January 5th 1918

The battle at Cambrai, which was launched on November 20th 1917 with over 400 tanks, was reported in our newspapers as a great success.

The role of the cavalry has been a small one in this war, but it was hoped that they might have played a significant part if a breakthrough could be achieved. Capt. Reggie Carr-White (Indian Army), who was in reserve with Hodson’s Horse, found himself in the thick of the action when on November 30th there was a German counter-attack, his breakfast being rudely interrupted:

“An orderly came in with a message telling us to ‘stand to.’ Our horses were out at exercise, and we didn’t know where they had gone to… Meanwhile another message came in, telling us to move at once. . So we all hustled about and packed our things; in the meantime the horses came in and we moved off within the hour…

Nobody knew why we were being moved – the optimists, like myself, thought that we had broken the German line; and the pessimists thought the opposite had happened.”

The closer they got to the action, the clearer it became that the pessimists were right.

“We trotted about another six miles and then halted again, and watched a fine but very sad spectacle. We were in a valley, and about 500 yards in front of us was a low ridge. Along the top of this a British Cavalry regiment was galloping, with German crumps bursting in amongst them. Many of the troops got direct hits on them, and one could see a troop galloping along and suddenly it would practically disappear as a shell burst in it, then a second or two later one would see a few of them straggling forward and a small mound left behind. It made me feel a bit sick. But not a man checked, and all galloped steadily on…

My squadron was the rear squadron of the regiment, and I was about 100 yards behind B squadron, whom I saw trotting along quietly through a gap in the wire in front, and disappearing over the ridge. As I came to the gap and topped the ridge, an extraordinary sight met my eyes: galloping horses everywhere, many of them riderless, and there were many dead horses and men on the ground. Into this medley the Germans were putting crump after crump. B squadron was retiring at a slow gallop and in perfect formation…”

Reggie was told to retire with his squadron and find another way round, to avoid the artillery fire. It was a very confused situation, under shell fire, with people from numerous regiments and “tanks barging about.

They came back to a British-held trench. Reggie was possibly understating it when he said,

“It must have surprised them to have two squadrons of cavalry jumping over their heads.”

An alternative route was taken and they eventually found their way to the top of a low ridge where the rest of the regiment were digging in, alongside the Guards who successfully attacked and took Gouzancourt.

Digging in meant it was time to send the horses back and for the cavalry to become infantry, ready for another German attack.  There were still some British tanks involved in the action, although being a cavalry man, Reggie clearly has mixed feelings about this new form of combat.

“Just then several of our tanks rolled up and seemed uncertain where they were. It was pathetic how perplexed those tanks looked, nosing about liked puzzled rhinoceroses and they made us feel quite sorry for them… They then seemed to become inspired and waddled off, one after the other, towards the Germans.”

But there is no doubt in his mind that those who operate these tanks are brave men.

“One may make jokes about them, but in my opinion the fellows inside are the bravest fellows on earth. Shell after shell burst all round them, and finally of course, several got direct hits on them, and before long four of them were burning like great bonfires. Later in the day I met one of the officers, who had been in one. He told me all the crew in his had been killed and he was very cut about himself.

The Guards and a regiment of Indian cavalry attacked Gauche Wood, dismounted; they followed behind the tanks and took the wood fairly easily. In places they got in with the bayonet.”

From the map it is clear that the German counter-attack had made deep inroads, before being repulsed by our troops to the line shown, just west of Villers-Guislain.

 

April 26th 1916

Harold Leefe Robinson

2nd Lieut. Harold Leefe Robinson (101st Grenadiers, Indian Army)

Yesterday’s edition of ‘The Times’ reported the death, on April 19th, of Harold Leefe Robinson.

Harold, together with his brother William, was only briefly at the OPS, in 1901-2,  after which he returned to India with his mother. He did return to England to complete his education at St Bees School in Cumberland, but he then went back to India and took charge of a tea estate in the Coimbatore district in 1913.

On the outbreak of war he joined up and entered the Indian Army Reserve. He was attached to the Mahratta Light Infantry and had been serving in Mesopotamia since December. He died of wounds received during the attempts to relieve our troops stationed in Kut.

(His brother William Leefe Robinson, who is now in the RFC, has been wounded, having received a shrapnel wound in the leg when flying over Lille on May 9th last year.)

* * * * * * *

Today’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ contains news (on page 9) of an attack on the GPO in Dublin, which gives us great concern for one Old Dragon family living there: the Norways.

In 1912, Nevil Norway‘s father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, was made Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland – in effect in charge of the Post Office throughout the country. His office is in the Post Office building attacked by the rebels.

We await news as to both his safety and that of the family. Nevil Norway, now aged 17, will have returned home recently for the holidays from Shrewsbury, where he is now at school.

December 5th 1915

Raymond Venis

2nd Lieut. Raymond Venis (IARO., 48th Pioneers)

The death of Raymond Venis was announced in the Times of December 3rd.

When war broke out, Raymond joined the Indian Army Reserve of Officers and was attached to the 48th Pioneers. He went to Mesopotamia with the expeditionary force in February and was killed in the battle at Ctesiphon on November 22nd.

He showed courage and endurance under the heaviest of fire, earning the respect of his fellow officers. While lying mortally wounded on the battlefield, he continued to cheer his men on.

Raymond left the OPS in 1902 to go to Repton. From there he went to RMC Sandhurst and was duly commissioned in the South Staffs. Regiment. However, he resigned from the army in 1907 to join a Calcutta firm. His varied career took him into the Postal Department in Burma, indigo planting in Behar and he was with the Burma Para Rubber Company prior to the war.

 

 

January 11th 1915

Old Dragons are also involved in fighting the war in other parts of the world. Geoffrey Carpenter (Capt. Uganda Medical Service) is in charge of a field ambulance in British East Africa and has written to tell us of the Battle of Tanga, which took place in early November.B.E.A

“You will have seen in the papers that there had been some stiff fighting in BEA, mostly on the coast, where an attack on a fortified town (where our men had been told there would be no opposition) was repulsed with considerable slaughter. The Germans had a very large number of maxims, in trees, or firing through holes cut in enormous tree trunks, each one covered by another behind, and with all the ranges carefully marked off. They had also enlisted the services of large numbers of bees – ferociously stinging – which set upon our men and of course considerably aided the rout. Indeed one or two men died of bee stings…

We do not have enough troops to do more than maintain a defensive position and have made our line of defence along the north bank of the river Kagera, which flows into the lake at about the middle of its west coast… As it is impassable in most places, owing to dense belts of papyrus along its banks, it makes a most excellent line of defence. The actual political frontier is some miles to the north of the river, so that we hold a strip of territory really part of GEA. I think I may claim to be (at least one of) the first Old Dragons to invade German territory.

I am now (with one other white man) in a fort which we have taken over from the Germans, who retired when we advanced. They had simply erected four walls enclosing a square space. Since we have been here (2½ months) we have taken it in hand and have made no end of a place of it – bomb-proof houses to live in, underground magazine, underground passage leading to an outlying maxim pit, and other dodges so that it seems a very strong place now.

We are about four miles north of the river on a hill top, overlooking a flat plain, with other hills to the east and west. Curiously enough the other white man, who is in charge of the fort and of a section of the line of defence, is Captain Bertram Garratt of the Indian Army, Old Dragon and who was a little senior to me. We both hope the squareheads will attack so that we can have some fun.”

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, we gather Frank Sidgwick is finding training difficult – particularly on the Parade Ground.

“Form Fours”

A Volunteer’s Nightmare.

If you’re a Volunteer Artist or Athlete, or if you defend the Home,

You sacrifice “Ease” for “Attention,” and march like a metronome;

But of all elementary movements you learn in your Volunteer Corps

The one that is really perplexing is known as the Forming of Fours.

 

Imagine us numbered off from the right: the Sergeant faces the squad,

And says that only the odd files move – I always seem to be odd!

And then his instructions run like this (very simple in black and white) –

“A pace to the rear with the left foot, and one to the right with the right.”

 

Of course if you don’t think deeply, you do it without a hitch;

You have only to know your right and left, and remember which is which;

But as soon as you try to be careful, you get in the deuce of a plight,

With “a pace to the right with your left foot, and one to the rear with the right!”

 

Besides, when you’re thoroughly muddled the Sergeant doubles your doubts

By saying that rules reverse themselves as soon as you’re “turned about;”

So round you go on your right heel, and practise until you are deft

At “a pace to the front with the right foot, and one to the left with the left.”

 

In my dreams the Sergeant, the Kaiser, and Kipling mix my feet,

Saying “East is left, and Right is Might, and never the twain shall meet!”

In my nightmare squad all files are odd, and their Fours are horribly queer,

With “a pace to the left with the front foot, and one to the right with the rear!”

 

No.5 Balham A.V.F., A Company . Platoon 1 = F.Sidgwick.

January 4th 1915

This is the third letter we have received from Tyrrell Brooks (Capt. Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) – see Sept 28th & October 29th for his previous ones. With some nine years’ experience in the Army, he has got to know “Tommy” pretty well.

“Dear Skipper,JBBrooks

A strange mixture of sentiment and pathos is Private Thomas Atkins. A splendid grouser when in clover, when really up against it he faces with equanimity the longest of days and most trying trench work.

In letter writing he uses the most pious and well rounded phrases which would delight the soul of a cleric and give him hope, and afterwards you will hear the same hero expressing to his friends his grievances in language that even a bargee would resent.

The glamour of the battlefield of the last century is conspicuous by its absence in this. The bayoneting of the German is not a daily occurrence, but when the chance comes it is taken and afterwards affords pleasurable thought and scope for writing home – as after all there is little to write about when you live in a trench for four days at a time, having shrapnel for breakfast, high explosive for lunch, and rifle fire when you should be having your evening glass of ale in the canteen.

Perhaps the great thing which buoys up T.A during the weary days in the trenches is “castle building.” By this I mean highly exaggerated thoughts of home, his best girl (they all have them) and of the time and reflected glory, consequent on the defeat of the enemy, that will be his when he gets there. And if he is wounded – well somebody else will take his place and he will become a ‘ERO.

His sense of humour allows us to name the various kind of shells he is daily in contact with. They are “Little Willies,” “Dirty Dicks,” “Black Marias,” and “Jack Johnstons,” according to their size.

Here is a good and true story. Just after Ypres, a troop train full of enthusiasts pulled up opposite a hospital one in a siding. Those in the troop train were longing to perform deeds of valour and longing for blood. Those in the hospital train had already shed much in the lowlands of Flanders. Those in the troop train were hanging out of the windows and trucks joking with each other. Suddenly the hospital train started slowly forward and a troop train enthusiast shouted out “Are we downhearted?” and the chorus answered “No” – but again he shouted “Are we downhearted?” and again the chorus bellowed “No.” This was more than a figure in the hospital train, swathed in bandages, could stand. Propping himself up he retorted “Ain’t you? Well you bloody soon will be!” which said, he returned to a prone position.

Remember Pte Thomas Atkins and the great work he is doing under conditions which are difficult, to put it very mildly, and wish him a speedy return to realize the “castles” that he built in the trenches.”

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Jack Smyth played Juliet in the 1906 production of Romeo and Juliet here at the OPS to good reviews and if this did not necessarily suggest a military future for him, the following year he played a very youthful Macduff in Macbeth and, as the reviewer noted,  “looked a sort of Sir Galahad in his armour, but he showed plenty of fire when his opportunity came in the final scenes.”

Coincidentally, now a 21 year old Lieutenant in the 15th Sikhs, he writes in a similar vein about the splendid British Tommy:Jack Smyth

“The British Tommy is simply magnificent… One in a regiment close to us the other day came up very pale, and saluted, and asked if he could go to the rear. ‘Whatever for?’ said his officer. ‘Well sir, I’ve been ‘it three times’ he said.

Before we came under fire for the first time I asked a sergeant who had been at Mons what it was like. ‘Perfect ‘ell, sir,’ he replied, and he wasn’t far wrong.”