Quite Quiet

Map of the Dorsets' trenches November 1914
1st Bn Dorsets trench map by Major Fraser – Wulverghem – late November 1914


28th November 1914

Today’s diary entry is very short, simply recording a quiet night, less sniping and a quiet day.

What the diary doesn’t record is the relief of the Worcesters (3rd Bn) to their right.

Knowing this to be the case, today’s map, which I mentioned a couple of days ago, shows the Worcesters as being on the Dorsets’ right. So the map must have been drawn between the 25th and 28th November 1914. The map is my version of the drawing of Major Fraser’s map from the 14th Division diary for November 1914 (WO-95-1560-2_3 page 11).

Officers of the replacement battalion arrived during the afternoon and completed the relief at 11.25pm. The Dorsets already had the Norfolks to their left. Now they had the Bedfords to their right. Was the 15th Brigade getting back together?

The tattered 15th


20th November 1914

The Dorsets enjoyed a day of rest. The rest of the original 15th Brigade were spread over a wide area all the way up to Ypres. The Norfolks had also just joined the 14th Brigade and were now in Kemmel. The Bedfords were up by Hooge (now with the 13th Brigade) and the Cheshires were still with Gleichen’s 15th Brigade on the Menin Road up near Ypres. Both these battalions were down to half strength and less, having suffered large casualties in holding the line in front of Ypres; the main objective of the German attacks. Gleichen recalls:

both of our battalions, who by that time were reduced to 540 Bedfords and 220 Cheshires altogether (the Bedfords having started with 1100 and the Cheshires with 600 odd).

Image of Château Beukenhorst, Zillebeke
Château Beukenhorst, Zillebeke

Gleichen is holed up in yet another château. Beukenhorst Château later became known as Stirling Castle on British Army maps. He and the rest of 15th Brigade’s HQ narrowly avoided a shell which hit the kitchen just after breakfast. It’s good to know that he puts servants just above officer’s trousers.

Poor Conway, Weatherby’s servant, whom he had left behind, was the only casualty; his dead body was found, with both legs broken and an arm off, blown down a cellar passage at the back. The next most serious casualty was Moulton-Barrett’s new pair of breeches, arrived that morning from England, and driven full of holes like a sugar-sifter.

He’s not happy about the monotonous diet of bully beef and chocolate either until…

Help was, however, at hand; for our servants, Inskip and Stairs, who we thought had ignominiously run away, suddenly turned up with heaps of food. They had gone all the way to our cook’s waggon three miles the other side of Ypres for comestibles, and whilst we were d—ing their eyes for bolting, were trudging, heavily laden, along the road back to us—good youths.

Inskip and Stairs sound like a music hall double act. Perhaps they were.

We’re going to Neuve Chapelle


27th October 1914

The Dorsets left their billets at 6am and met up with a new batch of reinforcements at Le Touret. Captain Fraser was put in charge of organising the fresh troops. The rest of the Dorsets marched to Richebourg-L’Avoué. They were pushed up with the Cheshires, two companies of the Bedfords and the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) to assist in a counterattack on Neuve Chapelle.

A series of manouevres for the attack are recorded in the 5th Division’s diary. The Dorsets remained in the road throughout the night waiting for an order to attack but it never came. A combination of confused communication, exhausted troops and poorly reconnoitred terrain meant that it never took place.

Dorset’s finest and finings


22nd October 1914

If the wheels had fallen off the Dorsets on the 13th October then the 21st October was when they were consigned to the knacker’s yard.

The Cheshires were out early at digging trenches when the Germans attacked Violaines at 5:50am. For some inexplicable reason the Cheshires had not set ample cover on their digging parties. As a result they, along with a Company (B) of Bedfords, were quickly overwhelmed “at the point of the bayonet”, according to the Cheshire’s war diary. Violaines fell quickly in the mirky dawn. The Cheshires lost 200 out of 600 men, the Bedfords lost about 40 men and 2 officers.

The survivors fell back onto the Rue Du Marais where we find the Dorsets. The Composite Company had been split into two. The first 3 platoons were sent to dig trenches just behind the Cheshires on a slight ridge. The remaining platoon was kept in reserve under C.S.M. Holloway on the Rue Du Marais.

Frank was probably with A Company, further back from Violaines, who had spent much of the night complaining to 13th Brigade about their position. They felt they were very exposed and that their position was untenable by day. Heavy firing from the easterly direction of Lorgnies had played on their nerves. The answer from the 13th Brigade was blunt. Trenches must be occupied.

The Dorsets could hear lots of cheering as the Germans overran the Cheshire’s lines but couldn’t see anything as visibility was only about 50 yards. As they prepared to fire on the enemy the sudden appearance of the retreating remnants of the Cheshires masked their fire. Therefore the Germans were able to direct enfilade fire on the Composite Company who quickly became overwhelmed like the Cheshires. A Company, a little further back, clung on for dear life.

Lieutenant C.H. Woodhouse had been sent forward in the early morning with a machine gun to find a position to sweep the road running north out of Violaines. He was also ordered, according to the History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919, to direct the Cheshires back to a new trench dug alongside the Composite Company of the Dorsets. We have here another story that needs clarification. The History claims that he subsequently fired the machine gun but it “fired badly” and he sent it back. At this point, covering the gun’s withdrawal, he was last seen firing his revolver into the approaching enemy before disappearing from view. The Dorsets’ diary makes no reference of this. It says that

Lt Woodhouse was unable to reach position before German attack succeeded and was last seen firing his revolver. The gun and tripod was lost.

Is this another case of apochryphal stories emerging post battle to explain away mistakes? Whatever the truth, confusion reigned in the gloomy morning light. The men of the 5th Division were on their last legs. They had been fighting for 10 days and had suffered huge losses. Many of their senior officers were wounded, captured or dead. Their replacements were greenhorns. Morland, CO of the 5th Division, moved the Manchesters up in support and also ordered a reluctant Gleichen to release his reserves to plug the gaps and counterattack. What the 5th Division desperately needed was experienced leadership. All the recent changes had not helped the chain of command.

Gleichen is incredibly critical of the new CO of the 13th Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Arundel Martyn had got himself stuck during the counterattack in the afternoon and the absence of command had caused the counter attack to break down. But it did stop the German advance.

It was, however, sufficient to stop the Germans for the time being. One reason for the difficulty—as I afterwards heard—was that the officer temporarily commanding the 13th Brigade had, by some mischance, got stuck right in the firing line with his staff and signal section, and could not be got at, nor could he move himself or issue orders,—a useful though unhappy warning to Brigadiers.

One platoon of A Company, led by Lieutenant Shannon, remained in position until dusk so that contact was maintained with the KOSB on their left. The rest fell back to a crossroads named La Quinque Rue (and later anglicised to La Kinky Roo) but it is no longer on maps apart from a house name along the Lille Road. By 11am things began to quieten down.

5th Division HQ urged the 13th Brigade to regroup and retake the Rue Du Marais by rushing the enemy in the dark but Martyn saw the task as impossible. He called for a Staff Officer from Divisional HQ to discuss the situation. They came, saw the situation and a new plan was quickly devised.

The Dorsets were withdrawn into reserve along the Rue Béthune. They were now down to a skeleton crew. They had lost 7 men killed, 22 wounded and 101 missing. The CWGC records 24 deaths but two of those were probably from wounds inflicted earlier on.

I am happy to say that Lieutenant Charles Hall Woodhouse survived the war as a prisoner of war and collected an MC for his action on the 19th October 1914. That must have been when he returned to the battlefield of the 13th to collect bodies and wounded men. In 1921 he married Stella Fairlie in Blandford St Mary, spent the rest of his army career in the Dorsets, becoming Colonel of the Dorsetshire Regiment in 1946. He died in 1962. His family was, and remain, an important family in Blandford. They are the Hall Woodhouses, brewers of the rather excellent Badger beers.

Interestingly it appears that many of the Woodhouse boys were Dorsetshire Regiment men. Charles’ son, John “Jock” Woodhouse, also won an MC, this time in the Second World War, and he went onto be a prominent member of the SAS. He also created Panda Pops, which powered my wild childhood self in the Seventies.

The map is a copy of the one in the History but I am not sure the Cheshires were pushed as far south east as they are shown. And Google maps shows Violaines as it is today: much bigger than in 1914. It was all fields back then. I’m not entirely happy with my maps for battle situations and will address this when time is more freely available. Which at the moment it certainly ain’t. And so to bed.

The usual answer, “Eggs”


4th September 1914

The 5th Division held a Divisional Conference at 10am in Bouleurs. From here it was decided that the 15th Brigade was to act as rearguard. They were to be arrive at Gagny at 9am the following morning.

False alarms continued to keep everyone on tenterhooks. Gleichen reports that he responded to reports of enemy by pushing up the outposts of the Bedfords along with a couple of howitzers attached to his Brigade.

The Dorsets remained in bivouac for the whole day. It wasn’t until 11:45pm that they finally continued the retreat.

An image of the house at Huiry
Mildred Aldrich’s house on the hilltop overlooking the Marne

The Bedfords were pushed right up to the southern edge of the Marne. There’s an interesting narrative by Miss Mildred Aldrich, an American who was living in Huiry, high above the valley floor. She wrote a book about her experiences called “A Hilltop on the Marne“. She had spotted Uhlans, mounted German cavalry, down in the trees beside the Marne, and had reported it to Captain Edwards of the Bedfords who arrived on the 4th September. All the British (or English as she refers to the entire BEF throughout the book) seem to be interested in was food.

It was not much after nine when two English officers strolled down the road—Captain Edwards* and Major Ellison, of the Bedfordshire Light Infantry. They came into the garden, and the scene with Captain Simpson of the day before was practically repeated. They examined the plain, located the towns, looked long at it with their glasses; and that being over I put the usual question, “Can I do anything for you?” and got the usual answer, “Eggs.”

More evidence of the 15th Brigade’s lack of personal equipment is confirmed by her line “these Bedfordshire boys were not hungry, but they had retreated from their last battle leaving their kits in the trenches, and were without soap or towels, or combs or razors”.

Captain Edwin Edwards of the 1st Bn Bedfords
Captain Edwin Edwards of the 1st Bn Bedfords

The story is expanded upon in 1914 by Lyn Macdonald but Mildred Aldrich’s personal account is much better reading. She wrote several books about her experiences in Huiry during the First World War.

*Sadly Captain Edwards was injured in October and later died of his wounds in hospital at London Bridge on 31st December 1914. There’s an online memorial to him here. Interestingly he was born in Brixton. On the other side of the tracks to our Frank mind you.