1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (1914)

The 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment had sailed from Alexandria on board the troopship "Deseado" on 30th September 1914. The voyage home had not been without incident, for the French battleships escorting that convoy had insisted on taking their proteges to Marseilles instead of allowing them to go home via Gibraltar.

But the mistake was rectified and, after a short delay at Gibraltar, the convoy from Egypt passed unmolested up the coast of Portugal (from Gibralter onwards the convoy was escorted by H.M.S. "King Alfred.") and across the Bay.

Southampton had been the original destination, but a scare of German submarines caused the route to be changed, and it was at Liverpool that the Battalion arrived at 9.15 p.m. on the 16th October 1914. The night was spent in disembarking the troops and stores, and at dawn next morning (October 17th) the Battalion entrained for Winchester.

Then followed an uncomfortable fortnight of training at Hursley Park near Winchester, where the 8th Division was in process of formation. At noon on November 5th the Division marched out of Hursley Park to Southampton. Through the streets of that town the march of the long column was watched and cheered by large crowds. The Battalion marched down to the docks and went straight on board the transport "Maidan" . Just before midnight the ship sailed.

s.s. Maidan

s.s. Maidan which transported the 1st Battalion to France

The following officers embarked with the 1st Battalion:—Lieut.-Colonel A. E. Lascelles (commanding), Major E. C. F. Wodehouse D.S.O. (2nd-in-command), Major G. C. Lambton D.S.O., Major B. K. W. Bacon, Captain T. Fitzjohn, Captain C. Richardson, Captain J. H. M. Arden, Captain F. St. J. Tyrwhitt, Captain J. F. S. Winnington (Adjutant), Captain C. S. Linton, Lieuts. C. F. G. Crawford, J. F. Leman, J. S. Veasey, K. W. Wilkins, L. H. Ruck, J. M. Monk, H. Fitz M. Stacke and E. L. G. Lawrence, 2/Lieuts. F. C. Roberts, R. M. Slater, E. B. Conybeare, L. G. Phillips, M. A. Hamilton-Cox, J. H. Tristram, H. P. Hartnoll, F. Darby, F. W. Young and D. King, Captain and Quartermaster C. Henson.

At dawn next morning the troopships carrying the 8th Division reached Havre. There the 1st Battalion remained on board the transport for two days, first in the open roadstead and then alongside the docks. The delay was due to lack of facilities for landing the horses and heavy vehicles of the Division.

On the morning of the 8th November 1914, the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment disembarked and were accommodated in a huge shed at the dock side. Not till 5 p.m. next day (November 9th) did the Battalion entrain for the front. The train slowly journeyed through Abbeville to Berguette, which was reached after dark on the 10th. The Battalion detrained and found billets close to the railway siding.

Next day the Battalion marched twelve miles through Merville to Neuf Berquin. There for three days the Battalion lay in billets while the other units of the Division assembled.

It had been decided that the 8th Division should come into the front line on the left of the Indian Corps. On November 14th the 24th and 25th Brigades of the 8th Division marched forward to the front line and relieved the 8th and 14th Brigades. The 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment left their billets at Neuf Berquin and marched through Estaires, Rouge Croix, Croix Barbee and St. Vaast to the trenches facing Neuve Chapelle. There after dark the Battalion relieved the 1st Royal Scots of the 8th Brigade. The relief was made difficult by heavy enemy fire, and not until the dawn was it possible adequately to take stock of the position.

1st Worcestershire men in "Port Arthur" Trenches

Since the fierce fighting around Neuve Chapelle at the end of October 1914 the line there had not greatly altered; but fighting had been continuous and had precluded any real consolidation of the position. As a result the position held by the 1st Battalion was both uncomfortable and dangerous: it was one side of a sharp salient of which the apex formed the right of the Battalion's line. The apex of that little salient was at the cross-roads south of Neuve Chapelle which the Royal West Kent had held two weeks before, and there a semi-circular tangle of battered trenches had become known as "Port Arthur." The name was not inapt, for at that point the enemy trenches were within fifty yards, the exchange of fire was constant, and casualties were numerous. Thence to the left the Battalion lined the western side of the main road from La Bassée to Estaires as far as the cross-roads at Pont Logy. The position was peculiar, for on the left half of the line there were no real trenches but only the sloping side of the road embankment, some ten feet high. On the top of that embankment the men lay down to fire. At the foot of the embankment there were already some improvised shelters, but the troops were exposed to enfilade fire from the enemy trenches facing the other arm of the salient, where the trenches of the Indian Corps ran south west ward from "Port Arthur" parallel with the Rue du Bois.

On the left of the Battalion a wide gap separated their position from that of the next battalion in the line, whose trenches ran from near Pont Logy north-eastward, facing the German trenches around the village of Neuve Chapelle.

At dawn, that morning (November 15th) the enemy's heavy howitzers bombarded the Battalion's line. The bombardment proved trying to the troops new to war; for the straight line of the main road was a target difficult to miss, and the sloping embankment provided no cover from the great shells. Before nightfall the 1st Battalion had suffered some thirty casualties (7 killed. 1 officer (Lieut. J. F. Leman) and 24 other ranks wounded).

Thenceforward for the next few days the 1st Battalion was shelled continuously, and there were several sharp little fights with the enemy's patrols (Casualties during November 16th-19th:-13 killed, 1 officer and 26 other ranks wounded. The officer, 2nd Lieut. R. M. Slater, a very gallant young subaltern, was mortally wounded and died on the 21st November 1914).

Through four days and nights of constant wakefulness the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment had held their line, under intermittent shell-fire and continuous rain. The cold drizzle had told bitterly on the troops, fresh as they were from the dry heat of Egypt. The frost on the fifth night found officers and men alike wearied out and soaked to the skin. After dark on November 19th the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Sherwood Foresters. The exhausted troops climbed out of their trenches, waited numb and frozen in a snow-covered field while the Battalion assembled and then, in their heavy coats and equipment, staggered back with such pain as may be imagined through a world sheeted white with snow, six long miles to billets at La Gorgue. That march was long remembered in the Battalion (later dubbed "The Retreat from Moscow"), and to many it was the extreme limit of endurance. Not until 2.30 a.m. did the last stragglers crawl in along the slippery roads to their billets. Next day one man in every four was helpless with frost-bitten hands or feet and nearly 150 serious cases were perforce sent down to the base (this was the first appearance of "Trench-Foot"). Of one platoon, only thirteen men were able to stand.

The 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment remained in the sector facing Neuve Chapelle. Until the middle of December the 1st Worcestershire and the 1st Sherwood Foresters held in regular relief the trenches along the La Bassée road in which the Battalion had first met the enemy's fire. By dint of much hard work the sloping bank of the main road was gradually entrenched, and casualties decreased. But the losses in that exposed position and in that bitter weather were very severe. Before the middle of December the Battalion had lost half its strength — over a hundred killed and wounded and more than four hundred disabled by severe frostbite.

Neuve Chapelle sector 1914

Neuve Chapelle sector (November - December 1914)

The actual figures were as follows:— from 15th November to 13th December 1914, killed, 4 officers, (Major B. K. W. Bacon, Lieut. R. M. Slater, 2/Lieut. F. Darby, 2/Lieut. H. P. Hartnoll), 35 other ranks. Wounded, 1 officer (Lieut. J. F. Leman) and 73 other ranks. Evacuated with severe frostbite, 4 officers and 436 other ranks. Total 9 officers and 544 other ranks. During that period, when out of the Line, the Battalion was billeted either in Estaires or in the hamlets of La Gorgue and Rouge Croix.

Major Bacon & Lieut. Conybeare

Major B. J. W. Bacon (left) & 2nd Lieut. E. B. Conybeare

In the early days of December 1914 the British Army (The British Expeditionary Force was not sub-divided into separate "Armies" until January 1st, 1915. Then it was reorganized into the First Army [1st and IVth Corps] under Sir Douglas Haig and the Second Army [IInd and IIIrd Corps] under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien) in Flanders was heartened by a visit from His Majesty the King. The 1st Worcestershire were in the trenches when His Majesty visited the headquarters of the 8th Division; but further north the 2nd Battalion were among the troops which, with bayonets fixed, lined the road from Meteren to Bailleul and cheered the King as he drove slowly down the ranks. At Locre one company of the 3rd Worcestershire was able to join in the Army's welcome (the other three companies had been sent forward into reserve trenches).

In the middle of December a series of demonstrations was undertaken along the front of the British forces. Those demonstrations took the form of minor attacks, intended to harass the enemy and to prevent the transfer of reserves to the Russian front.

The first of those local attacks was delivered on December 14th by the 3rd Division against the Messines Ridge.

Four days later attacks were made by the 7th and 8th Divisions on their own front near Neuve Chapelle, and lastly on December 19th the Indian Corps attacked from the Rue du Bois, still further to the southward.

Although no Battalion of the Regiment actually took part in those attacks yet all three Battalions were affected by them.

Near Neuve Chapelle the 8th Division's attack was made by the 23rd Brigade. The other troops of the Division stood to arms, and the 1st Worcestershire marched forward from Estaires - to spend the night of December 18th/19th most uncomfortably in wind and rain among the ruined cottages close behind the line (at St. Vaast): but the Battalion was not actually engaged.

On the right flank of the British front the attack of the Indian Corps led to more, serious fighting. That attack was no more successful than those further north, and the enemy followed up the repulse by a fierce counter-stroke against the trenches at Givenchy. The Indian troops were driven back, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions had to be brought up from reserve to restore, the situation.

At Neuve Chapelle the front of the 8th Division had been readjusted and on December 19th the 1st Worcestershire had taken over new trenches, to the left of those previously held. Those trenches were better sited and more habitable than the former line and the losses decreased. The first tour in the new line ended on December 22nd, when the Battalion marched back to billets at La Gorgue. Casualties of the 1st Worecestershire, December 19th-22nd, 2 killed, 17 wounded. During December, Lieut-Col. A. E. Lascelles was invalided home, and the command of the 1st Worcestershire passed to Major (afterwards Lieut.-Col.) E. C. F, Wodehouse, D.S.O.

During those last days of 1914 the 1st Battalion experienced an equally severe ordeal in their neighbouring trenches facing Neuvé Chapelle. There also rain and frost had done their work, and the trenches filled with water into which the crumpling parapets collapsed. During the last days of December some pumps were secured and all ranks struggled manfully to reduce the height of the water, which indeed was then a greater danger to the defences than was the fire of the enemy; but in spite of all their efforts the water gained. The communication trenches became impassable, and all ration parties and reliefs had to come up after dark across the open right up to the trench line. The German trenches facing the line held by the Battalion were on slightly higher ground and it was constantly expected that the enemy would attempt some method of draining water from his trenches into the British lines.

The New Year was celebrated by a defiant exchange of fire. The Germans, working by Central European time, opened fire at 11.15 p.m. (their midnight). No reply was made until 12 midnight by Greenwich time when an answering roll of fire broke from the British lines. In this salvo there joined for the first time the only trench-mortar which the British Army had as yet evolved ---- an experimental weapon made marvellously from an iron drain pipe. One end of the pipe was soldered up and a touch-hole made above. Then, with match and gunpowder in the manner of the XVIth century, this strange piece of ordnance would eject uncertainly a primitive "bomb-shell," consisting of a jam tin loaded on the shrapnel principle with old nails. Primitive though it was, "Archibald," as the piece was named, played its part during the long Winter in heartening our men, if in no other way than by the amusement its erratic performances created. The mortars of the 24th Brigade were entrusted to a special detachment furnished by the 1st Worcestershire and commanded by 2/Lieut. E. B. Conybeare. In the hands of that very brave young officer they were destined later to play a serious part in battle.

In the first days of January it fell to the lot of the 1st Battalion to gain distinction in a minor affair which may be claimed, apparently, as the first "trench raid" of the war. As such it is perhaps worthy of a detailed description.

At that period the German trenches facing those held by the right flank company of the Battalion, were at a distance of some two hundred yards—two hundred yards of open, gently sloping plough across which ran a ditch lined by small willow trees. The night of January 2nd/3rd was dark and misty.

During the night German parties had been seen and fired at, close to the trenches of the right flank company; and a subaltern of the company who had gone forward into No Man's Land' had encountered fire at close range from several rifles in the open—a strong reconnoitring patrol, as he thought.

Dawn of 3rd January 1915, was heralded by a thick white mist. As the mist slowly lifted the astonished sentries of the right flank company saw before them a new German trench not fifty yards away. The enemy had come forward across "No Man's Land" during the night and had dug in. The fire encountered by the reconnoitring subaltern had been that of the enemy's covering party.

The reason of that action of the enemy was uncertain. Conjectures varied between a jumping-off place for an assault, a desire to get close enough to be safe from our artillery fire, or the expected attempt to drain water into our trenches. One thing alone was certain: the enemy could not be allowed to remain in their new position. It was decided that an attack on the new trench should be made that night.

It was arranged that the attack should be made by a party of one subaltern and twenty-five men. No permanent occupation of the trench was intended: orders being that the party should clear the trench and then return as quickly as possible. Arrangements were made for artillery support against the enemy's main lines. Lieut. F. C. Roberts was selected by Lieut.-Colonel Wodehouse to command the attacking party.

The raid was carried out exactly as planned. Waiting until the moon had been clouded over, Lieut. Roberts led his party over the parapet at 8.45 p.m. On a given signal the little party rushed forward in silence to the German trench. Three sentries of the enemy were taken completely by surprise, and were bayonetted before they could shoot. The trench was found to be full of sleeping Germans; who were all bayonetted or shot, save some few who broke out of the trench and ran back across the open. Then Lieut. Roberts gave the signal to retire, and his men got back as quickly as was possible. Just as they scrambled back over our parapet the German main line broke out with heavy rifle-fire, bowling over the hapless survivors running towards them, and at the same moment our own artillery opened a sudden bombardment. For some twenty minutes heavy firing lasted. Then the firing died down and it was possible to call the roll. Of Lieut. Robert's party two men had not returned: their bodies were seen next day lying on the German parapet. The German losses were officially estimated at thirty.

That gallant little exploit received prompt recognition. Within twenty-four hours Lieut. Roberts was awarded the D.S.O., Sergeant H. Edwards, Lance-Corporal G. Darby and Private H. Evans were awarded the D.C.M.

One minor sidelight on that brilliant little affair perhaps deserves to be recorded. In the bitter weather conditions of the preceding month, officers and men had been allowed to grow beards; and during the fight and at the preceding conference, Lieut. Roberts had worn a fierce black beard worthy of a hero of the Iliad. On being notified of his decoration he was invited to dinner with the Divisional Commander. For the occasion he shaved off his beard; and the modest young officer who presented himself that evening was not at first recognised as the hero of the raid. The exact locality of the raid is shown on map above marked with an 'x' near Pont Logy.

It is doubtful if that affair was actually the first "trench raid," for similar deeds are claimed by the Gurkhas of the Indian Corps during the previous two months, but it was certainly the first to be widely known. It was described, and indeed somewhat exaggerated, in the "communiqué" of the official "eye-witness," and thus may be said to have added, if possible, to the high repute which the publication of the Commander-in-Chief's dispatch on the Ypres Battles had brought to the Regiment.