A Bols from the blue

14th October 1914

The only good news anyone had experienced for a couple of days crawled back through the battlefield during the night. Lieutenant Colonel Bols had dragged himself back to the Dorsets at Pont Fixe. His escape is a story straight out of the pages of Boys’ Own. The Germans had let a great prize slip through their hands.

Bols lay injured on the ground as the Germans surged over their position. Any immobile British wounded were taken prisoner. The German stretcher bearers soon arrived to pick among the wounded and Bols was told to wait for an ambulance. So he waited. And waited. Dusk came and so he began what much have been an agonising crawl back to the British line. Agonising because of his wounds, but also mentally as he crawled through the fallen heaps of his once proud Battalion.

Sadly there’s no first person account of his adventure, nor is there any more information about this other than the story above. We’ll catch up with Bols in the future but for now the Dorsets were in the capable hands of Major Cyril Saunders.

One more officer crawled back to the lines. Captain Francis Hans Bunbury Rathborne had been assisting the 18-pounders by the spoil heap when he was severely wounded. I’m happy to say that he survived the war and lived a long life, dying in 1976 aged 87.

First thing in the morning the sad remnants of the three Companies, B, C and D were merged into, what the war diary calls, a Composite Company. They were led by Captain Henry Beveridge who must have been an officer from the previous reinforcements as he’s not on the original list sent out from Belfast. They were sent away along the canal to the west out of the action.

Meanwhile the battle continued for a third day. The British continued to try to push through to La Bassée. The 15th Brigade was trying to move on, so that the 3rd Division to their north could swing round into the gap. Again the 13th Brigade was held up and the Dorsets couldn’t get forward without experiencing the dreadful enfilade fire from the Germans hidden behind the raised bank on the south side of the canal.

Gleichen’s hand drawn map shows the situation in more detail. Some of the positions aren’t the same as they stand today; Cuinchy is now more to the left directly south from the Pont Fixe.

Map of Cuinchy and environs 14th October 1914
Gleichen’s map showing the situation on the 14th October 1914

Frank and the rest of A Company hunkered down in the factory at Pont Fixe and soon came under withering shellfire. A message came fro Gleichen. “Pont Fixe must not be given up. I know I can rely on you to stick to it with the help of the Devons”. Two more companies from the Devons arrived to support the skeleton 1st Battalion Dorsets.

At 2pm the French attacked at Vermelles to the south. At 5pm A Company got the orders they must have been dreading. They were to support an attack by the Devons along the same line north of the canal they had tried for the last two days. But they weren’t to move until the 13th Brigade advanced on the south bank of the canal.

Luckily for A Company, the Germans attacked the 13th Brigade and pushed them back. By 8:30pm the Germans were now attacking the north side of the canal. A Company and the Devons held on and only three men were wounded, although three deaths are listed on CWGC, presumably they died from wounds sustained over the last couple of days.

Frank had survived another day.

Overwhelmed

 

13th October 1914

The 15th Brigade resumed their attack along the canal at 5:30am. B and C Companies were sent into the firing line. D Company was put in support and A Company was held in reserve. A single machine gun was positioned in a cottage near to the lock.

The Dorsets moved along the canal bank keeping in line with the Bedfords to the north and the K.S.O.B. to the south of the canal. The early morning mist helped their movement and progress was good.

The German opened up a tremendous bombardment on Givenchy using heavy artillery. Smoke and mist and brick dust from the falling buildings drifted across the battlefield.

Bols couldn’t get in touch with either of the supporting units and it appears that the Dorsets then halted and prepared defensive trenches.

The situation became even more dangerous as the mist cleared. Rather than finding the K.S.O.B. on their right, the Dorsets found the enemy. Like yesterday, the Germans had excellent cover from the high bank which ran along the canal. They poured fire into the exposed troops. At the same time enemy artillery started shelling them from the north east.

The Dorsets’ single machine gun couldn’t help them. As it responded to the German rifle and machine gun fire it rapidly received return fire. The gun’s main operator was quickly killed. Any attempts to get the gun firing again were quickly extinguished by enemy snipers.

B Company were really catching it now and they quickly lost several of their officers. At around midday they began to withdraw. At this time the Germans found D Company in support with a Field howitzer battery. Some of 15th Brigade’s 18 pounders which had been moved up in support were also targeted.

Captain Ransome, seeing the severity of the situation, took the initiative and moved A Company back to a sunken road by the lock near Pont Fixe to form a rallying point. Major Saunders had been sent back to organise this and to ask for artillery support.

At this point things went from bad to worse for the Dorsets. The Bedfords withdrew from Givenchy, unable to withstand the bombardment that had reduced the village to rubble in a matter of hours, burying many of their men in the process. The Germans advancing, then immediately launched an attack on the left hand flank of the Dorsets.

At around 1:45pm C Company reportedly saw men approaching carrying lances. Nothing was done as they apparently thought they were French cavalry. Then more Germans, about a battalion’s worth, were seen approaching, some of them reportedly holding their hands up. Thinking they were surrendering, the Dorsets paused for a fateful moment. The Germans charged. These two strange mistakes proved to be disastrous, but it was a day where a series of events led to the Dorsets putting themselves into an untenable position.

The Dorsets had dug such deep trenches that they couldn’t get out quickly enough. The men of the left hand flank of C Company were totally overwhelmed. In the adjacent trench, men fought to the last man, Lieutenant Pitt was killed and Battalion Commander Bols went down injured, shot through the back and the arm. The remainder of the men tried to withdraw over open ground. They were quickly cut down by the German rifle and machine guns on the south bank of the canal.

The survivors ran back to the position held by A Company, helped in some part by defensive machine gun fire. The Germans overwhelmed the 18 pounder battery, one of the machine guns and pushed up to Pont Fixe. A Company held the line. Gleichen pushed two Companies of the 2nd Bn Devons into support them. They held onto this position for the rest of the day, under heavy bombardment.

Major Saunders assumed command of the Battalion. What was left of it.

The Dorsets’ losses were severe. The war diary reports 51 killled, 152 wounded and 210 missing. The official history reports 18 killed, 126 wounded and 284 missing. The CWCG lists 87 men killed on 13th October 1914.

They had lost 12 officers, killed or wounded. It was a dark day for the Dorsets.

New Bols please

5th October 1914

The Dorsets remained in billets for the rest of the day. Supplies began to arrive. Hats and boots, according to Glechen, although socks remained much in demand.

Operationally, things began to change within the battalion. Captain Ransome had been replaced by Lieutenant Pitt the previous day as Adjutant. An Adjutant was responsible for the day-to-day administration of a battalion. It was also announced in routine orders that Lieutenant-Colonel Bols was moving on. He had been appointed as AA and QMG of 6th Division vice Colonel Campbell DSO on the 1st October. That jumble of military acronyms meant Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General. Not that that helps us much. Essentially he was to be responsible for the supply, transport, accommodation and personnel management of the 6th Division. It was a very senior role. There was no indication of when he was leaving though.

Meanwhile the Brigade staff occupied themselves with serious matters. A tennis tournament (Gleichen 1 – Cadell 1) followed by a nice hot bath. Talk was rife about their next assignment as Gleichen remembers:

It was gradually borne in on us that we were going to be moved off by train to take part in a different theatre of the fighting altogether; but where we should find ourselves we had not the least idea. What caused us much joy to hear was that we had intercepted a German wireless message, two days after four out of the six Divisions had left the Aisne, to say that it was “all right, all six British Divisions were still on the Aisne!”

KV and other posh expressions

27th September 1914

If you’ve been reading this blog since the outbreak of the war, you’ll notice that we’ve recently entered a period of trench-digging. This was to become the standard routine for a British Solider on the Western Front until 1918. Periods spent in the line and periods resting in reserve. Long days and even longer nights with little happening apart from the odd shell and burst of small arms fire.

But the British soldier in September 1914 was not versed in the arts of trench warfare. In their eyes, this was a temporary hold up. The leaders on both sides had the same thoughts. As in a boxing match, the two opponents had come together like bulls and fought to a standstill. Now, exhausted, they leant on each other, panting and gathering strength. But the next bout was coming. As both sides tensed themselves for the next round of onslaught, it was easy to panic and spread pandemonium. Gleichen writes:

On one day, the 27th, we had a false alarm, for the enemy was reported as crossing the Condé bridge at 4 A.M. in large numbers, and everybody was at once on the qui vive*, the Cheshires, who were in bivouac behind Rolt’s farm, being sent back (by Sir C. Fergusson’s orders) to Rupreux, the other side of the river. We rather doubted the news from the start, as the Condé bridge had, we knew, been blown up, and there was only one girder left, by which a few men at a time could conceivably have crossed; but the information was so circumstantial that it sounded possible.

The BEF was not prepared for this type of static warfare and it’s often said that the ever-resourceful Germans were ahead of the game. They certainly had better-suited equipment with digging tools, periscopes, grenades (hand and rifle) and heavy siege guns; designed to attack the huge Belgian and French forts and now free to use on a more mobile enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols’ determination to make of fortress of Missy counters this claim to some extent. He and the Royal Engineers rendered Missy really secure, even under severe bombardment.

And severe bombardment is exactly what happened throughout the rest of the day. The false alarms sent the Germans into a similar state of panic and they responded with an artillery barrage. Gleichen again:

Missy was shelled particularly heavily that day from 10 to 6, and it was painful to watch great bouquets of 8-in. H.E. shells exploding in the village, and whole houses coming down with a crash; it seemed as though there must be frightfully heavy casualties, and I trembled in anticipation of the casualty return that night.

The Dorsets diary reports “very heavy shelling which continued until dark – both shrapnel and high explosive”, adding  “Casualties. Nil – not withstanding heavy shelling”. This is either a cocky boast or an early reference to the stress and psychological damage a heavy bombardment inflicted on troops.

* Qui vive. At Prep School we used a term “KV” or “Cavey” to alert fellow pupils when a master was approaching. I always thought it was Latin but I wonder if it comes from this phrase which has its origins in a French sentry alert; a kind of “who goes there”.

We are off on Friday to the War

Dateline Belfast 13.8.14. Letter in pencil

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome letter which I thought was about time. Pleased to hear that you enjoyed yourself and also had lovely weather. Sorry to hear about May not being able to go with you, I hope her mother is better by now and ask her to drop me a few lines for I am still waiting dont forget to tell her. Is that what they are saying go to Ireland for a “quiet holiday”, you should come over here there is just as much excitement here as any where else. Give my love to all at home and tell Aunt I was ever so pleased to hear from her and glad to see they are alright. We are off on Friday to the War, we don’t know where we are going to the ship is ready for us and it is rumoured we are going to Belgium but I cant say exactly where we are off to. We have been working as hard as we can, getting every think ready for when we go on Friday. Now Till dont get worrying about me for I shall be alright, and I hope you will. Now Till when you send that photo and write to me which I hope will be soon (put the address 1st Dorset Reg Belfast) or elsewhere, and what will find me. Yes Till drop her a few lines for I am sure Jess would be pleased to hear from you, and she would answer your letter and only be too please to. Her address is 14 Maralin Street, Antrim Road Belfast, now dont forget to write to her soon. Now Till I think this is all the news at present hoping you are in the pink Tell Aunt I will drop her a few lines soon so will now conclude hoping to hear from you soon.

I remain
Your loving Brother
Bid
xxxxx

Britain enters the War

On the 4th August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium. Great Britain responded with an ultimatum, which expired, unanswered, at 11 o’clock GMT. As a result, the two nations were at war.

Immediate plans for mobilisations had been carefully planned out in the War Book: a series of documents meticulously detailing plans for mobilisation.

In Belfast the Commanding Officer (CO) of 1st Bn Dorsets, Lieutenant Colonel Louis Jean Bols, received his mobilisation orders at 5:39pm on the 4th August.

Bols was the son of a Belgian Diplomat, held dual nationality and spoke several languages. He was an experienced soldier, having fought in the Boer War, and the Dorsets benefitted from his expert leadership. We’ll hear more about the daring exploits of Bols later on.

Image of
Lieutenant Colonel Louis Jean Bols, CO 1st Bn Dorsets

In a flurry of activity deployments were recalled from around Ireland and reservists, usually experienced soldiers who had completed their active service, flooded into Victoria Barracks. Over half the strength of most British army battalions were reserve soldiers (590 for the 1st Dorsets). Officers were dispatched to Dorchester to collect more men. On the 9th-12th August the Battalion was sent on training and firing exercises, while the transport officers arranged passage to the front.

Frank wrote his letter on the day the Battalion attended a service at Belfast Cathedral. It’s hard to imagine the excitement and trepidation that Frank felt. The entire country was caught up in an outpouring of patriotic sentiment. The next day, on 14th August at 8am sharp, the Battalion loaded its transport on the the SS Antony and, at 3.25pm, she set sail in “very fine and hot” weather. The Dorsets were going to war.

26369389-SS_Antony
SS Antony, later sunk by German U-boat UC-48 in March 1917

All aboard for Belgium

Let us turn to the newspapers to get some idea of public opinion about the forthcoming war.

Manchester’s Guardian wrote, on the morning of 5th August 1914:

Our part in the war, for the present at any rate, is intended to be purely naval, and it is greatly to be desired that it should remain so. For the present we imagine, and we should hope later also, it is unlikely that anything will be done on land by this country.

To understand this viewpoint we must look first look at the situation in France. After their humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany in 1871, France built a standing army of about 800,000 men, which was augmented by over 2 million conscripts during August’s mobilisation, and began the war by invading Germany in a bid to regain its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This was called Plan 17. The French military leaders were convinced that the bulk of Germany’s troops were lined up directly across the French-Germany border and that fighting would be concentrated here.

In pre-war plans, Britain was asked to stand between the French left flank and the sea to the north, defending, what their leaders assumed would be, a possible secondary attack by Germany. Britain had a small expeditionary force, initially numbering about 80,000 men, rising to around 150,000 in subsequent months. Germany’s army, after mobilisation, exceeded 3 million men.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was simply not equipped to deal with a full on assault by Germany’s superior numbers, and so was not expected to fulfil a central role in war on land.

Leaving his girl behind

Frank left behind his girlfriend, Jessica, in Belfast. In a thinly veiled attempt to join his loved ones together he asks his sister to write to her. He was never to see either of them again.

I have looked at the Irish Census records for 1911 to see if I could find out more about her, including a surname. The people living at 14 Maralin Street at that time do not match her name – the occupier is listed as Annie Patter but, of course, things can change in just 3 years. We’ll look at this street in a later post. Maralin Street is no longer in existence, although a Maralin Place still exists in the same area.


View Larger Map

So on August 14th Frank left Britain, I think we can assume, for the very first time. He never returned.


Next week

The BEF moves into position in northern Belgium; a mining town by the name of Mons is their destination.