The First Battle of the Somme
Noel’s Battalion marched 8 miles overnight to the railhead near Ypres and in the early morning of 24 March entrained for Méricourt L’Abbé (map), a journey involving 12 hours of "jolting and stopping and starting", recalled Major Harrison Johnston, one of a Noel’s fellow officers. At 8 p.m. that evening they set out on a 14-mile march in the dark along roads congested with transport of every description, with retiring troops and civilian refugees all spreading rumours of the extent of the enemy advance. When they reached their billets at Suzanne at 4 a.m., they encountered exhausted troops streaming back from the front, telling them that the Hun was on top of them. They had no time to dwell on this, nor for much-needed rest and sustenance as, on arrival, they received orders to go immediately to Maricourt in support of 23rd Division who were attempting to retake some high ground, known as Cléry Ridge. It was the third night without sleep for most of the men. After a seventeen-mile march they had time for a hasty breakfast. "They had hardly swallowed it before men of the 21st and 9th Divisions had come streaming back with the news that the Germans were on their heels, and the Cheshires were plunged into the fight. They were far from fresh but they were a good deal fresher than the divisions they went to support", recalled Major Harrison Johnston.
The counter-attack was successful and the Battalion established a line about a mile forward, with 15th Sherwood Foresters on their left. The Germans suffered heavy losses as their repeated waves of counter-attack were repulsed, but so did the 15th Cheshires. The men of X and Z Companies wavered when they were almost encircled but they stood firm and held up, the German advance all day until ordered to withdraw - a number succeeding in fighting their way out, carrying their wounded to Battalion HQ in a sunken road just west of Hem Wood. Retirement was ordered at 5.15 a.m. The Germans advanced rapidly but, under covering fire, the Battalion was able to evacuate its injured without help from the RAMC. During the engagement the Regiment’s heavy losses included its CO, Lt.Col. H.P.G. Cochran, DSO, and its Adjutant. The Sherwood Foresters repulsed an attack on their flank but thereafter it was a quiet night; the Cheshires lost the best part of two companies.