Thursday, 28 August 2014

Tales from the Huts (part 1)

What it is Like at the Front Just Now

By Sir Robert Baden-Powell

THE country in which I now am, near Albert, consists of wide, open, rolling uplands, not a hedge to be seen, and trees only along the great high-roads or down in the hollows. The whole land is cultivated, and covered with a rime of frozen snow, across which a cutting wind is always sweeping.

Never a farm or cottage in sight; these are all clustered together in villages down in the valleys alongside the chalk streams. Barns and hay-lofts, stables and cart-sheds, form convenient billets for the men fresh from those white zig-zag lines across the hillsides -- the trenches.

Here and there a smashed-up pie of a house shows that we are still within the reach of shells, but in this district every cottage has its cellars, which act as ready-made "bomb- proofs," and chalked on the wall outside one sees the legend, "Cave pour 30 hommes."

Clustered under the lee-side of the houses one sees these "hommes" very different from the smart Tommies as we know them at home.

Workmanlike and picturesque one finds them at the Front. Muffled as they are in sheepskin woolly coats, stocking caps and mufflers, and splashed and caked with mud right up to their shoulders, one would scarcely recognise them as British soldiers were it not for the cheery though grimy faces and the remarks and songs that they keep dealing out.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"Rats? Plenty of them, sir! Why, they just swarm through these barns."

While he speaks of it a rat comes swanking between our feet. An officer catches him in the ribs with his stick; the dying rat turns round and looks at him with an injured expression, as though to say: "What did you do that for?" as he dies in a puddle.

"Tame? Why, only this morning my mate was lying there asleep, snoring, when I got up, and there was a rat sitting on his chest washing its face within three inches of his snore! . . . No, sir, they may have eaten others, but they are not likely to eat my face at any rate, though they often take a bite out of my hair!

The woodwork, the straw, and the ground itself are swarming with lice, so that between the various plagues of rats, lice and shells it is not surprising that the men get little rest.

Hot baths are arranged for in holes dug out and lined with tarpaulin, and shirts are washed in chemicals, but the results are not very permanent; just a few hours and the men are infested again.

"What do we do in the evenings? Well, there is no light after five, and fires are dangerous in the barns; the wind whistles through the walls and the sleet drives through the roof. There is only one thing to do, and that is to roll up in your blankets, and if you have any tobacco to smoke it, and to try and make the best of things with the rats outside and the lice inside. But concrete floors are not what you might call hot-beds, and are mighty hard."

Close by a pigsty with brick walls and tiled roof had been cleaned out, and within were two stretchers made of sacking and poles supported on bricks. A little brazier made out of an old tin biscuit box, and a candle stuck in a bottle, gave by contrast a comfortable atmosphere.

"You are snug enough here at any rate?"

"Yes, sir. Learnt it scouting. We were Boy Scouts." But this was the exception.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"A club, sir? If it were only a room with a dry floor and light and warmth, where one could get a cup of coffee and meet the other chaps, if would be just a godsend. We should not then be lying in our blankets in the dark, thinking of the pals that have gone, and wondering how long this fun has got to last. Why, I often feel I would rather be back in the frozen slush of the trenches. There, at any rate, you have got something doing!"

The value of the Y.M.C.A. Huts at the front does not lie merely in their supplying the creature comforts to the soldiers; a still greater value lies behind, since they tend to keep bright in the men that splendid spirit which is just now so conspicuous at the front. It is that spirit which, I believe, is going to pull us through to victory in the end.

Napoleon long ago said that in war the moral is as three to one more powerful than the material force. Under the terrible strain on mind as well as on body, which has to be endured in the present-day warfare in the trenches, it is only reasonable to expect that the cheery spirit of our men must go down unless they can get a good change of surroundings in their rest billets.

As I have said, these rest billets are not such gaudily cheerful places as they might be. I feel, therefore, that by setting up bright, warm clubs, where the men can meet and have their fun and get their good feeding, a great step will have been taken towards keeping up their spirits, and so towards tuning them up for the tremendous task which lies before them.

For this reason no effort is too great, no money ill-expended, where it is devoted to providing Recreation Huts for the Front.

[SIR ROBERT BADEN-POWELL entered his sixtieth year last February. It is forty years since he joined the Army. His active service was varied, for he served in India, Afghanistan, South Africa, Zululand, and Matabeleland. For his splendid defence of Mafeking, the close of which added a new word to the English language, he was promoted Major-General. All his life he has been fond of art, and his black-and-white work has often appeared in the illustrated papers. ED.]

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

True Till Death.

"YES," said my blue-clad companion, as he shook his head, "'True till Death' would be a suitable epitaph to place upon many a cross that marks the last resting-place of the heroes who have fallen abroad. All of them have not secured the Victoria Cross, but more lads have earned it than the few whose names are in the daily papers and who have been decorated by our King.

"I will tell you of one sight I saw, and the memory of it will always make me proud to be a Britisher -- though a lump may rise in my throat as I recall the splendid heroism of that boy who was so true till death. He was only a lad, and the early years of his manhood had been spent behind the counter of a draper's shop in a small provincial town. But his yard measure was no index to the length he could go for the sake of his King and Country.

"He was a despatch runner -- which is always a dangerous job to take on -- and he worked between our lines and those of our gallant French allies who joined us upon our left. Our first line of trenches had been gassed by the Germans upon the previous night, and was then in their hands. The ground he had to cover was a death-trap to him each time he ventured out to carry his messages. What those despatches contained, none of us knew, but they did mean either victory or defeat to ourselves and our French comrades.

"I did not know the boy to speak to, though he was well-known to me by sight. I had watched him, three or four times a day, crawling up and down the near side of the hedge that fringed the road between our lines. He was as game as they make them, with the instinct of a wild animal, and as reckless of danger as -- well, as a Tommy.

"It was upon the third day after I had first noticed him, and early in the morning, that I saw him come creeping down towards us. He was upon his stomach, and nosing the ground like a setter. But I observed that, at quick intervals, he kept stopping and resting, with his face turned eagerly towards us, and his throat gasping for breath. The bullets were splashing up the mud all round him, as I had seen them do upon many a similar trip, but he only tightened the grip of his hand upon his side where the papers lay, and struggled a few feet nearer to us.

"It was then that the Turcos (the French colonial troops) were advancing across the near fields to reinforce us, and we were eagerly expecting the order to advance.

"But, before the boy could reach our trenches, he had to cross the road, where he lost the meagre shelter of the hedge, and was fully exposed to the open fire of the snipers. I could see that he was wounded, and that each movement of his body was an agony to him, but he struggled bravely on. I could almost hear his gasps as he reached the road. Then he stopped, and his hand fell limp against his side.

"His last word was a cry for help, for he knew that his time had come. But one of our lads was already on his way to the spot, and there was not a man who watched him but whose heart did not thrill with pride at knowing that he came of the same stock as those two grand men. The dying boy had only strength to feebly draw out his papers, and I could see the cruel red stain upon his hand. Then he kissed them as lovingly as a mother would kiss the babe at her breast, and gave them to his mate almost grudgingly.

"As he fell back into the mud, many an eye was dim at the sight, but a mighty cheer went up from our boys as the papers were brought safely into our trench.

"I think it was the sight of those two glorious deeds that inspired us to do what followed. For the orders contained in that despatch were the very ones we were so anxiously longing for. We were to advance at once and storm the enemy's lines. Each one of us now felt that he had another crime to avenge -- another deed of imperishable heroism to prove worthy of, for the sake of that boy who lay lifeless upon the road.

"The officer who led us fell dead within the first twenty yards, but, with a leader or without one, nothing could stop us then. We were like hungry, wild beasts set loose in a butcher's shop, and we not only took back the trench that had been lost to us, but we captured the German first line as well, and neither of them has gone out of our possession since that day.

"We left many of our poor lads dead behind us, but the figure that will always remain in my memory is that of the dying despatch runner, whose last breath was a kiss that brought us victory."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The End of the Dream


ALL night long a terrific cannonade shook the very earth, and the sickly fumes of lyddite were wafted into the trenches by a damp March wind. A few star shells dropped their blue lights into the black vault of heaven, and the ubiquitous searchlight played in ghostly fashion over the devastated country. In the morning it was quiet again ; hardly a sound broke the stillness save the deep rumble of artillery far to the west. The same programme, exact in every detail, was repeated day after day until men spat with exasperation at the enforced inactivity, and performed the most foolhardy tricks on the trench parapet in full view of the enemy.

"Spragge," said the corporal one evening, "did you ever think you could kill a man, deliberately and calmly?"


"How did it come, then, the first experience?"

There was a brief silence, then the answer came slowly and softly.

"There has been no first experience for me."

The corporal started with surprise. "How can you know that?"

"I never shoot to hit a man."

The corporal shrank back, almost speechless with amazement.

"My God! You tell me that!" he muttered. It was inexplicable and withal terrible. He felt a sensation akin to that a man feels in the presence of any abnormal being. He considered well every aspect of the question. Here were brave men filled with a common ideal, fighting for the very existence of their nation, and yet one among them, from motives which were utterly unfathomable to any ordinary being, shrunk from the duty necessity imposed upon him. He strove honestly to see things from the other's point of view. Argued from the stand-point of humanitarianism and idealism, perhaps even Christianity itself, it was unmeet to take human life coldly and deliberately, yet, he argued, there were extenuations. The enemy constituted an ever-present menace, and self-defence was always warrantable. The problem grew on his mind and tortured his few sleeping hours, yet he could not harbour the spirit of repulsion which he felt was consistent with the occasion. The quiet, big man with his massive head and delightful eloquence had impressed him in a way he had never imagined. Could such a being really be but a husk, a poor, spiritless, lifeless thing, cankered by a damning ideal? It was all too horrible. For three days he spoke not a word to Spragge.

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn broke with a magnificence unusual for the time of the year. Spragge, on his pile of bricks, watched the far horizon change from a river of red to a flood of gold, then, seeing the corporal near him, quoted:

"But forth one wavelet, then another, curled,
Till the whole sunrise, not to be supprest
Rose-reddened, and its seething breast
Flickered in bounds, grew gold, then overflowed the world."

The corporal pretended not to hear, and commenced vigorously to clean his rifle, but a mere glance at his half-averted face was sufficient to make clear the deception. 

"What's the matter?" asked Spragge.

"Oh, nothing."

"Is it nothing that makes you shun me like the leper?"

"Have I shunned you?"

"I think it has been fairly obvious."

"Spragge!" -- after a brief silence. "Why did you tell me that?"

"Tell you what?"

"You know -- the other night."

"You asked me."

"Yes, yes, I know; but there were ways of evasion. Why did you make me lose my respect for you?"

Spragge looked at him curiously, then half closed his eyes in his dreamy manner.

"So you despise me for that? Despise me because I dared tell you my heart's truth. Is it so very terrible that I cannot kill in cold blood? Do you tell me that you do not hate yourself every time when you speed the bullet that takes a man's life? If I thought that you could kill and kill and be happy -- knowing that you had robbed a mother of her son, a wife maybe of her husband, I would never look at you again."

"My God!" cried the other hotly. "You talk like a madman! Where is your honour -- your patriotism, your ------"

"Honour! Patriotism!" interrupted Spragge. "So, to save my honour I must wreck my ideals, submerge my soul in a ghastly ocean of torment and iniquity! When some poor wretch writhes in pain and agony, I must praise God because thereby my honour is upheld!"

Then he changed his tone of bitterness, and, catching hold of the corporal's sleeve, whispered, rather than spoke. "Don't judge me too harshly, Annesley, we are all God's creatures, and are cast in a mould ordained for us. You don't know how it hurts. If I could act as they act" (inclining his head towards the other men), "I should save myself the acutest mental torment; but I can't, simply can't. Do you believe that?"

"Then why did you come here, where men must fight and kill and slaughter? There's a duty to be done, no matter its sternness."

"There were strange reasons. I watched day by day the stream of khaki figures streaming through the village. Each day they came and went, and each day I envied them the more. Then my mother's eyes -- very soft and very grave. I could not stand their eloquent reprovals. Half the night I thought on it. Sacrifice -- that is a great thing, for no evolution of ego can be perfected without it. It seemed to me that half the world was mad, and yet out of its madness grew the white flower of sacrifice, the symbol of the Cross.

"What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England, my own?"

Oh, it was all so clear and distinct -- my duty -- and so I came. But to kill ------"

He sat down, resting his head on his hands, and the corporal, unable to control his emotion, left him.

The news crept with amazing speed through the trenches. An assault was about to begin. Men whispered to each other gleefully and yet a little nervously, and each clutched his rifle with more than usual fondness. At the back of them the roar of the massed guns was ear-splitting. The fussy sergeant-major bustled about very excitedly. "Now then, you fellows, out you come, and when you hear the whistle go, hook it 'hell for leather.' Make good the trenches by the trees yonder, near the brickworks."

They scrambled out of the filthy pits they had occupied for three weary weeks, and experienced the magic sensation of treading good terra firma, covered by the terrible fire of a wonderful artillery. Spragge stood with the rest, very pale, but very upright. The corporal walked up to him and looked at him queerly.

"I just wanted to thank you -- in case -- One never knows."

They gripped hands for a second, and then the whistle blew.

Off they went like hounds from the leash, whooping like wild beings, skirting shell-holes and leaping over tree-trunks which, broken and scarred, were strewn over the lacerated ground. They reached the first line of trenches, which were nothing more than an unrecognisable pit of death with dismembered corpses half hidden in the smashed soil. Hardly a soul lived to dispute the advance. At the next line of trenches it was the same death and desolation. The havoc wrought by the massed artillery was immense, incredible. Near the village the resistance began. A dozen machine guns close by, masked in an orchard, rained a perfect hail of lead, and men dropped like ninepins. To the right a Scottish regiment were decimated by a pitiless fire which they were utterly unable to locate; yet they came on, sternly and doggedly, heads down and bayonets flashing, literally climbing over their dead in their dreadful determination. It was all very terrible, yet wonderful, and the little corporal, with a painful flesh wound, wondered where Spragge was, and forgot his own hurt and the hell in which he moved in an effort to imagine the other's feelings and sensations. Could he keep those ideals in the face of present events?

How long it lasted the corporal never knew. All the time he dwelt in a world far removed from that in which he ordinarily moved. Though men dropped in thousands, he experienced not one pang of remorse; it all seemed to be quite right and proper, and his mind had adapted itself to the situation with a readiness which was alarming but comforting. When eventually the whistle sounded and the fighting was over, he came to his proper state of mind in a series of connected transitions.

He moved painfully and slowly among the stretcher-bearers and ambulance wagons, and eventually found Spragge resting on a pile of sand-bags.

The latter looked at him wistfully.

"It's all over," he remarked.

"Yes. Thank God!"

Spragge wrinkled his brows and sat for a moment silent and pensive.

"It was terrible -- horrible," he remarked.

"What, the fighting?"

"No. What we found in a house at the back of the church."

The corporal looked at him interrogatively. The other resumed slowly and painfully.

"She was only twenty, and she showed us what they had done to her. Oh, I can't tell you -- it's too -- too terrible even to relate. Her husband and child too butchered and mutilated. If -- if --"

Phut! A bullet struck a sand-bag within a few inches of the corporal's chest. He started in surprise. They stepped into the shelter of a doorway and waited a few minutes. Then Spragge climbed on a heap of debris and thrust his rifle through the shell-hole. There was a loud report, and the corporal, peering round the doorway, saw in the distance a grey-clad figure drop from a tree. He turned towards Spragge.

"Eighteen!" said the latter, laconically.

To be continued...

These stories appeared in Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift Book published in 1916.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Told in the Huts: The YMCA Gift Book (1916)

While much has been said of the men who donned khaki or navy blues, not as much has been said of those who volunteered in a different way. The YMCA was one of a number of organisations which played a major role in the support of the troops both at home and in the field.

Within weeks of the outbreak of the war, they had set up hundreds of recreation centres -- which became known as 'huts' -- providing tea, sandwiches and reading materials, usually around train stations and transit junctions.

In late 1914 huts where set up in France around the main army bases there and by the end of 1915 there were hundreds more established throughout the area of operations some very close to the front lines.

YMCA workers were mainly women, the men usually having been too old for military service or declared medically unfit. It has been estimated that at any one time, 1,500 YMCA workers were in France and Flanders alone.

For information on the work of the YMCA in France see my post of Arthur K. Yapp's book The Romance of the Red Triangle.

In 1916, to help fund their work with "our soldiers, sailors & munition workers, in all parts of the world," the YMCA produced a book entitled Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift book. With illustrations by Cyrus Cunego the book contained stories and poems contributed by soldiers and YMCA workers.

Over the next few weeks I intend to reproduce many of those stories. The paintings contained in the book, along with several sketches, can be found on my Facebook page.

An Introduction by Arthur K. Yapp

OH! that the Huts could speak! What tales they would have to tell! Huts that are not huts! Huts that are mere stables or farm outbuildings! Huts that are palatial establishments catering for the needs of thousands of men.

The little brown Hut made of timber, and roofed with felt, serving the men at outposts in the danger zone of the East Coast -- on the wilds of Salisbury Plain -- dotted about in hundreds of camps in all parts of the United Kingdom.

What a romantic story could be told by the dug-out Hut at Anzac! What did the Turks do with it when our men evacuated the Peninsula? Or the Huts that are as busy as beehives on the banks of the Tigris, in the wilds of British or German East Africa, or on either bank of the Suez Canal! What stories they could tell!

Then there are the Huts in France. One wishes those in the great Base Camps could tell their story of men heartened by the touch they have given them of home life when far away from home; of the splendid concerts and cinema entertainments; crowded meetings when men have felt themselves stirred to the depths at the Old, Old Story that has been told in all its simplicity, but with persuasive earnestness that has carried conviction, and has helped them to realise as they left the meetings to go "up the line" that they were not facing the ordeal of battle alone.

The Hostel Huts, too, where the friends of dangerously wounded men are entertained by the Y.M.C.A. free of charge! If they could tell what they have seen and heard, it would be one of the most human stories ever told a story of broken hearts bound up by the loving hands of Christian sympathy and love.

And what of the Huts at the Fronts in France and Flanders? The Y.M.C.A. Hut and the Y.M.C.A. man, both bearing the mystic sign of the Red Triangle, mean everything to the men in khaki in Flanders. The French people speak of the Y.M.C.A. as "Les Ygrec em ce ah," and will pass its red triangle anywhere. "Tommy Atkins" calls it "home," and to him it stands for all that is best and truest and noblest in "dear old Blighty" as he affectionately terms the land he loves "across the sea."

This book tells a few of the thousands of stories of reckless daring and deathless heroism that have been recounted from time to time in the Huts of the Y.M.C.A. It also recounts some of the more prosaic tales that our splendid men delight to tell one another in the Huts. The book has not been prepared with a view to "boosting" the Y.M.C.A., but incidentally it draws attention to one of the greatest social and religious movements of our time.

The Story of the Ploegsteert Hut.

When the Right Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill was in Flanders, he happened to be on duty with his men in the trenches on the ridge of Ploegsteert Wood. It was a Saturday night in early spring. All was quiet, and as "black as pitch." Shortly before midnight a star shell shot up from the German trenches and lit up the whole countryside with an unearthly brilliance. This was followed by others, and the effect was weird in the extreme. Presently the shriek of a shell indicated that the enemy contemplated an attack. The shell burst in flames in front of the little Y.M.C.A. Hut. The noise of the explosion roused the workers in the Hut, and in less than four minutes they had slipped into their clothes and taken shelter in the dug-out which had been previously prepared fifteen yards to the rear of the building. They had only reached safety in the nick of time. A second shell burst inside the Hut, and the flames shot up sky-high, and for an hour and a half the Huns "strafed" the hill and wood for all they were worth, pouring in thousands of shells of every size and description. With the morning light not a vestige of the Hut was to be seen. A Y.M.C.A. worker, searching amidst the ruins, found the shrivelled-up rims of his eye-glasses, and a soldier hunting for souvenirs found two coins, a two-franc piece and a twenty-centime piece welded together by the heat. That was all that was left of the "home" the boys had loved for months past.

One striking incident of the night remains to be told. Whenever there came a moment's lull between the booming of the guns, nightingales sung in the Ploegsteert Wood as if nothing out of the common was taking place.

The Story of the Huston Hut.

The charming little Y.M.C.A. Hut that serves the men arriving at or departing from Euston Station was the first Hut with sleeping accommodation opened by the Y.M.C.A. in London during the War. In the early days as many as 420 men, passing through London on their way to or from the Front, have sought its friendly shelter on a single night.

Seven Scottish soldiers found their way in one morning. They were tired, home-sick, and depressed. Even a good square meal was not sufficient to revive their drooping spirits. They had said good-bye to their wives and bairns the day before, and had travelled through the night in a crowded train, so that they had been unable to sleep a wink. They were on their way to the Dardanelles, and well they knew what they had to face. Chancing to look over the counter into the kitchen, one of the men -- McTavish, we will call him -- saw a lady worker shelling peas, and summoning all his courage -- for these men, brave as they are, are very shy -- asked if he might come and help her. Of course she welcomed him, and later on his six comrades came forward to assist in the operation. That morning they shelled enough peas to last a week. When they had completed the self- imposed task, McTavish spoke again: "I cannot tell ye the like of what that has meant to us. It has taken us right back home, and now we are ready to go to the Dardanelles or to face whatever the future may have in store."

A touch of home, that is what the men find in the Huts. There is nothing official about them, and the one commodity they do not possess is "red-tape." The boys yearn for home!

One day the Leader of the Euston Hut noticed a group of ragged children gathered outside the main entrance. He watched them as they approached nearer and nearer the door. Some of them summoned up their courage and walked right in as if they owned the whole place. This was too much for him. He went up to them and said, " You must run away; this place is not for boys and girls, it is for soldiers and sailors." One little ragged urchin looked up in his face and said, "Please, sir, we have given our money towards this show and we want to see how it is run." When he made enquiries he found that they belonged to one of the poorest of the schools in the North of London, and out of their poverty they had given no less than thirty shillings, nearly the whole of it in halfpennies and farthings, towards the cost of the work of the Y.M.C.A.

To be continued...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Irish Guards at the Somme

Two battalions of the Irish Guards, the 1st. and 2nd. Battalions, took part in the Battle of the Somme 1916. Both battalions were in the Guards Division and the principal actions in which they played an outstanding part were fought out during September 1916 in the battles officially known as "Flers-Courcelette" and "Morval" and embracing such memorable actions as the battles of Ginchy, Guillemont and Lesboeufs and over ground soaked with the blood of their fellow countrymen in the 16th. (Irish) Division a few days earlier.

We will recount the doings of the 1st. Battalion. Two days will always stand out as milestones in the History of the Irish Guards namely 15th. and 25th. September, 1916. Much is already known about the appalling ground conditions - the all prevailing mud and slime, the wreckage and stench of death, to make it necessary to go into any detail here, suffice to say that on these two days the 1st. Battalion lost 99% of its strength. It was on 15th. that the 1st. Bn. advanced at Ginchy in face of the most concentrated machine-gun fire from the "Orchard" and despite the most severe losses held the ground they had so valiantly fought over that day. The landscape at Ginchy was somewhat like the map of the moon. All known signs, landmarks and the like were obliterated, everybody knew the direction of the attack was to be N37 but that was about the only guide. The Guards Division launched itself forward into a veritable sleet of machine-gun and shell-fire and battered their way with bomb and bayonet until they reached a position where they could see the countryside between Flers and Lesboeufs - rooftops complete with tiles and a countryside that seemed normal was a change from the "Hellhole" that was their present position. The Germans fortified by the knowledge that the assault by the 6th. Div. between Ginchy and Leuze Wood had failed, thanks to the driving fire from the "Quadrilateral", were giving the Guards Division their complete attention, thus every shell-burst and burst of machine-gun fire found its way into the ranks of the Guards, but they did not flinch. They held on to the ground they had gained at such a cost. On September l6th the remnants of the battalion were relieved by the Lincolns of the 62nd. Brigade.

We come now to the attack on 25th September. This had limited objectives - German trenches and not merely lines drawn across a map. It concerned, too, a name which is stamped well in the deeds of valour of our Irish Troops - "Lesboeufs" - Of course the battalion had been reinforced with drafts from home since their ordeal on 15th.

The attack opened on a fine Sunday morning at 12.55 hrs. Our barrage locked down 200 yards ahead of the 'Micks', Nos. 1 and 2 Companies moved out with the rest of the line towards the German trenches. Immediately the enemy put down counter barrages and the hair began to fly. Our Artillery fire was much better than on 15th and it enabled the 'Micks' to take all their objectives one after another until finally they had fought through to the northern end of Lesboeufs where they consolidated and firmly held the position. Thousands of Germans were taken prisoner on this day, they were stunned and demoralized by the ferocity of the attacks upon them but on the other hand they seemed pleased to be out of it all. On our side of the scale the Irish Guards lost one officer killed, 10 wounded and 250 Other Ranks killed - Thus in the two attacks in this area within ten days we lost a full battalion.

The 2nd. Battalion was also involved in these battles on 15th. and 25th. September 1916. During the slogging match on 15th. the 2nd. Bn. amongst whose officers was a Captain H.R. Alexander (Field-Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis), performed very valiantly in the tough fighting which the Guards Division encountered on this day. The battalion suffered severely as they were involved in all the desperate actions of that fateful day. One hundred and sixty-six survivors were all that remained of the 2nd. Bn. when the roll was called, a high price indeed was paid for the ground in front of Lesboeufs.

For the attack on 25th. the 2nd. Bn. were in reserve and when the call came on 16th. they took over from the 1st. Bn., again shattered for the second time in ten days. The Battalion held the positions gained on 25th. by 1st. Bn. east of Lesboeufs.

General Rawlinson, who commanded the IV Army said it was the vigorous attacks of the Guards Division under very trying conditions which won the day. They pressed forward the attack in face of a great concentration of enfilade fire from both flanks. Perhaps it would be right to say that the Guards Division by their success in capturing these key enemy positions was one of the main reasons which forced the eventual German withdrawal "according to plan" to the Hindenburg Line.

A solemn but beautiful reminder of the achievements of the Guards in this sector of the Somme battlefront is the well laid out and beautiful Guards Military Cemetery at Lesboeufs.

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.

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).