1918 – A year of two halves.

At the beginning of February 1918, the Regiment moved from its winter quarters to a location just to the west of Amiens. A month later, as a result of Indian Cavalry Regiments being sent to Palestine, the 17th Lancers joined 7th Cavalry Brigade of the 3rd Cavalry Division, commanded by Brigadier-General BP Portal, DSO, late 17th Lancers. The Brigade consisted of the 7th Dragoon Guards, the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and, until recently, the composite Household Cavalry regiment who had been converted to machine-gunners. Throughout March, there were great expectations of a major offensive, expectations that became reality on 20th March.

Early the next morning the Brigade was ordered south, little anticipating that the next occupants of their camps would be the Germans. There followed a seven-hour night-march arriving about fifteen kilometres south-west of St Quentin in the early hours of the morning. The dismounted regiment, consisting of 200 men from each regiment in the Brigade, was then ordered to hold Frieres wood just west of the Crozat canal, where the Germans had formed a bridgehead. The Germans had used infiltration tactics, advancing where resistance was light and pinning down more robust defenders with light attacks. The result was chaos. By the following morning, Brigades were mixed up, communications between commanders had broken down, companies were disorientated and cohesion between regiments had ceased, as all competed for road-space with French civilians and heavy artillery moving against the flow. Between the 22nd and 28th the Regiment was sent to one place to fill a gap, then to another place to cover a retirement, then to hold a bridge, and even, at one point, to carry out troop drills between our positions and the enemy’s to create an impression of force.

The Long Long Trail. The First Battle of the Somme 1918. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Re9Deg

Early on the 23rd, the Regiment was told that the Germans had broken through at Ham, south-west of St Quentin, and were moving south-west. Another fifty men from each regiment in the Brigade were ordered to join a divisional column to stop the advance. The remaining 75 men of the Regiment were then ordered to cover the bridges at Sempigny and Pontoise. As they approached the area of the bridges, they were informed that the French were destroying those bridges and so waited just south of the River Oise, where they were later joined by the dismounted party that had been holding Frieres wood.

The General commanding 24th Division wrote to the Regiment on 4th April thanking them for their valuable service. He wrote that they, “responded willingly and eagerly to every call made on it at all hours of the day and night.” He commented that the help given “was particularly effective and especially appreciated [as] divisions no longer have mounted troops’ (Micholls, 1931, p.119). Mobility was still valued in fluid situations such as these.

On 29th March, the Brigade concentrated for a move north towards Amiens, forced by the German advance towards Montdidier, 35 kilometres south-east of Amiens. They swung west and then north covering sixty-five miles in two days arriving about 10 kilometres south of Amiens on the 31st. Information about the enemy was so confused that, for the first time in four years, the Brigade moved with an advance and flank guard. But within a few days of arriving, another German attack was mounted astride the Amiens to St Quentin Roman road, just to the east of Villers-Bretonneux and the Regiment was dispatched to re-enforce 6th Brigade. It was ordered to fill the gap that had developed to the south of the road. All day, the positions astride the road were under artillery attack. In the afternoon, the Regiment learned that the Australians to their south were retiring exposing the positions on the ridge line which, were they to fall, would allow the Germans a position commanding Amiens and giving them observation of the line of the Somme into Amiens.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Michael

There were no troops available to reinforce the position and the commanding officer decided to gallop D Squadron up to reinforce a position being doggedly held by some Royal Dragoons. The gallop crossed about 600 metres of open ground under artillery and machine-gun fire reaching the position and recovering the led-horses with few casualties. The Australians then rallied on the right, following a misunderstanding, but on the left the Germans were still advancing, crossing the railway line at Villers-Bretonneux. The following morning, the Germans sent over an artillery bombardment, but did not follow it up with an attack on our right.

Over the two days of plugging gaps and reinforcing the defence, two officers and seventeen men were wounded but only two killed: Sergeant Rashbrook and Shoeing-Smith Humphrey, whose body was never recovered and is commemorated at Pozieres Memorial.

The General Officer Commanding 9th Australian Infantry Brigade, Charles Rosenthal, wrote to the Brigade on 7th April thanking them for their “prompt and most valuable assistance” stating, “As has happened so often during the recent fighting, the cavalry on the morning of the 4th inst. undoubtedly saved the situation.” He ended, “Personally, I am proud to have the opportunity of fighting on the same battle-ground with the British cavalry.” (Micholls, 1931, p.125).

Members of the regiment were awarded seven Military Crosses a Distinguished Conduct Medal, five Military Medals and one bar to a Military Medal for their part in these operations.

The Military Cross

The Military Medal

 

Thus, the German attack towards Amiens ended and their centre of operations switched north to the area of Ypres. There, attacking south, they drove the British line back to Mont Kemmel, Bailleul and St. Venant but again the line held and their force was spent without breaking through. The Regiment having been ordered north on 10th April, and then back to Tangry, near St Pol, stopped on 16th April for a refit. In three and a half weeks, they had marched about 230 miles, as well as fighting around Amiens.

In April and May, all the armies fighting in Europe, and civilian populations, were struck by an unknown disease that the Army cautiously called P.U.O. or Pyrexia of unknown origin. Living in the open air, of necessity, casualties were not as severe as in England, but many went down with what came later to be known as ‘Spanish Flu’. The first phase of the illness in the Spring was less severe than when it returned in the Autumn killing millions, world-wide.

By the end of July, the retreat was over. Few sensed that within a week, the German army would start to be rolled back in what we now know as the ‘Hundred Days’, possibly the greatest victory of British arms, as Britain, her allies and Empire struck back.

 

Bibliography

Micholls, G, Major, (1931), History of the 17th Lancers, Volume II, 1895 to 1924, London, MacMillan and Company Limited.

The Long, Long Trail, The British Army in the Great War of 1914 to 1918, Available at: https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battles/

Captain Egerton, 17th Lancers, and his mother’s coffee stall.

One sometimes gets a sense, when researching, of things happening that are so out of the ordinary, it suggests some sort of guidance. One such occurrence happened the other day when I was researching 17th Lancer graves in the huge hospital cemetery at Rouen.

A few days before that I had been in Habarcq Communal Cemetery Extension where two of our number lay buried. One was a Captain Edward Brassey Egerton who was gazetted to the Regiment in August of 1910. He had been to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and arrived in Meerut, India where he was given command of 1st troop, A Squadron. Later he was appointed A.D.C to his uncle Lord Willingdon, governor of Bombay, where he remained for four happy years until war broke out and he re-joined the Regiment.

When the Regiment arrived in France in November, he was appointed to command the escort troop to General Sir Douglas Haig, Colonel of the Regiment, and then commanding Ist British Corps. He carried out the task in an exemplary manner for six months and when promoted Captain returned to the Regiment as second in command of D Squadron.

Captain Egerton is third from the left in the centre standing row. General Haig is centre front, with the commanding Officer on his right. (Micholls, opp. p100)

A year later, he was commanding a working party assisting a tunnelling company near Arras and at the end of August was sniped by a field gun, died of his wounds the next day, and was buried at Habarcq.

Now Egerton’s mother was Lady Mabelle Egerton, born Lady Mabelle Annie Brassie in 1865. She married Charles Augustus Egerton on the 17th April 1888. The family lived at Mountfield Court, Robertsbridge, Sussex, until Charles Augustus died in 1912.

Then, we understand, in the autumn of 1914, Mabelle and her father drove in their car to Rouen with supplies for the Red Cross and St. John’ Ambulance. While they were there, they were asked if they could provide hot water to make drinks for the troops passing through Rouen’s St Sever Station. They started in an empty good shed with a few tables, and grew to become one of the largest coffee stalls on the Western Front. The Church Army took the venture over in 1917.

The Coffee Stall in Rouen http://inspirationalwomenofww1.blogspot.com/2016/07/lady-mabel-annie-brassey-egerton-cbe.html

May Wedderburn Cannan trained as a nurse and in 1915 went to Rouen to help run the coffee stall. She wrote a poem, Rouen, that recalls that period of her life.

Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning,
And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair,
And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges,
And the empty littered station, and the tired people there.

Can you recall those mornings and the hurry of awakening,
And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way,
And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions,
And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day?

Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the city,
Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies,
And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers,
And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies.

Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee,
Heavy-laden noontides with the evening’s peace to win,
And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles,
And the crushes in the ‘Parlour’, and the letters coming in?

Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers,
All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth;
And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts,
And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth.

Can I forget the passage from the cool white-bedded Aid Post
Past the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train
To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter,
And ‘Good-bye, and thank you, Sister’, and the empty yards again?

Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad,
Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string,
And the voices of the sergeants who called the Drafts together,
And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King?

Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving,
The little group of people at the doorway of the shed,
The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness,
And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o’erhead?

Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers,
Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again,
And the shadows on the rail-lines and the all inglorious labour,
And the promise of the daylight firing blue the windowpane?

Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning,
Morning very still and solemn breaking slowly on the town,
And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak,
And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down?

Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles,
And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide,
And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool of water,
And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside?

Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island,
And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony,
And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses,
And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea?

When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower,
My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away;
When other men remember I remember our Adventure
And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.

(http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/rouen-2/)

After finding our three soldiers, I wandered over to the Officer’s Section of the cemetery. Rouen St Sever is the only cemetery I know to have such a section, and I thought that I would have a browse. Imagine my surprise when I saw the grave of Dame Lucy Innes Branfoot, friend of Mabelle Egerton and her co-worker, until she died of bronchitis on 16th March 1916 aged 52. She also had volunteered to go to France when her husband died in 1914 in Folkestone.

And next to her grave, was that of Lieutenant SL Ponsonby of the Middlesex Regiment, but that is another tale for another day, and another ‘co-incidence’.

 

 

References.

Lady Annie Mabelle Brassey Egerton, July 2016. The Coffee Shop. Available at: http://inspirationalwomenofww1.blogspot.com/2016/07/lady-mabel-annie-brassey-egerton-cbe.html

1917 – The Ancre, Arras and Cambrai

The first three months of the new year involved General Gough’s Fifth Army in a series of attacks, known collectively as Operation on the Ancre, designed to secure high ground above the eponymous river. There can have been no thought of a break-through as the cavalry remained in winter quarters until the middle of March, when the Regiment received orders to move to a point just north of Albert. The Germans had skilfully withdrawn, almost undetected, to their prepared defences on the Hindenburg Line.

By 26th March, the Regiment was encamped three miles to the west of Bapaume, waiting for the Battle of Arras to begin. Snow and rain made the ground, which had suffered terribly during the Somme bombardments, horrible for horses and soldiers alike, the horses being over their hocks in mud. The tents failed in their primary duty of keeping out the wintry deluge and so it was at this point that the authorities invented ‘Summer Time’; March 23rd. Despite that optimism, snow continued to fall. In these conditions, difficult for fighting and living, A Squadron, who were deployed some miles further east, had a shell land in its midst killing three troopers and thirteen horses. Five others were wounded.

Troopers Adams, Pearce and Richards died together and are buried together in Mory Abbey Military Cemetery.

On April 9th, the Battle of Arras began with an attack by Third Army between Vimy in the north and Arras; south of Arras Fifth Army was to attack the Hindenburg Line, around Bullecourt, the following day. The tanks, which were due to lead the attack in front of Fifth Army were defeated by the state of the ground and driving snow, and did not appear, so the attack was delayed for 24 hours. The Regiment had already deployed to a position just behind the attacking infantry, immediately south of Croiselles.

At 4.00 am the next morning, the attack began. B Squadron, under Captain Parbury was ordered at 5.00 am to follow the advance of 4th and 12th Australian Brigades and to push through as soon as the line had been taken. In a wonderful illustration of the fog of war, some hours later, news was received from Army Headquarters that the village of Bullecourt, as well as Reincourt and Hendecourt had been seized. In fact, Bullecourt was still in enemy hands and the wire in front of it was uncut. Orders were then received to cut the wire.

Aerial photo showing Bullecourt on the right, the Hindenburg line defences and, bottom left, the extensive belts of barbed wire.

Lieutenant Daniel with ten men from the Regiment and fifty men of the 19th Bengal Lancers and 6th Cavalry set out to do so. But the only two tanks to have made it to Bullecourt had been captured and occupied by German machine-gunners. They wrought havoc with the wire detail, who retired with a quarter of the men wounded.

German soldiers pictured with a British tank captured at Bullecourt on 12 April. This may well have been one of the beasts.

The following day, the Australians were driven back to their starting positions and the battle ended.

Between May and November, the Regiment deployed as an infantry company to a trench line east of Peronne. The line appeared to consist of a line of saps dug out towards the enemy, supported by a proper trench about 1500 m further back, and a third trench being constructed still further back. Strenuous efforts were made to improve the position until by November, the Regiment felt that a rabbit would not be able to get through the belts of wire. No-one told the Germans, who on 21st March 1918, in about 6 hours destroyed any trace of the wire in their Spring offensive.

The line that the Indian Cavalry Corps, of which the Regiment was still a part, occupied stretched from Epehy in the north to Varmand in the south. During this time six soldiers were killed and twenty-seven wounded. The six were: Troopers Tyler, Watkins, Hensby, Lofthouse, Gunn, Ringshall.

The battle of Cambrai started with an attack by 376 massed Mk IV fighting tanks on 20th November. The attack very nearly succeeded in breaking through the German lines. On the left it was so successful that 1st Cavalry Division was launched. On the right the attack was held up because a tank had caused a bridge to collapse thus blocking that route.

British Mk IV Tadpole tank. The tail was extended to assist crossing trench systems, such as Hindenburg Line. Design was incorporated into the Mk V.

Five days later, another attack was launched at Bourlon Wood, but by this time the Germans were more prepared for tanks, and little progress was made. The Germans counter-attacked strongly on the 29th November, regaining much of the ground lost. But perhaps both sides had seen the potential in an attack by massed armour. The coming decades would see British and Germans actively developing armoured forces.

The Regiment was now ordered back into trenches at Villeret for two days before being relieved by a Canadian dismounted brigade, while the dismounted company occupied trenches near Hargicourt, which was a relatively quiet sector with little aggression shown by either side. However, during this time troopers Crowsley and Jenkinson were killed.

This concluded operations in 1917, a year that had shown some promise, but had also shown, that though we were able to break into the German line, we had no ability to break-through it.

The 17th Lancers in 1916 – the year of the Somme.

Unfortunately, 1916 stated with a bang, and there was to be much of that this year! In its winter quarters near the mouth of the Somme, the Regiment trained in all the skills it now needed. During a bomb-throwing practice, a premature explosion killed Sergeant Payne, and Troopers Quelch and Pound. All three were evacuated to General Hospital in Abbeyville, where they died on the 7th, the 15th and the 17th January. Trooper Quelch’s parents had christened him with a name beginning with the letter S, which almost certainly meant that he went through his 29 years known as ‘Squelch”; he certainly would have been known as that in the army!  He is the only 17th Lancer commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the missing.

At the end of January, the machine-guns were Brigaded with those of the 19th Bengal Lancers and became part of the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps.

Capt FC Lacaita, MC.

Lieutenants FC Lacaita and F Cornwallis commanded the Regiment’s guns and transferred with them. Captain Lacaita went on to win the Military Cross in November gallantly supporting infantry from attack from Beaucourt-sur-Ancre, and was killed in April 1918 while in command of 1st Cavalry Machine-Gun Squadron, covering the infantry retirement from Le Hamel. Captain Cornwallis survived the War only to be killed in November 1921 by IRA gunmen, returning to Gort from a tennis party, in civilian clothes and accompanied by the District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary and his wife. He is buried in England.

Towards the end of February, the Regiment was re-organised to an infantry establishment, creating a dismounted company. The Indian Cavalry Corps had been disbanded and the 1st Indian Cavalry Division was attached to Third Army. The Company moved to fresh billets in Fillievre, north-east of Abbeville where it was issued with sixteen Hotchkiss machine guns to be carried, with their ammunition, on pack-horses.

Hotchkiss machine gun M1914 Mk. 1

This was a mixed blessing as the gun suffered from repeated stoppages. It was joked that if that variety of jams could be issued to the troops, they would cease moaning about the ubiquitous apple and plum jam, issued with their rations!

In May the Regiment moved to Berlencourt, west of Arras, and provided interminable digging parties in preparation for the battle of the Somme. In another training incident, a bomb exploded killing Corporal Saving and wounding three others, including Lieutenant Lord Killeen.

They dug trenches, gun emplacements, buried gas cylinders and dug mines; on 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began, following seven days of continuous bombardment of the German lines. Just before the bombardment began, Trooper Selves was killed.

The Regiment continued to be deployed up and down the line, as was thought needed. After three weeks of this, they reached Gouves, seven miles further west than they started. Just before this, Colonel RJW Carden, who had moved to command 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was killed in the final, successful attack on Mametz Wood.

While billeted at Gouves, the Regiment continued to supply digging parties, on one of which Trooper Kissock was killed. On another, on August 31st, Major TP Melvill and Captain EB Egerton were wounded; Captain Egerton died the next day.

Capt EB Egerton

Trooper Kissock

At the beginning of September, the Brigade returned to the training area at St Riquier for ten days before deploying to join the Cavalry concentration around Morlancourt, just south of Albert. On 15th September, Sergeant Cutt was killed. He is commemorated on Pier 1 of Thiepval Memorial, but clearly as something of an inconvenient afterthought. The cavalry regiments number down the Pier sequentially, but right at the bottom of the central panel, between the 9th Lancers and the Tenth Hussars at the top of the next panel, the 17th Lancers have been squeezed in, and there Sergeant Cutt features as the only 17th Lancer whose body was not found, in the Somme battles.

Another offensive that started on September 21st, with tanks, as part of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, was partially successful, but again failed to achieve a break-through, which signalled the end of cavalry operations for 1916. The Regiment moved to Vironchaux where it remained until November when it moved to winter quarters in St Blimont south of the mouth of the River Somme.

Winter was spent digging and building a double railway from Amiens to Arras, in bitterly cold conditions. They were much pleased with their exertions until a company of Durham miners appeared and moved in moments what it had taken our troopers days to shift, proving the adage that skill beats strength, or brains, brawn, every-time. On 21st December, Trooper Knott was killed.

So ended another year of waiting and supporting. Perhaps next year, breakthrough will occur and give the cavalry an opportunity to ravage the enemy behind the front line.

 

 

1915 was a disappointing year.

The first taste of mechanisation came to the 17th Lancers in January of 1915. The Brigade was ordered to take over the line, near Festubert, from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. They were ordered to do so in double-decker buses, from which comes the expression to ‘embus’.

Troops board a B-Type battle bus. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3248664/From-Leicester-Square-Battle-Loos-Extraordinary-images-London-buses-used-British-troops-Western-WWI.html

The trenches were described by Major Gilbert Micholls, who was with the Regiment throughout the war, as ‘hole(s) four feet deep and of varying lengths, cut in square miles of mud and filled with the same material’. They were occupying what had been the support trenches, the front line now occupied by the Germans on higher ground. It rained continuously and despite everyone’s best efforts after two days the men were standing up to their waists in water. They were relieved by the King’s Dragoon Guards who subsequently gave up the trenches in favour of breast-works around the village, the trenches having become ponds.

Within a fortnight of this experience, sixty-five men had been admitted to hospital with what became known as trench-foot. This was caused by restriction of the circulation due to the mens’ riding-trousers shrinking around the knee and calf, and to too tight puttees. To counter this, whale oil was issued for feet and the men were instructed how to wear their breeches and puttees.

Between mid-March and mid-April the Regiment moved seven times caused largely by the re-positioning of French troops for their attack at Notre-Dames de Lorette. When stationary, time was found to train on a new weapon, bombs. These were made from jam tins filled with gun-cotton, or nitrocellulose, attached to pieces of wood. Like many such innovations, they were almost as dangerous to the user as the target. Subsequently, they were produced industrially and were much more effective. In June, between 150 and 300 men were continuously employed digging trenches in the area of Estaires, the first time they had been used in this role.

On 22nd April 1915, for the first time, gas was used in the German assault on French troops north of Ypres, at the outset of Second Ypres. They attacked south towards Ypres between Bixschoote (now Bikschote) and Langemarck (now Langemark). They followed this up with a second gas-attack on the Canadians at Langemarck, which was repulsed. On the 24th April the Regiment was ordered to billets in the area of Cassel, which they reached eleven hours later at 4.30 am the next day. These movements were very trying. At the level-crossing at Ebblinghem, the constant passage of ambulance trains meant that only one squadron could cross at a time. The rest of the two-and-a-half-mile column had to halt; the horses turned their back to the driving rain, soldiers dozed in the saddle, and when the march was resumed, everyone ended going in different directions. From arriving at Cassel, the Regiment was on half-an-hours-notice to move until 5th May. The German attack on Ypres was renewed on 27th May causing the Regiment to be re-positioned about 2 miles to the west of Ypres, without their horses which remained at Broxeele.

Between May and the beginning of August, between 150 and 300 men were employed digging Support and Reserve trenches in the area of Estaires, an activity that continued in different locations for the next three years. B Squadron was detached on 6th May, under the command of Major TP Melvill, to the area of Merville.

On August 12th The Regiment was ordered forward, dismounted. Col Legard, who had come to us from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, with 11 Officers and 330 men moved via Franvellers to Martinsart, just to the rear of the line. Each night they sent working parties up to the line, which was relatively quiet at that stage. On 22nd, the Regiment moved up to the line taking over the left sector from the 7th Dragoon Guards. The Hampshires were on their left-flank separated by about 300 yards of marsh. The trenches were dug in chalk along the edge of a wood on a reverse slope, protecting them from German machine guns but exposing them to snipers in the trees. They remained in these trenches until they were relieved by the 13th Hussars on September 2nd. They returned to these same trenches nine days later, providing digging parties in support of the front line, in the meantime. On September 17th, they re-joined their horses in preparation for the major combined French British offensive at Loos and in Champagne.

Late in September, news was received that Brigadier-General NT Nickalls, who had commanded the Regiment between 1907 and 1911, was killed rallying his Brigade of the 21st Division, during the offensive at Loos.

On November 5th Major RJW Carden left the regiment to take command of the 16th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, after nineteen years at Regimental Duty. He was killed leading the final, and successful, attack on Mametz Wood eight months later, on 10th July 1916.

Major Micholls records that the first 12 months of the Regiment’s war had been a ‘sad disillusionment. The role of cavalry for the time was extinct, and the situation necessary for its employment as far off as ever’ (page 102).

If you have persevered in reading this far, you may wonder why I have recorded such mundane activity. I have done so to reveal that, even for the infantry, it was not a matter of endless stints in the trenches. Troops were rotated after fairly short periods at the front to keep the morale up and to train them in new techniques. The line had to be held and the Germans were no keener than us in making life difficult. Offensives and raids were a different matter.

 

 

 

Bibliography.

Micholls, Major, G., (1931), A History of the 17th Lancers, Volume II 1895 to 1924, London, MacMillan and Co. Limited.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3248664/From-Leicester-Square-Battle-Loos-Extraordinary-images-London-buses-used-British-troops-Western-WWI.html

17th (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers go to war. 1914.

The 17th (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers deployed to the First World War as part of the Indian Expeditionary Force in October 1914. They left Karachi on a convoy of forty-two transport ships for Port Said and Marseilles. The Sialkot Brigade, part of First Indian Cavalry Division of the Indian Cavalry Corps, consisted of the 17th Lancers, 19th Bengal Lancers, with ‘W’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery. The Division arrived in Marseilles in early November and by mid-month had concentrated in Orleans. They arrived too late to take part in the Retreat from Mons, the Marne, or the desperate First Battle of Ypres. By now the British were holding a line from north of Ypres south to Bethune with the Belgians to the north and the French to their south.

For much of the next three and a half years, it was stood-to and stood-down endlessly, marched hundreds of miles north and then back south, waited in reserve to exploit promised breaks-through, while providing endless fatigue parties to help dig trenches and fortifications for the infantry, patrols to establish contact with the enemy when no-one was certain where they were, relieve infantry companies in the line, and later to take part in major attacks, known as raids, on German positions. Its role was manoeuvre and this was a war of trenches. Major-General Daly wrote in April 1918 to the Regiment thanking them for their support, ‘The Squadron did all that was asked of it, and responded willingly and eagerly to every call that was made of it at all hours of the day and night.’ (Micholls, 1931, page 119). One can do no more.

Historians of the Great War have done much to highlight the nature of the war seen from the perspective of the individual. Both perspectives are important if one is to understand war as a whole. Any attempt to reconstruct the experiences of a cavalry regiment during this war will tend to focus more on the individual than the whole, as reconstructing their endless route marches illuminates little. Nor do fifty-men digging parties reveal much. But for those keen to uncover the events that shaped, and in some cases ended, their experience, there is much to be found.

The coastal ports of France became important hubs for British troops. Most of them arrived there. Huge training camps were established to train new recruits and introduce them to the tactics and experience of trench warfare. Base hospitals and recuperation centres were established to treat the wounded who survived evacuation through Regimental Aid Posts to Casualty Clearing Stations to Stationary Hospitals and finally to Base, or General Hospitals; many did not. Etaples, Abbeyville and Le Treport all had Base hospitals and with them cemeteries in which were buried those who finally succumbed to damage or disease, without making it back to ‘Blighty.

Etaples in 1917.

And today.

I wish to honour some of the 17th (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers who remain in these cemeteries in France. By 1917, Etaples, had eleven general, one stationary, four Red Cross hospitals and a convalescent depot, that could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick. Those who could not be saved were buried on the hill facing England. The cemetery is vast being the final resting place of over 11,500 men and women. Among their number is Trooper J. Taylor who died of his wounds on 14th November 1918, three days after the Armistice. It is certainly possible that he knew that the war had ended; for him another ending approached.

Although not a 17th Lancer, mention needs be made of my great-uncle, William Cope who served with the 1st/6th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. He was badly wounded in late September 1915 in the assaults on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a German stronghold, in the Battle of Loos. He died at Etaples on the 17th October 1915, two days after the Battle ended.

Further west along the coast, west of Abbeville, is the small fishing town of Le Treport. Three General hospitals and one Red Cross hospital were established here throughout the war. The village resembles the south coast of England, with similar white cliffs, on top on which were hotels that were commandeered by the British.

Hotel Triannon seen from the tented camp.

Photo courtesy of http://anurseatthefront.org.uk/news-archive/information-about-le-treport-and-no-3-general-hospital/

In August 1918, the Regiment was advancing on the first day of the Battle of Amiens, having reached a point just east of Hangard, south of Villers-Bretonneux. There a troop of D Squadron charged and captured the German position in the woods at Caix, causing a general withdrawal into the village. I will deal with this more thoroughly later, but Trooper James Malley was wounded and evacuated to Le Treport where he died the next day. This is fine testament to the efficiency, developed over four years, for quickly getting the wounded back to hospitals.

The next post will deal with a number of officers and soldiers killed in the first three years of the war. 1918 will have its own accounts.

Christmas Meditation by Peter Hitchens – 2013

For me, Christmas is always a journey, and a long train journey at that. The old strict-regime English boarding schools may have robbed their inmates of many small, warm, things, but mine gave me this gift – the annual delight of the return home, warm yellow lights at the end of a long slow progress through frosty hills and woods, full of anticipation, with the red sun  excitingly low in the cold, clear sky.

Scott Fitzgerald had much the same experience, as he described in ‘The Great Gatsby’, of ‘the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow’.

I think many people have some similar sensation. It is absolutely no good if the journey has been too easy or too comfortable. We cannot feel properly warm and safe unless we have at least felt the edge of the wind and feared being caught in the storm. Arcangelo Corelli, in his Concerto for the Night of Christmas, always seems to me to convey a searing, exhilarating cold, to emphasise the warmth and light that are coming.

John Masefield, in ‘The Box of Delights’ gave Kay Harker an enchanted, if worrying, homeward journey. It’s the low, clear light that does it. Kay looks up at the hills from the train window, and thinks ‘It was a grim winter morning, threatening a gale.  Something in the light, with its hard sinister clearness, gave mystery and dread to those hills.

“They look just the sort of hills,” Kay said to himself, “where you might come upon a Dark Tower, and blow a horn at the gate for something to happen.”’

A journey, and not necessarily an easy one, was no bad thing to associate with Christmas. The ancient story is full of journeys, the last-minute struggle to Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, the coming of the Magi.

Lancelot Andrewes described the hard voyage of the Wise Men, as he preached before King James the First on Christmas Day 1622. T.S. Eliot later rather naughtily repeated much of the passage without mentioning Andrewes.

‘Last,  we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.’

The very dead of winter which, as it happens, I love.  Oh, that we were there. Voices ring more clearly and light shines more brightly in clean, cold air.  The celebration of a birth is made more joyous because it foreshadows a death.

The terrifying line from the carol, ‘sealed in a stone-cold tomb’ cuts like a blade through what would otherwise be cloying sweetness. Cold purifies and exhilarates. I have never understood how anyone could want to celebrate Christmas next to a hot beach. And, time and again, I’ve found myself hurrying homewards in the days before the feast, through somewhere cold and dark, reminded of the thrilling returning journeys of my youth.

From divided Berlin, slipping in seconds from the lighted circle of freedom into the black dark of oppression, and then mercifully out again; to Bucharest in the middle of a revolution, imagining gunfire on the horizon ( or was it real? I’ve never been certain) as the shabby train trundled past fleece-clad shepherds into gloomy mountains; carting a scrawny tree through the slush of Communist Moscow, so as to celebrate the birth of a subversive Saviour; hurrying home from Baghdad in a nervous convoy, swerving round the craters in the highway provided by the US Air Force, reading Dorothy L. Sayers to take my mind off the endless, menacing desert and the nasty rumours of armed robbers on the way.

As Lancelot Andrewes put it ‘This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. Nor secondly, easy neither; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias, specially Petra, their journey lay.  Yet if safe, but it was not, but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the black tents of Kedar, a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then, and infamous to this day.’

Now, if we still did Christmas properly, it would only just be starting tonight. Having celebrated the Nativity, we would  now be anticipating the Feast of Stephen, perhaps providing flesh, wine and pine-logs to nearby poor peasants. Then there would be St John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day (not an occasion for jollity), the Circumcision of Christ and finally the Epiphany itself.  For the last four weeks we would have been marking Advent, a severely penitential season,  not without fear:

‘I look from afar and lo, I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say “Tell us: art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?”

Mattins Responsory – CD: Advent from St Pauls. (St Pauls Cathedral Choir)

But these days Advent can only be dimly seen, a dark and shuttered old church beyond the superstore and behind the multi-storey car park, unlit amid the commercial riot of jingle, sparkle and glare. There’s some fun to be had in fighting a lonely battle against this, fasting through the gluttony, though only if you don’t try to feel superior to everyone else. But, just as hardly anyone observes Advent, nobody really gives Christmas its full twelve days.

So what actually lies beyond Christmas Day is flat disappointment, every sense stirred and tuned to expect something marvellous, and then just a lot to eat and drink, a few presents and a long, numb celebration of the miraculous birth of TV. By this point in the year I usually find myself staring out of a window at the suburban night, wondering where we shall all be a twelvemonth hence.

And yet, at some point, there’s always a brief moment of delight, the lighted doorway shining in the darkness, the warmth of return, the certain welcome – now as a father and a husband rather than as a child. I’ve usually managed to contrive a long journey first.  Like all such arrivals, it’s rapidly swallowed up in little duties, discoveries and squabbles, but for a few seconds it’s an anticipation of what really matters, the true homecoming that Christmas actually promises.

And yet that most important homecoming will require a grimmer and a colder journey than I have yet undertaken. Eliot describes the paradox: ‘I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.’

And again ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. So, I hope, anyway.

 

Coventry Carol – (The Swingle Singers)

Bullecourt April, May 1917

Hindenburg Line showing Bullecourt on right, trenches in centre and barbed wire entanglements on left.

Battle raged around Bullecourt, a strongpoint on the Hindenburg Line, or ‘Siegfried-Stellung’, in April and May 1917. German trenches were deep, thick belts of barbed wire protected them, and concrete fortifications strengthened the defence on ground chosen for its advantage and fields of fire. The British and Australian troops were deployed below them in open ground south and south-west of Bullecourt.

Gough’s Fifth Army was on the right of the line and Bullecourt was on its extreme right flank. The battle was in two parts; the first attack on 10th and 11th April, the second on the 3rd and 4th May 1917. The first was intended as a diversionary attack for the main effort further north but following reports of success at Arras, was brought forward starting the day after the northern attack, so leaving no time for preliminary bombardment. The first April attack can be seen more in the nature of a battalion level fighting patrol where several battalions of the West Yorkshire Regiment advanced towards the Hindenburg Line where they were to meet up with the Australian battalions.

Much had been expected of eleven tanks of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps which it was hoped would be able to breach the wire, clearing a way for the infantry. However, they arrived late, failed to appear on the start-line and contributed little. In heavy snow fall, without the support of their tanks, the Australians decided to abort their attack, but were seen leaving their jump-off points and engaged by artillery. Fortunately, there were few casualties. On the second day, on the right, the Australian 16th and 46th Battalions both breached the Hindenburg Line between Bullecourt and Riencourt to the east, before launching the 48th Battalion through their positions to exploit the breach to reach the German second line. Soon it became apparent that the Australians were running short of bombs and ammunition and were facing determined German counter-attacks. Withdrawal became necessary but it proved impossible to recover many of the wounded who, left behind, became prisoners, 1170 of them. Two thousand more were killed or wounded and recovered, together more than in any other single action of the war.

The West Yorks fared less well having reached the German defences but, unable to break into the them, withdrew suffering heavy losses from machine-gun fire as they left.

The Second Battle of Bullecourt started early on 3rd May. The Australian 6th Brigade found the wire well-cut following the bombardment and managed to break into the German line using a machine-gun barrage, though the 5th Brigade found the going harder and did not reach their objectives. Night fell after a day of attack and counter-attack. Resupply was achieved overnight but it was impossible to evacuate many of the wounded.

The 62nd (West Riding) Division on the left attacked with all three brigades, supported by tanks. The right-hand brigade fought into Bullecourt but the brigade in the centre (186th) came under heavy and sustained machine gun fire forcing it to retire. Some reached objectives beyond Bullecourt, but attacked on both unsupported flanks, were cut-off and killed or captured. One tank managed to enter the village where it was hit and set on fire. Other tanks had reached the German lines but without supporting infantry, were forced to withdraw. The Division also suffered over 3000 killed, wounded, and missing.

Positions were consolidated over the following few days with a foothold in Bullecourt held by 7th Division, who established contact with the Australian bridgehead. The Australians dug communications trenches forward to their captured stretch of the Hindenburg Line so that troops could be re-supplied and casualties evacuated. Over the following week, the British and Australian troops were subjected to continuous shelling and attack, in some cases by flame-throwers, but held their positions until fighting died down on the 15th May.

The battle confirmed some tactics, gave a glimpse of some new ones, and seriously eroded Australian confidence in British military leadership. Attacking a well defended, fortified line without sufficient artillery preparation almost guaranteed failure and high casualties. The continuing deficiencies in British Intelligence allowed mistaken optimism to guide strategic thinking. On the other hand, tanks achieved some significant small success although, unsupported by infantry, of a fleeting kind. Learning to move close behind advancing tanks would take time and increased confidence in these machines. That would come, in time.

 

Bibliography

Australians on the Western Front. Available at: http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/australians-western-front/australian-remembrance-trail/bullecourt-diggerfrance.  Accessed 22 September 2017.

LE Maner, Y., (2014) Nord Pas de Calais Remembrance Trails, Available at: http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/history/battles/the-two-battles-of-bullecourt-april-and-may-1917.html Accessed 22 September 2017.

Reed, P., (2007) Walking Arras, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military, pp. 201 to 222.

 

Some thoughts on ‘pro patria mori’

In 1915, the French Marines were disbanded and formed into a 6000 strong Brigade of Marine Fusiliers (my translation of “fusiliers marins”) consisting of two regiments of three battalions and a machine-gun company. They retained naval rankings.

After three years of fighting together, in September, one of these battalions was deployed astride Route Nationale 2 to attack strong German positions at Moulin de Laffaux.

https://lesconilquideau.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/progression-des-compagnies.jpg

The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant de vaisseau Pierre Marrast, was to attack north-east on the south side of the RN2 towards the carrieres de Fruty; their Battalion HQ was in dead ground to their rear, 100 m south-east of the road. Marrast was recently back from 4 days of leave and in buoyant spirits. His close friend, Enseigne de vaisseau Jean Dubois, had postponed his leave so he did not miss the attack, writing to his mother, “Naturally, I will come only afterwards, for I will not leave my men.”

The attack reached the carrieres de Fruty and as Dubois asked his orderly to pass him his rifle, so he could shoot at some enemy, he was killed with a shot through the head. Marrast confirmed to his company that it was the objective and started to dictate his report. As he reached the point where he described the death of Dubois, Marrast was himself hit in the head by a bullet and killed.

Jean Dubois                  Pierre Marrast

They served together, they fought together, they died together, and after the war they were buried together at the place to which their bodies were brought during the night of 15th, 16th September 1918.

It is worth pondering what it was that made these men face the prospect of death with such equanimity. They had grown up in a France humiliated by Prussia and now invaded by Germany. Memories of France’s greatness under Napoleon were part of the public consciousness. Conscription was universal in peacetime and had not long before the war been extended to three years to make up for a slower growing population. Now they were fighting for France’s freedom, glory and sense of self-worth. And their lives were on the line, as had been the lives of numerous of their colleagues who had fought with them and fallen.

It is often observed that things that have no cost have no value. The freedoms that we experience daily came at great cost, but it was a cost not paid by us. As we have inherited freedoms of great value, we have come to take them for granted, as indeed they are. Love of one’s country, home and family are right and noble, and the foundations of society. We should be willing to defend them. Yet the very idea of loving one’s country, having become conflated with the horror of excessive nationalism, has resulted in generations for whom the idea of a country of one’s own is anathema. Every attempt is made to erode national pride and consciousness in the utterly vain expectation that that will remove the danger of war. Threats to our society come from new directions and in new guises that may require as much spirit and valour as of old, though the fields of battle may not be the countryside. I wonder if there are those still willing to fight the good fight or even to recognise the enemy?

Le soldat Fauquenot

I love this grave of the soldier Jean Nicholas Fauquenot who was killed near here on 25th September 1918. The grave is outside the village of Allemant beside a grassy track that leads up out of the valley.

To the memory of our dear son and his companions in arms.

49th Infantry.

Citation of Private Jean Nicholas      Fauquenot

Joined voluntarily the Class of 1920, courageous and committed. On 25 September 1918 at Allemant (Aisne) crewing a machine-gun stayed at his post, despite heavy bombardment and though wounded, would not desert his friends.

Gloriously fallen in the heat of battle.

Military Medal

Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaves

There are many such grave monuments across the Western Front, so why should I pick out this one? Apart from a desire to commemorate the soldier, I am fascinated by the condition of the grave and that within the last few years, another matching structure has been installed on the other side of the grassy path. It is not just a bench, it is a monument.

The parents of this soldier have long since gone to join him. He is not likely to have surviving siblings and I doubt that he had fathered any children of his own. Yet, someone has thought fit to invest in a lovely monument to complement his grave so that visitors may sit in some style to admire the man.

With such dedication to a ‘soldat simple’, why should I not make a small contribution to commemorating his valour and memory?

 

I salute you soldat Fauquenot!