Fighting south of the Somme
(Map of area, for reference.)
The following day the Battalion marched about 15 km NE to Villers-St-Christopher. By 3 a.m. two companies had been installed manning the rear zone defences at Launchy and Germaine between the Somme and the Omignon Rivers. The next day there was thick fog. The Germans had put up a bombardment, including gas shells, in the early hours, suggesting there might be an attack but it never materialised. 11th RB was then ordered to move back, westwards, to Matigny, fighting a rearguard action as it went. A further withdrawal was undertaken at 3 am on the 23rd, moving further back to west of the Somme Canal, by the bridge at Bethencourt.
Early activity by some British forces, including the RE blowing up the bridge, was followed by a barrage from the enemy at 2 pm, during which parties of enemy soldiers could be seen making their way down the hillside under the cover of the wood. The British bombardment was threatening their own position as well as that of the Germans so the men of 11th RB had to withdraw 150 yards, though they returned later under cover of darkness. They also used Lewis Gun fire to disperse a German party attempting to cross the canal.
At 7 am on 24 March, the sound of heavy machine gun and rifle fire percolated the thick mist. Injured men of the E. Lancs. arrived, describing how the Germans had crossed the canal south of the bridge on pontoons. Two hours later, the mist had lifted and the Battalion’s position became untenable as the British artillery again fell short. C Company attempted a counter-attack towards the village but the men were hopelessly outnumbered and the majority failed to return. An hour later 11th RB’s ranks were augmented by the men of the E. Lancs who had fallen back following another enemy attack but the withdrawal of troops exposed the Battalion’s flank. The inevitable enemy attack coupled with the 'friendly' shelling led to a large number of casualties. During the morning Battalion HQ was heavily shelled causing many casualties amongst the officers; the CO was one of those injured. The men were forced to withdraw to a position they were able to hold until 2 pm. Then one company ordered by GOC to counterattack and retake the position held earlier beside the Somme Canal advanced 700 yards but was virtually wiped out by shell and machine gun fire. By mid-afternoon, A Company had 1 officer and about 25 ORs, B and C Companies had no officers and D Company had 1 officer. Nevertheless, throughout 23rd and until the afternoon of 24th, 20th Division held their ground and even managed to counterattack, before it was ordered back to a line between Quinquery and Mesnil-le Petit.