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.
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.
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.