Lancers at Mons

 

 This article describes some of the contributions made by the six historic antecedent lancer regiments during the Great War, in particular in relation to Mons, the emblazoned Battle Honour on The Royal Lancers’ Guidon that gives its name to The Royal Lancers’ annual celebration weekend.

The Mons battle honour relates to the Advance to Mons, the Battle of Mons, the Retreat from Mons, and the Return to Mons. It features on the Guidons of 9L, 12L, 5L and 16L but as we will see, many lancers originating in 17L and 21L would also have been painfully familiar with the city.

The article aims to not only look at the regiments, but also at the wider story which involved key appointments held by lancers in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons and the pre-war relationship between the regiments that established a system of mutual support and dependency, which in turn helped foster the ‘cavalry spirit,’ amongst lancers.

All cavalry regiments were formally paired (affiliated) in 1897 with the disestablishment of the cavalry depot at Canterbury.

These individual pairings were designed to replicate the infantry principle, with one battalion being at home and the other being posted abroad to protect the Empire. 

Each home-based lancer regiment would train and process recruits out as the ‘draft’ each September and would process the invalids and time-expired soldiers who would be sent home each May so that they could be administered out of the Army. 

The priority for manning at that time was the Army of the Empire, with home units always understrength and manned by soldiers too young (under 21) to serve overseas.

In August 1914, 5L, 9L, 12L and 16L were all in the UK, and 17L and 21L were in India.

An additional measure to sustain lancer regiments during wartime was the commitment of three (out of seventeen in total) Reserve Regiments of Cavalry (RRC).

Naturally, these three RRC regiments were typically commanded by lancers: 6 RRC under Lieutenant Colonel Farnell-Colvin 9L in Dublin was to support 5L and 12L. 7 RRC at Tidworth trained soldiers for 9L and 21L, while 8 RRC, also at the Curragh and initially commanded by Colonel Portal DSO, 17L, trained men for 16L and 17L. When war was declared in August 1914, the four UK based lancer regiments needed to be brought up to strength at speed so that they could deploy on a war footing.

Lancers disembarking August 1914

The cavalry division was understrength by 768 officers and men in 1914, so it was decided that the quickest means of augmentation would be to mobilise reservists and take up all officers and soldiers from Indian-based Regiments who were on course or leave, mainly 17L and 21L.

All the reservists were ordered to report to their nearest RRC: the exact number of 17L and 21L reservists is difficult to calculate but, from the few records which exist, it would appear there were approximately 130 17L reservists in all, including eight officers at home on leave.

In the main, these were ordered to join 8 RRC which, as we have seen, supported 16L.[1] It seems that some of the younger men were also posted to 2LG, while the older soldiers were sent to the Army Veterinary Corps.[2]

A Sergeant from 21L on leave in England wrote ‘the 21L reservists are everywhere, LCpl Phillips formerly of A Squadron is now with B Squadron 12L, I think our regiment supplied drafts for all the lancer regiments.’[3]

Meanwhile, an estimated 50% 21L reservists were posted to 9L.[4]  Certainly, by the end of 1915, 56 21L reservists fighting with 9L had been killed, wounded or captured.[5] Their names feature on the 9L Great War memorial at Canterbury cathedral, recorded as soldiers from their home regiments.

Mobilisation in England also affected the two lancer regiments in India who, in addition to losing their posted manpower, had to assist each other to get ready for war in the east.

On 30 August in Sialkot, 17L received orders to mobilise as part of 1 Indian Cavalry Division.[6] The scale of what was required was greater than the 17L possessed in men, horses, and equipment, so the deficiencies needed to be found from their comrades in 21L.

Often this is an excuse to solve problems by parting with recalcitrant soldiers, weak officers and spavined chargers, but the record shows that 17L were grateful for the support they received, writing ‘we knew they would send us their best…we sincerely hope they will join us in the field before long. Time and again we have jousted against them. Now we would ride side-by-side against the enemies of the world.[7]

The Cavalry Division that went to war with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the Kaiser’s so-called “contemptible little army”, was commanded by General Edmund Allenby (formerly 5L), and on his staff was Captain Henry Howard, 16L, as his GSO3.

Of the five cavalry brigades, 3 Cavalry Brigade containing 5L and 16L was commanded by Brigadier Hubert Gough (formerly 16L).  His younger brother Johnnie, who had already won the Victoria Cross like his father and uncle before him, was chief of staff for I Corps, commanded by General Haig, formerly 17L.

On II Corps staff was Major Henry Fraser, 21L, who had the unenviable task of escorting General Grierson’s body back to England when he died (of natural causes) on the train before the war had really begun.

By early September 1914, the original cavalry establishment was adjusted and a second cavalry division was created.  This new division was made up of 3 Cavalry and 5 (Independent) Cavalry Brigades, under the command of Brigadier Hubert Gough. 

Therefore, it happened that Brigadier Gough had 5L, 12L and 16L under this command during the Retreat from Mons, while the Quartermaster-General (QMG) of the entire BEF was General Robertson (formerly 16L) who later would become the most senior officer in the Army, when he assumed the appointment of Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). He also uniquely holds the distinction of being the only soldier to enlist as a private and reach the rank of Field-Marshal.

So, we can see that there were Lancers and Lancer Regiments dotted about key leadership roles and manning important tactical and strategic positions when the wall of field grey Germans started to move across the plains of north west Europe bent on conquest and, as we shall see, it was just as well they were there.

During the first few days of the Great War General Allenby’s Cavalry Division was situated in the vicinity of Mons, where the first serious battles on continental Europe took place.

On 22 August, D Squadron 16L were tasked with the Greys to see if the settlement of Péronne was occupied by the Germans. Lieutenant Tempest-Hicks’ troop was detailed, and quickly established it was.[8]

It was the Greys who first came into contact with the enemy, with 16L ‘a good second in starting the ball rolling.’ Tempest-Hicks’ patrol was ambushed by some Germans and had his horse shot from under him during the engagement, while the patrol had two or three men wounded. [9] One of them, Private Betts wrote:

There were several corn stooks in the field and the Germans tried to take cover behind them, but we were going at a fair gallop and they didnt have much of a chance…they didnt have time to run for it and we speared quite a few on the way through and a few more on the way back…As we came back I aimed for a German, but he dodged me and my point went into the ground. Luckily, the lance-shaft broke, or I would have been fetched out of the saddle.[10]

It is quite possible that this was the first lance action of the war:  it was on or about this date that 5L were the last troops to leave the town of Mons when the Retreat began. It was to be 4 more years and hundreds of thousands of lives later before a Lancer would set foot in the town again.

On 24 August,  9L conducted a mounted action at Audregnies saving the guns of 119th Battery RFA at Élouges. They paid a heavy price, with the regiment having one officer, Lieutenant Garstin, killed, two captured and four wounded, and 14 soldiers killed, 18 wounded and 57 taken prisoner.  In effect, the regiment lost nearly a squadron, a quarter of its fighting strength. Brigadier De Lisle issued a Special Brigade Order saying:

It was necessary to save the 5th Division from an organised counter-attack during their retirement, but for the 2nd Cavalry Brigade his division would have been destroyed to the last man. The true cavalry spirit of the 9L in daring to charge unbroken infantry in order to save neighbouring troops, and that of the 4DG in the effective support given without hesitation or thought of danger.”

During the morning, Brigadier Gough’s 3 Cavalry Brigade came into dismounted action at Angre, just to the west of 9L and, together with 2 Cavalry Brigade, these two forward brigades covered the retreat of the 5th Infantry Division. On the following day, 12L who were covering the withdrawal of I Corps, saw action for the first time and C Squadron lost the majority of Lieutenant Dan Moore’s 1 Troop when 11 men were either killed or captured on the 25 August near Bavai.

On 28 August, 12L conducted a cavalry charge at Moÿ de l’Aisne against two regiments of Garde Dragoner as part of a brigade engagement.  This, for the most part, was a text book example of peace-time training being put into practice. From the beginning of the war, lancers had consistently demonstrated the effectiveness of pre-war cavalry training, showing by their flexibility and effectiveness that a blend of infantry and mounted skills made them uniquely competent in both the mounted and dismounted roles.

On 31 August, as 3 Cavalry Brigade continued to cover the retreat of I Corps,  5L retired through Fontenoy and crossed the river Aisne by the bridge at Le Pont. Lieutenant T De Burgh was left to watch the crossing with one troop of C Squadron together with Lieutenants E Robinson and Rice with two troops of D Squadron. The two D Squadron troops were positioned on the north side of the river as flank guards, to stop the Germans sneaking through and perhaps getting behind them.  They had orders to cross the river in the rear of the regiment. When crossing the bridge, they came under very heavy fire, but got across with the loss of five horses. Lance Corporal John Haley wrote:

Two troops of D Squadron were cut off from the regiment, about 60 men. As our advance point went through it was fired at…all the while the Germans were firing at us. We mounted up the best we could and set off for the bridge, which was barricaded with two big carts. We charged it and got through with our men, it was with good luck, no one was killed, only one man hurt through his horse being shot. When we got over the bridge we dismounted and cleared them out.[11]

Lance Corporal Joseph Smith, the soldier who was unseated during the gallop for the bridges, wrote:

It was awful, I lost horse and all arms, so made a run for it. Blinded with dust, stumbled till I fell down into a deep ditch, and there lay in about six inches of mud and water. In a few minutes four more of my mates fell in the same ditch, and as they had also lost their arms, we laid there, without means of defence, save one lance and my jack knife and my other pocket-knife…and our good British fists. There are 13 of us left now in my troop of 38.[12]

On 7 September, just over two weeks after their charge at Audregnies, 9L would charge again at Le Moncel near Fretoy.

Coincidently, it would be against one the Garde Dragoner regiments that 12L had engaged at Moÿ de l’Aisne the week before. 

This, on the last day of the Retreat, would be the last lance against lance charge of the British Army, a supremely aggressive action that marked the first day of the BEF’s resumption of its advance north.  

During the charge, Trumpeter ‘Paddy’ Byrne of 21L who charged with the 9L lost ‘one or two of his fingers in an encounter with a German Dragoon.‘[13] 

The exploits of the two regiments that charged did not go unnoticed: both the commanding officers were to be promoted to command their own brigades by summer of the next year, while Lieutenant Colonel David Campbell, 9L would finish the war as GOC 21st Division. 

Promotion is fast in war time.

During these mounted actions, Private Harry Knight of Northampton, who had enlisted in 5L and transferred to 12L, was killed with A Squadron at Moÿ de l’Aisne and Corporal Denslow, who had served with 21L, was killed at Audregnies with 9L.

These are just two of many, many examples of men who had served in one lancer regiment before being killed while serving with another – truly  “all of one company”.

During the early period of the war, soldiers of 21L wrote to their friends back in India telling them how the war was going and what was happening amongst the casualties.  Even though they were badged to 9L, the 21L men were still fiercely loyal to their regiment and did not want to be subsumed into 9L:

We all wear our own badges and numerals, although we were issued with the 9L, but all the French and Belgium lasses possess them now and I am a barefacedlancer.So do send me cap badge[14] and a set of numerals, I do not want to wear the 9th, and want to let some of the other regiments know that there are some 21L having a go.[15]

Lancer regiments have always been family regiments, and amongst the lancers going to war were brothers from the same families serving in the different regiments.

Captain Gerald Reynolds of 21L, who was on leave from India, served with 9L, and it was his younger brother Captain Guy Reynolds, Adjutant 9L, to whom he reported on mobilisation. Their older brother, Captain Alan Reynolds, also went to war serving with 12L.

During the early stages of the war at Mons, Captain Francis Grenfell had gone to war with his twin brother Riversdale, who had acted as a ‘galloper’ for the commanding officer. Their older brother, Lieutenant Robert, 12L was attached to 21L and had been killed with them at Omdurman in 1898.

The current Colonel of the Regiment is third-generation 12L.  His grandfather was Regimental Signals Officer with 12L when they went to war in 1914.

When the war was about to end, on 11 November 1918, 5L’s commanding officer was sent for by the brigade commander of 7 Infantry Brigade and told that Mons had been taken by the leading battalion.

He was asked to send a squadron quickly through Mons and seize and hold the high ground about St. Denis which commanded Mons to the north-east.

A Squadron under Lieutenant Scott-Brown was ordered to saddle up at once and carry out this mission

The squadron moved out at 0745 and had to make a long detour owing to the bridges having been blown up over the canal and craters in the roads.

Going through Mons, the cheering crowds were so great that they were hardly able to make headway.

At St. Denis, the mayor reminded Lieutenant Scott-Brown that the first Cavalry skirmish of the war in August 1914 had taken place nearby.

In the meantime, orders were received that hostilities would cease at 1100 that morning, and this order was sent off to A Squadron as soon as their location could be found.

The advance guard of the brigade was to make an official entry into Mons at 1030 and 5L at once turned out an escort of 34 other ranks with lance pennons and one gun from the Royal Horse Artillery which had been in the operation round Mons in August 1914.

General Currie, GOC of the Canadian Corps spoke to Second Lieutenant Allison MC, 5L, the escort commander, on his entry into Mons that afternoon and invited him to stand on the steps of the Hotel de Ville with him, introducing him at the same time to the mayor.

General Currie directed that the lancer escort should march off parade first, saying that, as it was due to the ‘contemptible little British Army’ that they were at Mons that day, and as the escort was the representative there of the British Army that had fought at Mons in 1914, the place of honour should be taken by them.

5L therefore had the distinction of being the last to leave Mons in 1914, and the first to return in 1918.

For 9L, they too returned nearly to the place where the war had begun for them four years earlier when, on 11 November they were in action as the advance-guard to the cavalry brigade in pursuit of the retreating Germans, neatly repaying with interest the painful retreat they had protected and taken part in at the start of the war.

Lancers near Mons in August 1914

They arrived at Beloeil, just 10 miles north-west of Mons and just an hour’s ride from Thulin where B Squadron had first engaged the Germans on 23 August 1914, when the war came quietly to an end[16]

By the end of the war, six lancer regiments had fought on the North West Frontier and Europe and had the distinction of winning three Victoria Crosses; Captain Francis Grenfell (9L), Private ’Billy’ Clare (5L) and Private Charles Hull (21L).   

The combined lancer losses during the war was 1046 officers and men. We will remember them.

PAW

 

[1] Micholls, pp.84-85.

[2] White Lancer Vol VII, No. 3 December 1914 p.72.

[3] The Vedette, 31 March 1915 p.14.

[4] The Vedette, 31 March 1915 p.14.

[5] The Vedette, 31 December 1915, pp.117-119.

[6] Anglesey, History of the British Cavalry, Volume VII, p.223.

[7] White Lancer Vol VII, No. 3 December 1914 p.72.

[8] 16L War Diary, 22 August 1914.

[9] Horn Diary, 22 August 1914.

[10] Ascoli, The Mons Star, p.54.

[11] Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 21st October 1914.

[12] Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 21st October 1914.

[13] The Vedette, 31 March 1915 p.14.

[14] Note it was not called a ‘motto’ in 1914!

[15] The Vedette, 31 March 1915 p.15.

[16] Sheppard, p.306.

8 Comments

    BOORMANDICKRJ

    A very readable account of Lancer actions at the start and end of WW1.

    R. I. P. All the Lancers who sacrificed their lives and futures.

    PAUL YSART

    Excellent article, a very enjoyable read!
    Thank you.

    PLUNKETTPETERPN

    Very interesting account of history combining the strength and talents of the Lancer Regiments in the First World War. If 1914 saw the last Lance charge, did this mean that soon afterwards the Regiments replaced their horses for Tanks/ other forms of weaponry?

      Martyn Pocock

      Essentially yes; the next phase of the war was fighting from trenches and there were no other opportunities where a lance charge was appropriate. C Sqn, 12L charged dismounted cavalrymen (Prussian Guard Dragoons)at Moÿ de l’Aisne on 28th August and RHQ and two troops of B Sqn of 9L led by the CO, Lt. Col. David Campbell (a Grand National winner riding “The Soarer”) and the Prussian Guard Dragoons simultaneously charged each other with the latter being defeated at Montcel on 7th September. However, it is worth noting that in this action, many of the German causalities were inflicted by SSM Hugh Durrant, an Olympic pistol bronze medallist, who had the foresight to acquire, by private purchase, two .455 RHA Webley automatics which he used with great effect! Greater detail on these two charges can be found in Phil Watson’s “The Last Charges” available on this website in the “Shop”.

    STUART GRUBER

    Very well done, Major PAW! I am not surprised by your thoroughness. I, for one, had no idea how complicated the transfer was of officers and men, from other lancer regiments, who filled shortages among units in France. It worked well, however. I laughed when I read that one 21st lancer wanted replacement badges for his beloved “Dogs Dinner boys” certainly not for the “Shiny Ninth” where he was then posted. All the photos added greatly to what was happening in 1914, while the marvelously detailed painting, toward the end, of a trooper saying farewell to his sweetheart was particularly evocative.

    Keith Wade

    A really good read. If I may just add that, whilst not at Mons, the 17th Lancers provided no less than 200 reservists to 2LG, who themselves had along with the rest of the Household Cavalry given up a Squadron to for the Composite Regiment Household Cavalry. Their great sacrifice was at Zandvoorde. so whilst the “official Regiment” of the 17th fought entirely on the Somme and not in Flanders, there was an appreciable number in Flanders. The men posted to the 2LG were lucky as they are named on the 17th Lancers 1914 Star Roll, also as 17th Lancers on the roll for the British War Medal and Victory Medal. Those that were killed are also buried or remembered as 17th Lancers.
    The 21st Lancers also formed the 21st Lancers service Squadron and fought in Flanders also, until they were transferred en masse to the Royal West Kent Regiment. So as Major Watson says it is indeed a true Lancer family. The ties that bind

      Martyn Pocock

      Keith
      Thank you a really good contribution to the story – it is very much appreciated.
      MDAP

    FOOKSWILLIAMWJO

    A really good read, Major W. Once again you have woven the complex threads of our antecedent regiments’ histories into a seamless, historical tapestry. Thank you very much.

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