The enduring image we have of the day is the painting by Richard Caton Woodville called ‘Lance verses Lance’ which depicts the charge and was mentioned last month and I did allude to some errors. This picture hangs in every squadron office and Mess in Haig Barracks and everyone one knows about the machine gun on the wall and the story is told on the text of the print and has become a part of the story that each generation passes to the next, so how would it be if the picture and text was wrong?
This article could focus on the errors of the painting, but an art critic I am not. So why question the picture and spoil the story. Firstly, for those who have been to Montcel and stood on the site of the charge, the first thing you notice is there is no church in Montcel, the accompanying pictures of the village now and then clearly shows that there is no church. The mayor of, when asked said there never has been a church in the village and the church and cemetery for Montcel is in the next village of Frétoy. Interestingly, that is where the casualties for the day are buried. So the church is an artistic addition, which in itself does not change the story, but does give you the right to question it?
If I tell you the story of the machine gun and where it fits in, the rest will fit into place. At the turn of the century each cavalry regiment was issued with two Vickers (Maxim) machine guns, and had been since the Boer war. The accompanying text on the print stating that it had been purchased by the officers to enhance the Regiments firepower is not supported factually anywhere and cannot be corroborated. The simple fact is that the regiment were issued two and these were withdrawn along with the soldiers later in the war and formed the Machine Gun Corps. The Vickers was then replaced with the Hotchkiss (both of these can be seen in the WOs’ and Sgts’ Mess). The story of the Vickers is well documented and requires no further research. However, its existence is not in dispute it’s the part it played in the charge. The next question is ‘was the machine gun in the village on the 7th September 1914?’ Yes, Lt Allfrey, Sgt Turner and Pte Seaton are all documented as being there (not A Sqn SQMS as the text on the print states). Lt Allfrey the Machine Gun Officer is killed later that day and both Turner and Seaton both receive nominations for a Mention in Despatches for their action with the machine gun at Montcel (the original slips of paper can be seen at the Regimental museum). The point of dispute and the factual error is the part the machine gun played during the action at Montcel.
Lieutenant Colonel David Campbell (the Commanding Officer) wrote in his own account written in 1930 that the machine gun jammed at the ‘critical moment’. Rittmeister von Gayling the German officer who led the charge gives a very detailed account in their Regimental history and states that as they rode into the attack Trooper Hubner saw a machine gun close to the edge of the village. Sgt Mehlis and a few men were determined to attack the gun. On being attacked the gun crew ‘did not continue to serve the gun’. Some dragoons stopped to remove the gun, but were unable to do so, so they smashed the machine gun with stones. The remainder of the dragoons rode into the village and surprised the limber which was in a lane. It was here that Trooper de Ries was killed. Gayling credits Sgt Mehlis with silencing the machine gun at the ‘decisive moment’. If you add the two accounts together it looks like the gun jammed and was left by the crew when they were attacked and unable to defend or move it. Additionally, the German account also helps to place the location of the gun. If the Germans saw it during the charge and from the picture you can see the Germans coming from left to right. If you stand where the machine gun was supposed to have been, you cannot see over the rise to where they came from. All those who have visited Montcel have subsequently place the machine gun to left of the village on the high ground where a field of fire would have enabled the gun crew to see the Germans and visa versa. Also from the picture you will notice there is no high wall and there never has been!
The next point of contention is the statement in the text on the picture which states three 9th Lancers were killed, which is only half true. There were three killed on the day, but not in the charge. Lt Allfrey (the displaced machine gun officer) sees the Adjutant Capt Reynolds wounded and runs out from the village to assist him and is killed in the process. Shoe Smith Friend woke up late in the morning and followed on behind trying to catch the regiment up and wandered into Montcel and he was killed by the occupying Germans 9overnight listening post) and his body dumped in the village pond (this is corroborated by two separate accounts). So the only man killed in the charge was Pte Bryer.
The last part of the text which needs unravelling is the statement regarding the machine gun being responsible for the majority of the casualties. Having proved it did not fire and get into action at the critical/decisive moment how can you account for the statement. It is well documented (but not published) in both the CO’s account and the brigade commander that the majority of the casualties were caused by small arms fire and not the lance – and not the machine gun. There is a whole other story linked to the next part. SSM Hugh Durrant (an Olympic pistol shot) had two automatic pistols (Webley and Scott .455 pistol - 7 rounds in each) and was responsible for most of the German casualties. The true hero of the day isn’t even mentioned and his story is not told. So was it Lance verses Lance after all?
So what can we take away from the facts? The Regiment had two machine guns which were on general issue, not purchased. One got into action (where was the other?) but failed to fire at the critical moment. The crew was displaced from the gun, which was captured and damaged by the Germans. At whatever point it got into action it was not on the wall as depicted and at what ever point is defined as the critical/decisive moment it was not manned, therefore should not be on the painting. The text on the print contains more errors that facts and it continues to perpetuate a myth and the hero of the day isn’t even known and he was B Squadron SSM.
As a footnote – Sgt Taylor says having passed through the Germans he hit a road. If this is true then the point of impact is to the right of the road as you look at the painting not on it.
Sometimes historical research is as much about questioning and the corroboration of facts and not just about learning them and occasionally a sacred cow is slaughtered in the process.