Thursday 7 August 2014

Ulster's Cavalry Units at the Somme, 1916

Indian cavalry await the order to advance on the Somme, 14 July 1916.

British Cavalry played an outstanding part in the opening battles of the Great War 1914-18 and none of them played a more valiant part than the Ulster Cavalry Regiments.

During the winter of 1914 the opposing armies had "gone to ground" and the war developed into 'A war of Attrition' in its most ghastly form. It soon became obvious that the traditional role of cavalry was becoming less and less apparent, cavalry could not be expected to manoeuvre over the vast fortified trench systems dug into the terrain and protected by masses of vicious barbed-wire. The Cavalry with its long traditions of the battles of past centuries was in for a period of uncertainty as to its future. It was not until the closing 18 months of the war that the cavalry became identified with the fighting armoured vehicles in the form of "Tanks". These new inventions of war were at first used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 but were originally manned by men of the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Section). Since then the Cavalry have developed into what we now know as the Royal Armoured Corps and carry with them in their modern role the great traditions of the old cavalry regiments.

For about eighteen months prior to the opening of the Battle of the Somme the Cavalry Corps, with a few exceptions, were dismounted and put into the trenches in the role of Infantry. In May 1916 when preparations were in progress for the forthcoming offensive on the Somme, all Cavalry Units were taken out of the trenches and remounted on their horses. The Cavalry Corps comprising some three Divisions was assembled at some distance behind the Somme Front and they went into strenuous training in the hope that the great offensive would produce a breakthrough where the Cavalry could exploit the situation in their traditional role. This, however, did not materialize and as the great Battle of the Somme progressed it became apparent that due to the appalling conditions on the ground, the heavily fortified positions all along the front attacked, with thousands of tactically sited machine-guns, all these defences protected by deep belts of barbed wire many up to 100 yards in depth, and all this supported by artillery of all calibres it would be quite impossible to use cavalry in their normal role. However the Cavalry were held in readiness for the expected breakthrough; this never came and in many cases the Cavalry Regiments were again dismounted and took their place in the battle as Infantry. The 8th. Royal Irish Hussars played an important part at the Battle of Bazentin 14-17 July, the 6th. Inniskilling Dragoons were used about this time in the work of consolidation of newly won positions and generally in support of the Infantry, always keeping their mounts within easy reach in readiness in case of the hoped for exploitation. Such an opportunity presented itself near "Flers" in September on the day "Tanks" were used for the first time, but it did not materialise.

Mark I 'Male' Tank of 'C' Company that broke down crossing a British trench on its way
to attack Thiepval on 25th September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

The Cavalry while not so deeply involved in the battles on the Somme nevertheless played an important and noteworthy part throughout the Battle of the Somme 1916. The Ulster Cavalry Regiments were awarded the battle honours: "Albert, 1916", "Somme 1916", "Bazentin", "Flers-Corcelette" and "Morval".

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Image top: National Army Museum (NAM. 2001-01-279-77).
Image bottom: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 2486).


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