Tommy, p.51Richard Holmes
A major of the 10th Hussars gave the order to draw swords and hold them down along our horses’ shoulders, so that the enemy would not catch the glint of the steel, and we were told to lean down over our horses’ manes. A moment later we were wheeling into line. I can’t remember if I was scared, but I know that we were all of us very excited, and so were the horses … Then the horses started going down but we kept galloping and the next moment we were in amongst them. Oddly enough, at the moment of the real thing I remembered my old training and the sword exercise. As our line overrode the Germans I made a regulation point at a man on my offside and my sword went through his neck and out the other side. The pace of my horse carried the sword clear and I then took a German on the nearside, and I remember the jar as my point took him in the collarbone and knocked him over.152
Actions like this confirm that cavalry charges could indeed succeed. On 25 September 1916, D Squadron 19th Lancers, acting as divisional cavalry, was told that the Somme village of Gueudecourt had been abandoned by the Germans. Captain FitzGerald, the squadron leader, was ordered ‘to seize the high ground some 600 yards east of the village and establish a strongpoint there’. He trotted round behind Flers, crossed two trenches full of British infantry, picked up a troop of South Irish Horse (part of the corps cavalry regiment), met an infantry brigadier, who could tell him little, and cracked on at speed. He was in Gueudecourt before the Germans could react, and although heavy fire prevented his getting beyond it, he held the village until the infantry came up to relieve him. He lost three men killed and seven wounded. This time the chain of command, and the time elapsed from opportunity to exploitation, were both very short.
They were short, too, at Honnechy on 9 October 1918, when British and Canadian cavalry drove in the German rearguard after a brief conference in which the commander of 3rd Cavalry Division agreed with his brigadiers that the advance would peter out unless some life was injected into it. It was certainly no push-over, as Sergeant D. Brunton observed: ‘As each squadron rode forward it was met by heavy high-explosive shell and machine-gun fire, and to make matters worse a number of enemy aeroplanes appeared and, flying low, followed the advancing cavalrymen with machine-gun bullets and bombs.’153 During the action the 3rd Dragoon Guards galloped into Honnechy in squadron columns in extended order, under fire the whole way. Confronted by a brook ‘with a bad take-off’ the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Rome, an Australian, jumped it ‘in good old-fashioned style’. Not a horse refused the obstacle, and as the cavalry passed through the tired infantry, men ‘rose with a cheer and followed in support’. The capture of Honnechy enabled the Canadians to push on into nearby Reumont, and by the day’s end they had captured 400 Germans, several guns and almost 100 machine guns.
The official historian, while noting that the Cavalry Corps had captured over 500 prisoners, ten guns and about 150 machine guns on 8–10 October for the loss of 604 all ranks, sourly commented that it ‘had done nothing that the infantry, with artillery support and cyclists, could not have done itself at less cost’. This was certainly not the view of Walter Nicholson, senior administrative staff officer in XIII Corps, attacking in that very sector. ‘Here in this open country, with a beaten enemy, unprotected by wire or entrenchment, we failed to make a knock out,’ he wrote.
We brought up a colossal artillery force and fired tons of shells at the enemy. Our infantry continued behind this barrage to the exact point they had been ordered to take – and stopped. There was no soldierly skill … Our advance was the most cumbrous steam-roller affair it was possible to conceive … In fact they had learnt to manoeuvre; while we had not.154
Just beforehand, near Montbrehain, Burgon Bickersteth, on the staff of a cavalry brigade, saw:
An embankment … lined with a number of listless-looking infantrymen. I walked along the railway line looking for an officer. Seeing none I shouted for one. After a short delay two curious-looking objects, subalterns, white-faced and somewhat helpless, shuffled to their feet. I asked them where their battalion HQ was. ‘There,’ they said, pointed to some figures … ‘But there are no senior officers left,’ they added, ‘they have all been killed.’ …
A man shouted ‘here they come.’
I looked over to the right and about 400 yards off I saw the Boches advancing in a long straggly line and in little groups … Our infantry seemed to take no interest in the matter at all …
What impressed me was the utter lack of any controlling hand. All the colonels and seconds-in-command may have been killed during the morning, and here were elements of three battalions … with no idea as to who were on their flanks, if anybody, very vague as to where the Boches were, out of touch with their battalion HQ, let alone the brigade … not frightened but hopeless, not sullen or unwilling to obey, but uncertain what to do and badly led – indeed, not led at all.
Bickersteth inspired a successful defence and was awarded the MC. ‘I feel that all the men (and especially Corporal Harding) who worked with me deserve a decoration more than I do,’ he admitted.155 The episode tells us much, not least about the need for a clear controlling voice at moments of crisis with a battle teetering in the balance.
The secret, in 1918 as it had been in 1854, was tempering dash with judgement. On 8 October 1918 there were three mounted charges – the Marquess of Anglesey describes them as ‘wonderfully gallant’ – by the 19th Hussars and a troop of the 20th. It was clear that Lieutenant Colonel George Franks, commanding officer of the 19th, who had been responsible for a successful coup de main which had forced the Germans off a bridge over the Somme in March that year, had a point to prove. ‘I am the man to drop the flag and off we go to Death or Glory,’ he told his sergeants. ‘If this is successful it will be a bigger thing than the Palestine affair.’156
Although the 19th Hussars got as far as a German battery and killed several of its gunners with the sword, they could not hold their ground when a counterattack jabbed in. Sergeant Brunton, in France since 1914, and lucky to survive the day, wrote in his diary that ‘the true cavalry spirit still lives’, but admitted that it was ‘altogether a bad day’s work for the regiment’. Colonel Franks was amongst the 111 killed, and his body was buried by torchlight in the civilian cemetery at Brancourt le Grand that night. His officers erected a fine stone cross above it, and its inscription contained perhaps a hint of reproof: ‘He fell while charging some German machine guns.’157
These charges, in the very last days of the war, underline the fact that cavalry could be very useful if it moved fast, snatched fleeting opportunities, and made good use of the ground and supporting fire. But if it launched a frontal attack on an intact defence it was likely to lose: the difference between success and failure might be a matter of minutes, and there was little chance of recovery if the decision was wrong. It is also clear that, since time was always of the essence, cavalry was likely to do better if it was close-coupled to the divisional battle to make the best of brief chances, not held at a high level for deliberate strokes. And if the Cavalry Corps ultimately failed to deliver the strategic blow for which Haig thought it suited, the British were indeed fortunate that there was no German equivalent. The Germans had steadily reduced the proportion of their cavalry to other arms on the Western Front, and in March 1918 found themselves with nothing to exploit the promising success they achieved against the British astride the Somme. We have just seen how good German infantry could be routed by horsemen if caught off-balance, and the same thing happened, on a far larger scale, to robust Turkish infantry in Palestine. Artillery officers like P.J. Campbell and Arthur Behrend, seeing the pillars of their universe totter, thanked heaven that there was no German cavalry on hand to administer the decisive kick.
The cavalryman’s life on the Western Front represented the most extreme juxtaposition of ancient and modern. Corporal Harry Easton of the 9th Lancers charged at Elouges on 24 August 1914, and his account could almost come from the Napoleonic wars.
I remember very distin
Private Ben Clouting was nearby with the 4th Dragoon Guards.
Each Troop was closely packed together and dense volumes of dust were kicked up, choking us and making it impossible to see beyond the man in front … All around me, horses and men were brought hurtling to the ground … Ahead, the leading troops were brought up by agricultural barbed wire strung across the line of advance, so that horses were beginning to be pulled up when I heard for the one and only time in the war a bugle sounding ‘troops right wheel’. I pulled my horse round and then, with a crash, down she went.159
The horse again made its own ageless demands, as Private R. G. Garrod of the 20th Hussars discovered in August 1914.
My horse went lame because it had cast a shoe and I had to wait until the farrier corporal could see to it. I had no shoes left in my frog [a leather wallet attached to the saddle, with a sword-socket on its outside] and when the farrier searched his bag, he hadn’t one small enough, so he used the smallest he had … He and I then hurried along to catch up with the regiment when the horse suddenly went lame again and we found she had cast this new shoe. Shoey told me he couldn’t do anything more for me but I wasn’t to ride her, but to walk and lead her … Needless to say I didn’t walk my horse, I ran and she trotted beside me.160
As the front solidified into trench warfare, there were repeated attempts to replace the extemporised stabling of the first six months of the war by temporary stables which offered cover and hard-standing for horses. But there was sometimes little that could be done, as Ben Clouting recalled of the hard winter of 1917–18:
We tried as hard as possible to give the horses shelter, often behind the walls of partly-destroyed houses, but they suffered very badly. Mules, however, proved very successful in dealing with the exceptional weather conditions. These hardy creatures proved their importance when I saw a GS wagon stuck fast in the winter mud, despite the best efforts of two shire horses to move it. In the end the shires were unhitched and a team of four mules took over and walked away with it, their tiny feet coping much better with the suction of the mud.161
And the war imposed extra burdens of its own, as an officer of the 3rd Hussars recalled of the Somme in the autumn of 1916.
Working parties were our fate throughout October on that battle-field. Here are are a few of them: an ammunition dump devoid of great interest at Windy Docks one day took two officers and 47 men; upon another day the same dump at the same heaven-inspired spot took a similar party; yet another say the dump claimed 4 officers and 154 men. One night a cable was to be buried for the XIV Corps in what had been the village of Guillemont and 6 officers and 186 men went to bury it; but someone had forgotten the promised tools – some men were wounded, and the party returned in the early hours of the morning. A couple of nights later 2 officers and 101 men again journeyed forth to bury that cable, the tools were there this time, and the cable planted with the loss of some more wounded men.162
Hussars, once the most colourful and dashing of light cavalry, reduced to navvies in the world of earth and wire.
WITH THE RANK AND PAY OF A SAPPER
In one sense military engineering underwent no revolution in the First World War. Sappers, then as now, helped the army to fight, move and live. When the army was in retreat they blew up bridges. The first engineer VCs of the war were won on 23 August 1914 by Lance Corporal Charles Jarvis, who worked single-handed under heavy fire for an hour and a half to destroy the lock bridge at Jemappes on the Mons-Condé canal, and by Captain Theodore Wright, who made repeated though unsuccessful attempts to blow up the nearby road bridge at La Mariette, swinging hand over hand beneath it. When the army advanced, they threw pontoons across rivers whose bridges had been demolished by the Germans. At Vailly on the Aisne, on 14 September, ‘the passage of the bridge [was] kept open and controlled with great coolness’ by Captain Wright, who was killed by a shell.163 When opportunity offered they replaced pontoons with permanent structures, strengthened old bridges to bear new loads, or added fresh crossings to water obstacles which compelled the British to fight astride or across them.
Engineers provided the brains (though not always the muscle) behind the construction of everything from field fortifications to roads and camps, and many spent their time in the familiar task of trench-digging, as Lieutenant John Glubb reported in early 1916.
During the battle last month the troops suffered heavily and were too tired to bury their dead. Many of them were merely trampled into the floor of the trench, where they were soon lost in mud and water. We have been digging out a lot of these trenches again, and are constantly coming upon corpses. They are pretty well decomposed, but a pickaxe brings up chips of bone and rags of clothing. The rest is putrid grey matter.164
They also constructed railways, from spurs off the full-gauge main line to the Decauville light railways that ran up to the front. On 1 April 1917 Sergeant Will Fisher wrote: ‘In charge [of] party laying “Decaville” light railway, shift 12–8, for conveying ammunition to batteries. Line running through Bapaume town, advance parties levelling, demolishing walls.’165 They were responsible for gas delivered by cylinder, projector and mortar. They diverted civilian water supplies if they were available, or drilled for water if they were not. Searchlights were their responsibility too. The Royal Engineers Signal Service laid and maintained cable for telephone and telegraph, and could do so at speed, cross-country from a cart paying out cable from huge drums. Members of the Signal Service were responsible for all wireless communications, from GHQ down to individual sub-units with heavy batteries or tank brigades. They installed and ran power-buzzers (essentially a short-range apparatus for transmitting Morse), and furnished the army with its carrier-pigeon service. They worked closely (though not always harmoniously) with the Royal Artillery in flash-spotting and sound-ranging. By the end of the war the Royal Engineers numbered over a quarter of a million officers and men, and we cannot wonder at it.
In another sense, though, even if the sappers did not preside over military revolution, much of the change they managed was nothing if not momentous. The development of wireless communication was one such example (although it had ceased to be an engineer’s responsibility when it came to full flowering: the Corps of Signals was formed in June 1920 and became Royal that same August). Another crucial responsibility was surveying, mapping and printing. Twentieth-century armies’ reliance on maps is so obvious that it is often scarcely mentioned. However, British sojourn in France and Belgium in 1914–18 was accompanied by the need to produce accurate maps on a previously undreamed-of scale. Some were area maps for which French and Belgian national resources provided at least a basis, although the British preferred contours rather than the height-hachuring of continental maps. Others were trench maps on a much larger scale, required in large numbers and subject to frequent change as battle ebbed and flowed.
There were only three trained survey officers in the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, but the Topographical Sub-Section of GHQ (‘Maps GHQ’) came into its own in 1915, when it ordered the re-drawing of all trench maps on a scale of 1:10,000. There was the familiar tension between various parts of the army – 2nd Army, for example, retained its own series of map-sheets covering its front – and individual field survey companies, one for each army, pressed ahead with their own experiments and innovations. No. 3 field survey Company broke new ground when it brought out a privately-purchased printing machine and process camera in early 1917, which enabled it to produce daily situation maps. In June 1918 the Field Survey companies were renamed battalions, not before time as many had previously had a strength of more than a thousand officers and men. It has been
Map users certainly noticed the improvements. Lieutenant Roe recalled that early trench maps, drawn on sections of bigger topographical sheets,
were invariably most inaccurate … Any inaccuracies would almost certainly occasion completely unnecessary casualties. Accuracy was literally a vital necessity. Keeping these large-scale maps up to date so that they could be completely depended upon was also of paramount importance. Forward saps and listening posts, shell craters, machine-gun posts of the enemy and fixed rifle stands had to be determined and mapped … We also included contours and the colour of vegetation at different times of year in no-man’s-land, for yellow grasses were more dangerous than green ones, even on night patrols because of silhouette difficulties.167
But Bernard Martin tells us just how much better things had become by Third Ypres in 1917.
One day Watson showed me the new Trench Map to be issued to us for the Big Push. Printed by Ordance Survey, Southampton, it was the first map I’d seen which gave names to all the trenches, ours and the enemy’s. Older maps gave a few names, such as farms and woods … and names given at various times by our men – Old Kent Road, Shrapnel Corner, Clapham Junction, Tower Hamlets and so on. The new map had names for every trench, hundreds of them; odd words without meaning as though taken from a dictionary but in groups, starting with a particular letter. For trenches in our possession the letter I (Imp Avenue, Illusive, Imperfect, Image Crescent, etc) and enemy trenches with letter J (Jehovah, Jordan, Jericho, Java etc).168
Tommy by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes