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