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Wilfred Owen's Places: Joncourt from The Beaurevour-Fonsomme Line

Modern day Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line

This modern photograph was taken from the site of the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, initially known as the "Hindenburg Support Line". In September 1918 the position was a series of trenches and concrete fortifications, strongly held by determined German troops and was the last organised system to be attacked by the British before open country was reached and after four years, open warfare resumed. Joncourt church can be seen in the centre of the line of trees which marks the edge of the village. The ground at the boundary of the ploughed field in the foreground, falls away to a narrow valley. The picture shows most of the battlefield, where on the 1st October 1918 the 2nd Manchesters went into the attack and where Wilfred Owen won his Military Cross decoration.

The attack at Joncourt which commenced on the 30th September was entrusted to the British 32nd Division, of which in the 96th Brigade were the 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers and Owen’s battalion – the 2nd Manchesters. The two Lancashire Fusiliers battalions had been formed as "Pals" units in 1914 being recruited in a district adjacent to Manchester (NW England) called Salford. They became known as the 1st and 2nd Salford "Pals". During the next few months of 1918 they were to continue to serve with distinction and finished the war alongside the Manchesters near Sambreton just beyond Ors and just south of Landrecies.

Joncourt is about three miles east of the St Quentin Canal. In 1918 the canal, with its steep, in places almost perpendicular cliffs, and its brick facings to the canal banks together with well-sited concrete fortifications and machine-gun emplacements, formed a formidable part of the German Hindenburg Line. Described by the Press at that time as "the Miracle of the War", the 46th (North Midland) Division broke through the Hindenburg Line and its canal defences on the 29th September, part of its success in doing so being the capture of the Riqueval Bridge which crossed the canal north of Bellinglise. Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters followed later that day, passed through the 46th Division and took up positions at Magny La Fosse.

The first task of the attacking forces on the 30th September was to be the capture of Joncourt village and the responsibility for this was given to the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers supported by the Australians. The Australians having been held up failed to arrive. The 15th Lancs. Fusiliers going in alone suffered heavy casualties and in the face of fire from strong concrete emplacements in the village, they were forced to limit their advance to the outskirts.

It was now turn of the 2nd Manchesters. At 4 p.m. on the 1st October they attacked on a two-company front (one of which was Owen’s "D" Company). Their objectives were the fall of Joncourt village, and the capture of the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line as far as a farm designated "Swiss Cottage". Joncourt was found to be deserted. After stiff hand to hand fighting, the Manchesters forced their way through thick barbed wire and finally cleared the line for about 1400 yards stretching south from "Swiss Cottage".

Assisted by a company from the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers, the expected counter attacks were driven off and the next day the l6th Lancashire Fusiliers took over the captured position. That battalion was then ordered to attack the next village-Ramicourt. Unfortunately, the British troops on the battalion’s flank were unable to advance and the Lancashire Fusiliers had to fall back. In doing so their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Stone was killed.

With the exception of "Swiss Cottage" which lies off the photograph to the right, the picture covers most of the Manchesters’ attack. They started just outside Joncourt on the left of the photo going forward across the green fields in the direction of "Swiss Cottage" with some of the battalion turning to their right to attack up the hill and across the present day ploughed field. With his Company Commander wounded, Owen took over command and after capturing a German machine gun proceeded to inflict considerable losses upon the defending forces. His leadership and bravery on that day led to his being recommended for the Military Cross.

The battalion left the battlefield on the 2nd October and travelling to the west arrived at Hancourt to rest and reorganise.

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