Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Baharia Expedition

By late August 1916, five blockhouses had been built and a sixth (B.6) was nearing completion along the Darb el Rubi track, from Samalut on the Nile towards Baharia. The light railway too was expected to reach B.6 by early October. During this period the main Senussi force, estimated at 1,800 men, was in Dakhla, the richest of the oases.

By October, Sir A. Murray was ready to reoccupy Baharia, and ordered the new Western Force commander, Major-General W. A. Watson to commence operations against it. News leaked to Sayed Ahmed, who had advanced from Dakhla to Baharia with most of his force. Ahmed retreated to Siwa from 8–10 October. An attempt was made to try and cut off the rear guard by a concentration of light cars but despite their weakened state due to hunger and illness they were able to escape.

The "warders of the desert"

It was now known that the force in Dakhla was much smaller and likely to retire soon. Watson decided to attack from Kharga. The force contained sixty men with a Rolls-Royce armoured car and a tender, six Fords and twelve motorcycles, two Vickers and two Lewis guns supported by a company of the Camel Corps. The cars reached Dakhla on 17 October, 48 hours ahead of the Camel Corps, but it was found that most of the Senussi had gone, apart from a party of about 120 men at Budkhulu in the middle of the oasis, who were taken prisoner. With the arrival of the Camel Corps on 19 October, 40 more prisoners were taken. With further patrols in the area the oasis and its 20,000 occupants had been cleared of the Senussi by the end of October. Garrisons were installed at Dakhla and Baharia and civilian government restored.

The Senussi had played the game, from their point of view, extremely well. That had kept a very considerable force from participating in the war against the Turks for many months. The result had been the expenditure of vast resources in building the block houses and the railway, all now of limited value. They had waited until the last possible moment when the block house line was completed and the railway very nearly so, before disappearing.

Sayed Ahmed was attacked and defeated at Siwa at the beginning of February 1917, by a force of aroured cars from Sollum under Brig.-General H.W. Hodgson. This finally liquidated the Wester Desert campaign by discrediting Sayed Ahmed and destroying his influence.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Band of Oases

Commencing in February 1916 Senussi forces under Sayyid Ahmed, occupied the Baharia, Farafra, Dakkla and Kharga oases to the west of the Nile. This necessitated the 53rd Division and three brigades of dismounted Yeomanry being distributed in garrisons in Upper Egypt from Fayum to Assiut, for the whole summer.

Initially posted to Minia, some 150 miles south of Cairo, the role of the Cheshire Yeomanry was to assist in the capture and occupation of the Baharia Oasis.
“The main difficulty of the operation was the lack of any water between the Nile and the oasis. On top of this, the desert was extremely difficult to cross in places. The advance, therefore, had to be gradual in order to enable supplies to keep pace with it. To protect the lines of communications, block houses were built every ten to 12 miles. They were known as B.1, B.2, etc. Railhead for the Baharia Expedition, as it was called, was then at Samalut, close to the Nile, while the advance post was at Shusha some ten miles to the west. It was from Shusha that the block house line ran out into the desert in the direction of the oasis. At the end of April, B.4 was nearing completion. 
“As regards supplies, all food, petrol, stores and a great deal of the water required for the maintenance of the Shusha garrison and the block houses, has to be sent up from Samalut. The same was true for the materials required for the construction of the new block houses.” (The Cheshire Yeomanry, by Lt.-Col. Sir Richard Verdin, 1971)
At the same time as the block house line was gradually extended a light railway was being constructed into the desert. Progress was rapid thanks to the efforts of the Egyptian Labour Corps.

The Light Desert Railway constructed
at the rate of a mile & a half a day
Friendly natives
who are employed on the railway
(photographs by T.B. Minshall of "C" Squadron, Cheshire Yeomanry)

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Boar’s Head

On 3 March the 13th (Forest of Dean) Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment departed from Southampton, arriving at Le Havre around 6:30am the following morning. From here they moved to Thiennes in northern France, arriving on 6 March.

As Pioneers for the 39th Division they were kept busy. Moving around the region through March and April their work included making roads, constructing strong points and barbed wire entanglements, reclaiming old trenches, building dug-outs and making breast works. By 14 April they billeted in Essars and engaged in draining, making and reclaiming trenches to the rear of the front line.

On 12 April 1916 William Britton of Hotwells, Bristol, was posted to the 13th Battalion. The battalion War Diary records a draft of men arriving at Essars on 20 May and it appears highly likely that William was amongst these men where he joined D Company (an additional draft of 3 other ranks (O.R.) also arrived on the 29th).

The Battalion remained at Essars until 16 June, when they moved north east to new billets at La Couture. Here work continued on road, repair and breastwork. At the end of June there was to be a trench attack and on 25 June a party of 9 officers and 285 men moved to Pacaut to practice pioneer work in connection with this. The attack took place on the night of 29/30 June on the ‘Boar’s Head’ section of German front line near Richebourg l’Avoue (seen on the centre of the 1917 trench map below). Two parties of the Battalion comprising B and C companies were ordered to extend communication trenches, whilst A and D companies on the flanks were to construct right and left flank breastworks respectively.

Trench map from January 1917.
British trenches (blue) / German trenches (red)
'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland'
Sketch map that accompanied the
"Notes on attack on German Front Line, North of the BOAR's HEAD"
13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, War Diary

In the face of shelling and machine gun fire the attacking infantry were prevented from being reinforced and were running out of ammunition. The pioneers were able to complete some of their work despite these hostile conditions and attacks from German bombing parties. It is not known if William Britton was one of the D Company men, however illustrative of the difficulties encountered, following is the Company report of their part in the attack:
On looking over the parapet at 3.10 the remnants of the third infantry wave coming back under heavy shelling and Machine Gun fire. They were also being bombed from the German front line. Under these circumstances the work was out of question, and the officer in charge of the party reported to the Infantry Commander and manned portions of our front line till ordered to get his party out of the line between 7 and 8 a.m.
13th Battalion casualties as a result of this attack were 1 officer killed and 4 wounded, and 10 other ranks killed, 57 wounded and a further 13 missing.

The Battalion War Diary notes that on the evening of 1 July “2nd Lieut. Vowles with one Sergt. went out to try to recover wounded reported still alive in NO MAN’S LAND.” The was unsuccessful.

On 3 July, at 9:45am, “The raiding part paraded before General Haking, Commanding XI Corps and were complimented on their work.”

For conspicuous bravery in the action of the night of 29/30 June, one Military Cross, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and two Military Medals were awarded to men of the 13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Further reading: The Boar's Head

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Minia Camp

Cheshire Yeomanry arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on 14 March 1916. The 25 officers and 451 men remained on board HMT Haverford until 15 March, when they disembarked and entrained in open cattle trucks for camp at Beni Salama. This camp in the desert was not popular with the men or officers and it was likely with some relief then that the Regiment moved to Minia, some 150 miles south of Cairo, on 18 April.

The men, accompanied by the Shropshire Yeomanry, travelled by rail again in open trucks. The journey was made at night to avoid the heat of the day and arriving at Minia around 2:00am they tramped three quarters of a mile laden with kitbags to their new camp in a wadi near the Nile. Once the new camp was established field training continued, including rifle fire at targets.

The Nile. Our camp at Minia (T.B. Minshall)

The Regiment had been sent to Minia to prepare for operations against the Senussi, a religious sect in Egypt, Sudan and Arabia, who were persuaded by Turkey to attack the British. A coastal threat had been defeated before the Yeomanry arrived in Egypt, however inland the Senussi had occupied oases to the west of the Nile.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Pioneer Spirit

William Britton, of Bristol, received basic training with the 16th (Reserve) Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. On 12 April 1916 he was posted to the 13th (Service) Battalion (Forest of Dean) (Pioneers) Gloucestershire Regiment with whom he received more specific training on the role of Pioneers. The Battalion had departed for France in March 1916 and William appears to have joined them in May.

As a private in a Pioneer Battalion what might William have expected to experience? The following article published in 1917 gives insight into the role from a Private.

The War Illustrated, 10th March 1917
TOLD BY THE RANK AND FILE

THE WORK OF THE PIONEERS


By a Private in a Pioneer Battalion


THERE is only one decent thing in the life of a soldier in a pioneer battalion; only one way in which he has a better time than the man in the infantry battalions, whose home is in the fighting-line. That is, the pioneer comes and goes to and from the front line, the infantryman stays there all the time.

It is in the winter and the rainy seasons, when the mud comes, that the pioneer battalion comes into its proper prominence, and highly-placed Staff officers have been good enough to say that our work has proved exceedingly valuable during the later stages of the fighting.

We are engineers, without the name; and we are navvies, sanitary inspectors, road-makers, and trench repairers. We have to be able to live in water as well as on land, and no matter if a trench is flooded right to its parapet, we don't despair of making it fairly comfortable, perhaps, before the troops come forward to man it early the next morning.

We have to be able to live in an atmosphere of gas fumes, and to work all the time the grey-green clouds are hanging around us. We carry picks and spades as part of our ordinary equipment, but we're just as handy with our rifles as any soldier who has a “cushy” job in a line regiment.

Take one job we had, for instance, where a series of trenches were daily subjected to the “hate” of the German gunners. All day long we lay up in a barn which had once been an artillery observation-post, and which in consequence had received more than its fair share of shells from both sides, according to whoever held it.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment

Late in 1914 volunteers were being sought to replace battle losses and new battalions were being formed. Labour was also becoming a significant issue on the battle front, with lines of trenches requiring construction and repair and communication links by road to the rear to be maintained. Indigenous labour was in short supply in France, given demands on their own armies. In December 1914 the War Office gave instruction that Pioneer Battalions were to be raised for each Division.

The Gloucester Journal (Saturday, 19 December 1914) reported news of recruiting meetings in the Forest of Dean for such a new Battalion. It was noted that during meetings held in December there was “close interest in the explanation that the Forest battalion would be of special usefulness in that the men being colliers would be well qualified for trench and similar work, which would be acknowledged in that the men of this battalion would have 2d. a day extra pay.”

Meetings in connection with the formation of the Forest of Dean Pioneer Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment continued to be held through January 1915, but recruitment was slow. Up to Monday 18 January only 90 men had been secured towards the required 1,350.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

We have arrived somewhere…

HMT Haverford
On 3 March 1916, 25 Officers and 451 other ranks of the Cheshire Yeomanry departed from Devonport on board HMT Haverford. The ship arrived safely at Alexandria, Egypt, on 14 March 1916, where the men remained on board until the following day.

For those remaining at home, the safety of the men had been of great concern due to a persistent rumour. On this point the Mayor of Chester (Alderman J.M. Frost) wired to the Secretary of the Admiralty, Whitehall saying:
“Persistent rumours in Chester that Haverford, with Cheshire Yeomanry on board, has been torpedoed, and is causing widespread anxiety. Will you authorise contradiction of statement?” (Liverpool Echo, Tuesday 14 March 1916)
The happy reply was: “Mayor, Chester – Latest news: “All’s well” – Admiralty.”

This official news was supported by a further report, no doubt to the relief of those with loved ones overseas:

Liverpool Echo - Wednesday 15 March 1916 

THE CHESHIRE YEOMANRY CANARD

In reference to rumours about the Cheshire Yeomanry, the town-clerk of Chester has asked us to state that Mr. Arthur Boumphrey, of Lymm, Cheshire, has received a cablegram from his son, who is with the First Cheshire Yeomanry, stating that they have arrived safely at a port “somewhere”.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Voyage to Egypt

Since September 1914 Cheshire Yeomanry had been stationed in Norfolk on defence duties. They had experienced coastal bombardment and Zeppelin bombing raids and completed much training. In November 1915 the Regiment received their orders to go abroad dismounted. All cavalry equipment had to be handed in and changed for infantry. November orders were cancelled and the Yeomanry continued to do dismounted training. Such infantry training included route marches, bayonet exercises, bomb throwing and rifle shooting.

Finally, in February 1916 orders were again received that the Regiment were to go abroad and that they would sail on 3 March 1916.

The last parade of the Regiment in Norfolk took place at 7:30pm on the evening of 2 March before marching to Lowestoft Station. The train finally left Lowestoft at 8:45pm bound for Devonport.

It is at this time that the Cheshire Yeomanry War Diary commences. A War Diary is a daily record of operations, intelligence reports and other events, kept for each battalion by an appointed officer. It is not a personal diary. Specialist units, such as military hospitals, also kept war diaries.

The War Diary of Cheshire Yeomanry for this period is concise, recording just the barest of facts:


Place Date Hour Summary of Events
Lowestoft 1/3/16 Regiment in billets at Lowestoft
2/3/16 8.45pm Regiment entrained at Lowestoft
3/3/16 9.30am Arrived at Devonport & embarked on HMT Haverford
6pm Left Devonport. Strength 25 Officers. Other Ranks 451

HMT Haverford

HMT Haverford was a 12,000 ton troop ship, originally a passenger cargo vessel, built in 1901. Some brief information on the ship can be found on the web site of the Clydebuilt Ships Database, from where the picture above is extracted.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Doubt and Despondency

Initial excitement for Cheshire Yeomanry who early experienced the coastal bombardment of Yarmouth and Zeppelin bombing raids over Norfolk, largely gave way in 1915 to a period of many months with little to report.

Zeppelin raids became more common through 1915. There was thought that they were guided by signal lights from land, possibly vehicle head lights. Several times road blocks were set up in an attempt to catch the offending car, but to no avail. No such vehicle was ever seen.

The Regiment remained at Langley Park until 26 July 1915. At this time, they moved to Somerleyton Park and took over a new sector of coast at Lowestoft, about four miles from camp.

News circulated in September that more Yeomanry regiments were to go abroad dismounted, however for some reason this did not include the Cheshire Yeomanry. In Lt.-Col. Verdin’s history of the regiment he notes that “by the end of October the Welsh Border Mounted Brigade, and the South Wales Mounted Brigade in the same Division, contained between them the only six Yeomanries still left in the country.”

Yeomanry Regiments within these Brigades comprised:

Welsh Border Mounted Brigade
  • Shropshire Yeomanry
  • Cheshire Yeomanry
  • Denbighshire Yeomanry
South Wales Mounted Brigade
  • Pembroke Yeomanry
  • Montgomery Yeomanry
  • Glamorganshire Yeomanry 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Civilian to Soldier

In December 1915 Lord Derby’s Group Scheme for recruitment came to a close. Under this scheme, men aged 18 to 40 were informed that they could continue to enlist voluntarily or attest with an obligation to come if called up later on. Allocation to groups was made based on age and marital status.

Newspapers on 20 December 1915 included announcement that the first call was to single men in Groups 2, 3, and 5. The men were required to commence to present themselves for service on 20 January 1916. To reduce pressure on recruiting offices and depots, the men were drafted gradually into service, some summoned on 20 January, another batch summoned for the 21st, and so forth.

William Edward Britton of Hotwells, Bristol, (born in 1895) was one of those who had attested under the Group (Derby) Scheme. Although William’s service records do not appear to have survived, medal rolls identify him as Private number 26208, Gloucestershire Regiment and that he served in both the 13th and 2/6th Battalions. Researching records of others with a service number close to William’s enables some understanding of his recruitment and initial posting.

He was mobilised on 21 January 1916 and two days later posted to the 16th (Reserve) Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. Such Battalions were formed to train and provide drafts for the Front. Brigadier E.A. James in his ‘British Regiments 1914-18’ provides the following brief entry regarding the 16th (Reserve) Battalion:
Formed in Nov. 1915 from depot coys. of 13th Bn. at Chisledon as a local reserve bn. in 22nd Reserve Bde. 1.9.16 became 94th Training Reserve Bn. at Chisledon to 22nd Reserve Bde.
Main Road in Chisledon Camp

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Zeppelin Savagery

"THE AIR RAID – The long-threatened German aerial raid upon England has taken place at last. Tuesday night some sort of hostile aircraft arrived on our east coast, and paid a visit to Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. As result, two civilian inhabitants were killed in each town, a shoemaker and old maiden lady at Yarmouth, and a widow and a boy at King’s Lynn. Cottages were destroyed and a church was damaged, but no employment of exaggeration can it be claimed that the incident had any military influence." Thus began the Cheshire Observer’s report (Saturday, 23 January 1915) on the air raid of 19 January 1915.

The following diagram shows relative position of the attacked towns and probable route taken by the Zeppelins across the North Sea.


Friday, 15 January 2016

Who Cancelled Christmas?

An anonymous correspondent writing in the Cheshire Observer (12 December 1914) was anticipating if not one of the lucky few to be allowed home, “a good old Cheshire Christmas in Norfolk.” Lt.-Col. Sir Richard Verdin in his history “The Cheshire Yeomanry 1898-1967” relates how these plans were to be shattered.
“Christmas day was indeed to bring plenty of excitement but not of the kind that had been anticipated.
“On December 23 the Regiment received intelligence reports of a pending German raid. As a consequence it stood to in full marching order on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day from an hour before dawn until 9 a.m. Nothing happened. It was reported afterwards that German barges had actually been loaded with troops before the order came to cancel the operations.”
The disappointment led to questions being raised in the House of Commons!

Cheshire Observer - Saturday 06 February 1915

CHESHIRE YEOMANRY GRIEVANCE

QUESTIONS IN THE COMMONS

In House of Commons, on Thursday, Mr. Brunner* asked the Financial Secretary to the War Office if would state the reason why the Cheshire Yeomanry did not receive a free railway pass for their Christmas furlough.

Mr. Harold Baker said the Cheshire Yeomanry was one of the trained forces which were not given Christmas leave owing to military exigencies, and inquiry was being held into certain particulars.

Mr. Bridgeman asked if it was not the case individual members, both of the Cheshire and Shropshire Yeomanry, got Christmas leave, but were refused their fares.

Mr. Baker said that was the point which was being inquired into.

* Sir John Brunner – Constituency: Northwhich January 1915, 1910 to December 14, 1918

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Winter Quarters, Norfolk 1915

In October 1914 Cheshire Yeomanry moved to Langley Park, Loddon, not far from Norwich, and the men were mostly under canvas.

In November 1914 it was reported that “Huts are being erected at Langley Park. In fact, a barracks is being built, and stabling for 500 horses. Sixty men per day are told off to assist the contractors in erecting the wooden huts, the fatigue party being under the command of Trumpeter-Major Mayers, whom Colonel H.M. Wilson has selected for this special work owing to the popular Trumpeter-Major’s knowledge of this kind of work when in civil life.” (Cheshire Observer, Saturday, 14 November 1914).

Trumpet-Major B. Mayers had long service with the Cheshire Yeomanry. In the Regimental history it is noted that during the annual exercises at Chester in 1898, reveille was sounded each morning by the Regimental trumpeters outside the main billets. It was Trumpeter B. Mayers that performed outside the Grosvenor Hotel where the officers were billeted. No record of overseas service during the First World War has been found for B. Mayers.

Colonel H.M. Wilson was the commanding officer.

Progress on the erection of the huts was summarised on the following uncredited article from December 1914.

Cheshire Observer - Saturday 12 December 1914

CHESHIRE YEOMANRY

IN WINTER QUARTERS AT LANGLEY PARK

COMFORTS IN WOODEN HUTS

Langley Park, near Norwich, Dec. 7th.
One squadron (A) of the Cheshire Yeomanry are now housed in huts at Langley Park, while it is expected that B squadron, on their arrival back from Yarmouth on Tuesday next, will proceed to the huts also, and take up their residence in the wooden barracks. The remainder of the regiment, C squadron, are living in barns, etc. in the vicinity of the park, until the huts are completed. It is expected that the whole the regiment will be in residence in the huts in about a fortnight, and then the regiment can enjoy the Christmas festivities, and meet again after about six weeks’ separation. Several of our old pals from Chester we have not seen for weeks, it will be a grand reunion when we meet together again, practically under roof. Trumpet-Major Mayers, who has the construction of the huts in hand, explains that our quarters, when finished, will consist 17 stables, each 30 yards long by 10 feet wide, fitted up with zinc mangers and open at one side, the open side being covered with tarpaulin sheets at nights to protect the horses from the weather. Each troop will have its own stable. The men will housed one troop in a hut, 90 feet long 20 feet wide, and 18 feet high, heated by two stoves and lighted two 100 candle power naphtha lamps. The beds consist of three 10 inch planks, 6 feet 6 inches long, on a trestle raised 9 inches off the ground, each man providing his own "spring mattress," which consists of a case filled with either straw or wheat chaff. The men’s huts are made to look very comfortable. One half is given up to sleeping accommodation, while the other half is used as a dining room, etc., fitted up with tables and forms, and also 10 deck chairs per hut. There are also food cupboards, shelving and rifle racks, which make it very convenient for the men to keep their kit, arms and equipment. Every man in turn is told off daily to clean out the hut and keep the place tidy, and once every week the floors are scrubbed. The man told off for this fatigue duty is called “Mary Ann,” but as each man takes a turn at domestic work, there are a number “Mary Ann’s.” There is also a recreation room, 150 feet long by 28 feet wide, and a bath house, containing 60 wash basins and 10 baths, fitted up with hot and cold water. There is also a drying room, where men can dry their clothes, and this will be much appreciated by us all. We have also a cook house, 60 feet long by 30 feet wide, fitted up with two Army cooking ranges with cooking capacity for 1,000 men. One and a half miles of piping has been laid to bring water from a well at Langley Hall. In addition to other conveniences we have a miniature railway, 2 1/2 feet gauge, used for the conveyance of supplies to the various portions of our wooden barracks. The huts are situated in a beautiful portion of the park adjoining a charming country road. Great credit must be given to Trumpet-Major Mayers, who has watched and supervised the contractor, and has been responsible to Col. H.M. Wilson for the huts being erected so as to give as much comfort to both men and horses as possible. We are going to have a weekly dance in the recreation tent and also concerts. The dance and concerts are attended by our officers, and the villagers are also invited, and many of them drive several miles to be present. The N.C.O.’s are tonight (Monday), having a dance at the Town Hall, Loddon, Col. Wilson and officers paying all the expenses. A few of us will be allowed to come home for three days at Christmas, but those who cannot get away are promised by Col. Wilson, Major Barbour, Lieut.-Col. Brocklehurst, Major Glazebrook, Major Tomkinson, Lieut. Neilson and our other officers a good old Cheshire Christmas in Norfolk.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Yarmouth Bombardment and Mormon Spies!

On the morning of Tuesday 3 November 1914 residents of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk were disturbed by what was at first thought to be a naval engagement several miles out to sea. Indeed, newspapers the following day carried an announcement to this effect by the Secretary to the Admiralty:
"This morning the enemy’s squadron fired on the Halcyon, a coastguard gunboat engaged in patrolling, with the result that one man was wounded. The Halcyon having reported the presence of these vessels, various naval movements were made, as a result of which they retreated rapidly, and although shadowed by the light cruisers, they could not be brought to action before dusk.
"The rearmost cruiser in retiring threw out a number of mines, and submarine D5 was sunk by exploding one of these. Two officers and two men and who were on the bridge of the submarine, which was running on the surface, were saved. Nothing else has happened during the day in home waters except that the gunboat flotilla has been available in support of the Belgian left flank."
Commencing sometime after seven o’clock the cannonade awakened some to the clattering of windows and the shaking of houses. Residents hurried to the sea front but although there was much to be heard, there was little to be seen with the haze of an autumn dawn hanging over the sea.

Some of the shells reportedly dropped within a mile or two the shore; others came even closer, with one exploding within a few hundred yards of the naval air station on the south side of Yarmouth.

The inhabitants were excited, but not really alarmed. They had no time and little evidence to understand what was happening, and the theory that the Germans were taking a few pot shots at Yarmouth was not evolved until later in the day. What they had witnessed was the Imperial German Navy putting into action War Plan 19, which was a mine laying operation combined with the bombardment of Great Yarmouth, although the latter resulted in little damage.

Newspaper reports of the event noted that Territorial troops were called out, and a detachment of them were marched down to the Marine Parade with fixed bayonets. At the time the Cheshire Yeomanry were stationed in Norfolk on coastal defence duties and "A" Squadron were responsible for the northern part of the Regiment’s sector, which included Great Yarmouth.