The Wasp Factory

15th December 1914

The Dorsets remained in billets, albeit at a readiness to move of just 10 minutes. The operations continued between the 16th French Corps and II Corps but by 2.40pm the French attack had broken down again. I can’t help likening this attack to a boy with a stick poking at a wasp’s nest. 5th Division was supporting the 8th Brigade’s attack with their artillery, drawing congratulations from Smith-Dorrien. Troops were tasked with creating diversionary rifle fire but it was all to no avail.

The British attack had failed dramatically the previous day and the Germans were well prepared for any further action. Billy Congreve of the 1s Bn. Gordon Highlanders was more damning. He lay the blame squarely at the feet of Sir John French.

Such was the attack ordered by Sir John French. Next day, I read in the paper ‘British troops hurl back Germans at Wytschaete’. A beautiful epitaph for those poor Gordons who were little better than murdered.

Cuthbert, seedy

17th October 1914

The Dorsets remained in and around Festubert all day in billets.

I wonder if I detect some of resentment towards Cuthbert and the 13th Brigade in Gleichen’s memoirs? Comments such as “but Cuthbert was not there, so it was a little difficult to combine any action”, “we met the Headquarters of the 13th Brigade, minus their Brigadier” and “Cuthbert eventually turned up from somewhere” don’t exactly sing his praises.

Perhaps I am looking too hard. But certainly Cuthbert, CO of the 13th Brigade did not seem to be a popular man. A martinet with old fashioned views, his leadership of the 13th Brigade came to an abrupt end on the 1st October due to “illness”. Gleichen puts it succinctly. “Cuthbert, seedy”. This illness was pure fabrication. Cuthbert was fired. The 13th Brigade war diary states “Cuthbert ordered to England” and “Cuthbert left by motor for Paris”.

His replacement was Dublin-born General William Bernard Hickie. He was popular but he was also very unexperienced. His leadership of the 13th Brigade lasted just 11 days. He was carted off in an ambulance in the afternoon of the 13th October. Another “illness”. Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, says in his diary that Hickie “had to go sick”. Hickie had refused to push his men forward along the south side of the canal. This refusal made it into the 5th Division’s war diary: “General Hickie considered open ground so unfavourable between his right and enemy’s position that he declined to co-operate without orders from superior authority.” This decision not to move forward had a huge impact on the failure of the French and the Dorsets’ attacks. But I don’t think we can blame the 13th Brigade.

Nikolaus Gadner, in his book Trial by Fire: Command and the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, follows the same line of enquiry. Although some of his assessment of the day is a little unfair (he claims the Dorsets retired in disarray due to lack of officers) he argues that a lack of experienced officers was really starting to tell in the 5th Division, leading to the replacement of senior officers, and ultimately Fergusson, commanding the 5th Division, on 18th October. Sacking experienced commanders was incredibly damaging to the BEF. There were few replacements available.

Gadner goes on to argue that all these sackings stemmed from Sir John French’s own insecurity as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. He despised Smith-Dorrien of II Corps so it was easy for him to pass criticism from London his way. Smith-Dorrien did what managers do all over the world. He passed the blame down the line. And down it went. All the way to 13th Brigade. Ultimately, this power struggle led to the Dorsets dying in droves on the 13th October 1914.

Howitzer that!


24th September 1914

The Bedfords joined the Dorsets in the morning along with the remnants of the Cheshires. the Norfolks had been attached to the 3rd Division on the 21st September. To bolster their dwindling ranks, Gleichen had a rag tag mix of troops attached to his command. He recalls “the K.O.Y.L.I., and West Kents (of the 13th Brigade), already holding the eastern edge of Missy, were put under my orders, besides the 15th Brigade R.F.A. under Charles Ballard (a cousin of Colin’s*), and a Howitzer Battery (61st)** of Duffus’s 8th Brigade.”

The History of the 1st Bn. The Dorsetshire Regiment highlights the danger they were in at this time: two battalions totally unprotected from attack with only one bridge to retire across without any supporting troops. This is a bit of a false claim, as there were a lot more than two battalions on the north bank of the Aisne, but the precariousness of their situation cannot be denied. It made everyone very edgy.

The Dorsets busied themselves during the day by developing a better defensive position, connecting support lines with lateral trenches, deepening existing trenches and blockading the streets of the village with anything they could get their hands on.

Perhaps it’s worth drawing back from Missy for a moment to get a better picture of why the 5th Division were here at all. High above the south bank of the River Aisne, in possibly the same cave the Cheshires had hidden in on the 13th September, we find Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, watching the action unfold over the Chivres spur and Missy. He observed “the clearance of this hill by our high-explosive shells. We found see the Germans flying in all directions to the rear, and we subsequently got reliable information that their losses on this occasion were very heavy.” It was here that he became convinced that observation of the enemy’s position was crucial to success. It was therefore critical, in French’s mind at least, that the 5th Division held onto the north bank of the Aisne in order for the BEF to maintain this supposed superior position over the enemy.

* Brigadier General Colin Robert Ballard was the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment.

** Probably the outdated BL 6-inch 30 cwt howitzer

Luckily untouched by a Scottish accent


28th August 1914

As the Dorsets marched on the morning of the 28th August they passed the Commander of the BEF himself. Sir John French spoke to troops as they past. He roundly praised them, promising them “three days rest”. Of the British solider, he says in his memoirs, “it touched me to the quick to realise how, in the face of all the terrible demand made upon their courage, strength and endurance, these glorious British soldiers listened to the few words I was able to say to them with the spirit of heroes and the confidence of children”.

At lunch the Brigade stopped and had a longer rest, for the day was very hot again. Some joie-de-vivre must have started creeping back into the men as Gleichen narrates, “I remember that Moulton-Barrett went up to St André, who was lying fast asleep, and shouted out, “The Germans are on us!” Poor St André jumped to his feet with a yell and seized his revolver; it was a wicked joke.” Oh, that droll Moutlon-Barrett.

St André was the French interpreter to the 15th Brigade. He was a a Protestant pastor from Tours, son of the Vicomte de Saint André. Gleichen was very fond of him – “his English was very fluent, luckily untouched by a Scottish accent.” Charming.

St André can be seen here on the left, in a photograph of the 15th Brigade HQ staff. I’ve taken this from the online Project Gutenberg version of Gleichen’s book. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about him at this time.

Image of Some of Brigade Headquarters
L. de St A. J. T. W. G. A. L. M.-B. R. E. B.
photo by Lieut. H. M. Cadell, R.E.

The going was slow. French cavalry were heading in the opposite direction, which caused delays, and they were also blocked by a supply train in Noyon. But eventually they reached their destination, an orchard at Pontiose-Lés_Noyon, and, according to Gleichen, were told that they were going to rest there for several days. They’d marched 20 miles.

The fact that French troops were moving north is interesting in that there were obviously other things happening that the Dorsets knew nothing about. I’ve decided to keep quiet about these events so it doesn’t spoil the narrative of this particular story. I will explore them when the 15th Brigade becomes aware of what is happening.