A Shephard joins the flock


9th February 1915

The most well-known account of life in the Dorsets during the Great War is A Sergeant-Major’s War by Ernest Shephard. It’s also perhaps one of the best accounts of life in the trenches by any regular soldier in the First World War.

Ernest Shephard, born in 1892, was a professional soldier to the core. He was a regular soldier who, like Frank, had joined the service from the Special Reserve. He had been promoted to Sergeant back in August 1914 and was assigned to recruitment duties in the Dorset region. He was a native of Lyme Regis but, interestingly for us, he was also familiar with Brixton. His elder sister, Ethel, something of a mother figure to Ernest, lived there with her husband, Thomas Francis. Each finished diary was posted to Thomas as 113 Elm Park, Brixton Hill.

100 years ago today, Ernest joined the 1st Bn Dorsets as part of a reinforcement draft. Shephard went into B Company. Not that the Dorsets’ diary mentions anyone joining them that day. His arrival, and those with him, was something of a baptism of fire. The 15th Brigade returned to the front, via Dranoutre and Wulverghem, in pouring rain.  His entry describes the difficulty men had getting back to the front in the dark.

On the way the enemy was constantly sending star shells which lit the country brilliantly over a large area. At each shell we halted and stood still. The ground leading to the trenches was very difficult. I only slipped once, quite enough, I was covered in mud.

The movement of so many troops sent the Germans into a frenzy of musketry and sniping. Again, the Dorset war diary doesn’t mention any activity. You can forgive Ernest for being on tenterhooks during his first experience of trench warfare. It must have been a surreal and very frightening experience for him.

The Dorsets took over Sector E at the very top of the 15th Brigade’s area of operations. They relieved the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in trenches numbered from 14a in the south to 20 in the north. The brigade finished their relief at about 9.20pm. The night was bitterly cold.

Conditions very trying

8th December 1914

The rest of the Dorsets relieved the K.O.S.B., marching at 4pm via Lindenhoek to reach their trenches. The relief finished by 9pm.

It can’t have been a very pleasant welcome back to trench life for the Dorsets. The 5th Division’s diary refers to high wind and heavy rain during the night, and records that trenches were “in a dreadful state and conditions very trying”.

According the the CWGC two Dorset men died on the 8th December 1914. One of them, Private James Victor Green, is listed in locally on the Menin Gate, but the other, Private Frederick Albert Dunaway, is interred at Mons (Bergen) Communal Cemetery. This was a German cemetery until the end of the war. Perhaps his body had been found after the fighting at Mons in August or, more likely, he subsequently died of wounds while in captivity. The Dorsets’ war diary records one wounded man – presumably that’s Private Green, who later died.

The Wytschaete line man


7th December 1914

The Dorsets remained in Dranoutre for another day but at 4.15pm A Company, along with Frank and a single platoon of B Company marched via Lindenhoek to relieve the Bedfords in trenches south of Point 75. Here they came under orders of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers of the 13th Division. No mention is made of this in the 13th Brigade nor the 5th Division’s war diaries. The fact that just over a single company of the Dorsets could replace the strength of an entire regiment of the Bedfords (who report in their diary that their strength of 200 men and  three officers) tells the story of the shortages faced by many British regiments up and down the line.

I only have limited internet access for now, but I think that their new position is just to the right of the Dorsets’ last location. So that’s where I’ve put them for now. Apologies if I am woefully wrong.

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.