Busman’s holiday


1st November 1914

The Dorsets awoke on a fine Sunday morning, perhaps expecting a nice leisurely breakfast and a stroll around Strazeele. However, at 7.50am they were greeted by a II Corps Staff Officer, Colonel Shoubridge, who announced that they were to be taken away by buses to the front. How dismayed they must have been. Their promised seven days rest vanished in an instant.

I think that II Corps knew it would be a tough ask so they decided to apply a bit of motivational management. Colonel Shoubridge himself was an ex-1st Dorsets man. As the men climbed wearily into the buses Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, II Corps’ commander, arrived and spoke to them, praising their fine fighting at Pont Fixe. The phrase forms the title of a self-published book I’m still trying to track down by Captain A.L. Ransome, “The fine fighting of the Dorsets”, portions of which embellish the official History of The Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919.

I have reasons to doubt his sincerity. Smith-Dorrien had actually been very critical of the 15th and 13th Brigades’ performance at Pont Fixe as I’ve explored in a previous post. He also claimed that the Dorsets and Cheshires “did not put up a resolute resistance” on the 22nd October at Violaines.

But these were desperate times and every spare unit was needed. The rumble of guns heard by the Dorsets the previous evening had been the sound of the Germans breaking the British line at Gheluvelt, east of Ypres in Belgium. Only a desperate charge by the 2nd Bn Worcestershire regiment on the 31st October had saved the situation. It remained critical time for the Allies and the British and French poured their tattered troops in to plug the gaps. The Dorsets were bound for Ploegsteert, where they were being attached to the 4th Division, who were having a very hard time of it.

And so the Dorsets grudgingly clambered aboard buses. Buses straight from the streets of London., manned by volunteers, painted red and white and still plastered with adverts for Evening News and Wright’s Soap.

London Buses in World War One
London B-Type Buses

The London B-Type Motor Omnibus could hold 24 men, so between 30 and 40 buses would have trundled over the border into Belgium. It must have been a bizarre couple of hours for Frank, as if his old London life had suddenly emerged out of the past.

The journey would have been pleasant enough for the Dorsets as they enjoyed clear blue skies, very similar to today’s weather 100 years later. This wasn’t to last. As they approached Lindenhoek they could actually see heavy shelling to the north east at Wytschaete. Messines to the east had fallen and the Germans were pushing forward into Ploegsteert wood three miles east of Neuve Eglise.

At 3pm the Dorsets went into billets at Neuve Eglise. At 5pm B Company was sent out as an outpost on the Wulverghem-Neuve Eglise Road. C and D Companies entrenched nearby. Frank and the rest of A Company remained in billets in Neuve Eglise. An hour later they were joined by the rest of the Battalion, leaving just one platoon of B Company covering the road.



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.

You are in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike


6th September 1914

It’s important to take stock of what had been happening in the days since Le Cateau. The general retirement by the BEF appeared to have had no real plan other than to keep moving back.

Sir John French was considering defending Paris or even withdrawing from the field completely and making for the Channel ports. But all this was set to change. The previous day a battle had started almost by accident.

Joffre had been hastily assembling a scratch force, under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury. Moving troops from his eastern flanks by train and any vehicle that could carry them, Joffre created the French Sixth Army to screen Paris from the approaching German forces. The BEF was now no longer on the extreme left flank of the Allies.

The German Schlieffen plan had wanted to encircle Paris from the west, but their pursuit of the retreating French and British forces led them down the eastern edge of Paris. The Germans weren’t aware of the new Sixth Army on their right flank. They generally believed the BEF to be pretty much destroyed. And so they were drawn on by the pursuit, possibly hoping to draw the Allies into a pitched battle.

On the morning of the 5th September, the French Sixth Army started to advance east from Paris. At the River Ourcq they met the approaching German IV Reserve Corps. As the German First Army began to wheel eastwards to face this new threat to its right flank, the Allies spotted a potential gap between the German First and Second Armies. This gap opened up exactly where the BEF and the French Fifth Army were positioned.

Joffre gave the orders to attack early on the morning of the 5th September. The British Army HQ was informed but, unfortunately, as we saw yesterday, the BEF had already started continued to retreat with a night march, and so was 12-15 miles away from where Joffre thought they were.

So when the Dorsets set out at 5am to Villeneuve (sic) as advanced guard to the 15th Brigade, they could already hear the guns in the distance. Gleichen remembers the attitude of the men as they advanced.

What had happened, or why we were suddenly to turn against the enemy after ten days of retreat, we could not conceive; but the fact was there, and the difference in the spirits of the men was enormous. They marched twice as well, whistling and singing, back through Tournans and on to Villeneuve.

The 15th Brigade then marched, passing with some difficulty through the forest at Crécy, to Montcerf. Here the Brigade paused for an hour. While Gleichen met with General Smith-Dorrien, the Dorsets pushed C and D Companies into outposts. Later on at 6:45pm the advance continued to La Celle-Sur-Mourin. It was very difficult terrain to move through in the dark, with narrow streets, tight valleys and twisting roads. The Dorsets disturbed a German Uhlan patrol, who left after firing a few shots but nothing else was seen of the enemy.

The Brigade bivouacked in a stubble field and waited for their next orders, while guns rumbled to their right. The Third Division was engaged with the Germans at Faremoutiers. The Battle of the Marne had begun.

In an aside, I think I can confirm that Frank was in A Company. I recently found a conduct sheet marked with A Company. There are also a few other shards of evidence that confirm this but they appear further down the line. I’ll go back and elaborate any A Company action in previous posts.

Image showing Frank's conduct sheet
Frank’s conduct sheet showing A Company reference

D’Ors set

18th August 1914, Ors, France

The Dorsets continued to guard the approaches to Ors and Pommereuil. The war diary details the various relief patterns throughout the day.

One thing I haven’t been able to find out is which company Frank was in. I’ve contacted the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester but they haven’t got any information down to company level. At this time the battalion is at full strength but as casualties mounted the companies became amalgamated, reformed and reinforced. I think, for Frank at least, it’s going to be very hard to identify his exact company.

The 15th Brigade’s stay around Pommereuil allowed time for the rest of the 5th Division to assemble along with the 3rd Division. These two divisions formed the Second Army Corps.

II Corps had suffered a shock setback the previous day. Sir James Grierson, he of Bluelands Army fame, had died of a heart attack on a train on his way to Le Cateau. Lord Kitchener chose Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien as his replacement. Smith-Dorrien was not a popular choice with Field Marshall Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF.

Smith-Dorrien was, however, popular with the troops and had strong views on how to conduct warfare, including a lesser role for cavalry, greater use of machine guns and development fire and removal actions. All of these elements of modern warfare were to be brought into sharp focus over the next six months.