from the Battery position with instructions that guns were to be man-handled along the Lempire Road past Battalion H Q, where limbers would be sent out to meet them. These instructions were successfully carried out without casualties, and the guns put in action in the main battery position.
I consider all those mentioned in this narrative deserve awards, and in addition to those mentioned, the following-
No 681787 BDR. JOSEPH AUSTIN PINNINGTON. This NCO acted as runner between the forward section and the Battery position when the wire was down, i.e. all day I relied on him for information and passage of orders, and he carried out his task admirably. He was continually travelling between the two places, always passing through heavy M G fire.
No. 2428 GNR. WILLIAM FAUX was originally a member of the detachment and showed great bravery and behaved admirably. He was wounded by shell fire early in the day.
Of all the above, the following stand out as the bravest and most deserving of all of them :-
No, --- CPL. HOWARD. This NCO was acting as No. 1 with Sergeant Thornley. After Lieutenant Ridealgh was wounded he went back to the guns and formed part of the detachment with Sergeant Thornley, firing with open sights on the enemy in Holts Bank. He was wounded in the knee but still carried on until the guns had to be left again. Then he helped to carry Lieutenant Ridealgh to the Dressing Station, had his own wound dressed and returned at once to duty, reporting to me for further instructions and giving me information as to how the situation stood. I ordered him not to go back to his gun but to get pits ready for the guns when they were pulled back here. He was with the forward guns only in the earlier part of the day, but showed the greatest courage and ability during one of the most difficult parts of the day, when the only officer was knocked out and no other was detailed to take charge.
No. 681886 SGT. CYRIL EDWARD GOURLEY (now holds Military Medal). He took charge of the section for four hours with complete competence and unlimited courage. In addition to what is told in the preceding narrative, his behaviour in keeping his detachments together was heroic. Whenever the guns had to be left, he would not take cover himself until he was sure all his men were safe. On one occasion when the detachments were driven away and he could not find Sergeant Thornley, he walked across in the open and searched all dugouts and all possible places with absolute disregard of machine gun bullets all around him, until he found him in a detached dugout some distance from the others. Also, he voluntarily with Gunner Hartley alone kept one gun in action at a most dangerous period.
No. 681770 BDR. THOMAS EDGE. He returned to the Battery position once to give information and went back with Sergeant Gourley, was with every special detachment which was for very dangerous work and, as stated above, for some time kept one gun in action by himself.
No. 681791 GNR. FRED BACKHOUSE. For doing, thoroughly and well, exceptionally dangerous work on the wire under heavy shell fire and helping to man the guns as well as doing his job as telephonist.
No. 114783 GNR. CLOUGH HARTLEY. As shown in the above narrative, he was always to the front in the most dangerous places.
Of officers, Lieutenant William Mitchell Biggart deserves a decoration. After taking on from Sergeant Gourley he ran the operation with the greatest coolness and capability, showing an absolute disregard for a very great danger, and having only one desire-to kill the enemy.
(Signed) J. Hudson, Major
1/12/ 1917. Commanding D /276 Bty. R F A'
On Boxing Day 1917, the batteries withdrew from the line and marched northwards in bitterly cold weather. 'Slept midst the ice and snow in tents', Sergeant Jackson wrote.