Battle of the Escaut
The British Expeditionary Force took up a new defensive position on the River Escaut (or Scheldt) a more substantial river obstacle that runs through Tournai and Ghent before joining the North Sea.
Ere/ St Maur
The Regiment took up position on 19th May. It was on a ridge behind the Escaut between the villages of Ere and St Maur in Belgium, on the Rue du Chateau that connects the N507 and N508 roads near Wannehain.
It was here that after heavy shelling by the Germans, the Regiment sustained a combat death on 21st May. Lance Bombardier Thomas Bennett of 366 Battery was killed, and three others, including Sergeant ‘Slogger‘ Slines, were wounded in the attack. In addition, three of 366 Battery’s twelve guns were put out of action.
Thomas Bennett was a 19-year-old from Southwark, London. He was buried in a ceremony officiated by a padre from the Durham Light Infantry and is now interred in the Bruyelle Cemetery, adjacent to one of the main bridges carrying the N52 road across the river Escaut.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also records another casualty on the 19th May, 26-year-old Gunner William Davies. Gunner Davies’s death is not mentioned in the War Diary and it is unclear whether he may have died of injuries sustained earlier, as he is buried with other members of the Regiment killed later in the conflict, at Hotton Cemetery, well away from the Escaut.
The British fought valiantly along the line of the Escaut river, the bridges were all destroyed by Royal Engineers and there was desperate hand-to-hand fighting in that sector. There were two VC’s awarded. Lt-Colonel Brook’s ‘Grand Party’ describes a request from the infantry to position field guns (inappropriately in his view) to fire at point-blank range at German occupied warehouses on the riverbank. He advised the use of shorter-range mortar weapons, to be told that the mortar platoons only had smoke shells and no high explosives were available to them.
‘Grand Party‘ also describes how the furious German assault with shelling, mortars and machine guns continually disrupted communication lines between the Regiment’s Gun positions and forward observation posts on the Western bank of the Escaut river.
Lieutenant Baxter, F troop 367 Battery
Lt (acting Captain) Ronald Baxter, commanding F Troop of 367 Battery, described being in a forward OP (Observation Post) in woods at St Maur on 21st May during the intense German shelling that inflicted casualties on 366 Battery’s position at Ere.
He wrote ‘..I clearly saw the shells exploding amongst the houses [at Ere]. I heard later that some guns were lost and casualties suffered amongst the crews. Then the Germans gunners gave their attention to the wood I was in ……Now we were for it…’
Luckily Baxter and his two Gunners survived the onslaught by taking shelter in their pre-prepared slit trench.
140th Regiment’s HQ at Ere
The Regimental War Diary more detailed grid reference (H 912291) locates the farmhouse which served as HQ during the Escaut campaign, and the precise location of the two fields, about 300 yards apart, where 366 and 367 Batteries were deployed.
War time map showing Tournai in Belgium and Lille in France. The Franco-Belgian border is the black hatched line and the hamlet of Ere is just visible, marked to the South-east of Tournai alongside a railway track (now removed).
War Diary, 19th May 1940
‘At 02.00 hrs. the Regiment arrived at WANNEHAIN and bivouacked. At 08.00 hrs. I was sent to a recce. position for the Regiment in the area East of ERE. The Regiment followed later during the day and went into action as follows:- 366 Battery about H913288 and 367 Battery about H913292, with H.Q. in a farm about H912291’.
War Diary 21st May 1940
‘During the day the Regiment went into action. The enemy heavily shelled the gun line and 1 Troop of 366 Battery had 1 man killed and 3 wounded and 3 guns put out of action’.
366 Battery was positioned on the field marked by the RA flag, Regimental HQ was the farmhouse in the right-hand image.
Satellite map, courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd, showing 140th regiment’s two battery positions (366 and 367 Battery) and HQ in the farmhouse in Ere. The village of St Maur and the Escaut River is to the South.
Lance Bombardier THOMAS BENNETT