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THE GREAT WAR

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The highlight of the regimental year was the annual camp lasting for two weeks at which the Regiment was always well mounted and turned out and displayed a high standard of training with venues at Eastbourne, Churn and Salisbury Plain. At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the Regiment was in camp in Berkshire, and returned to H.Q. to be mobilised, where great activity took place particularly in the requisitioning of horses — from many sources! A few days later the Regiment moved to Pirbright, and a month later embarked on the S.S. "Aragon" at Southampton for Alexandria to relieve the 3rd Dragoon Guards in Cairo as garrison cavalry.

Some troops were also transported in the ships India, Atlantian, Avon and Aragon with the horses.

The first troops to march into the Abbassia cavalry barracks found the horses in a serious state after the long crossing and the first weeks were occupied in the work of getting the horses back into condition, coupled with squadron and regimental drills.

For the three months to Christmas 1914 the regimental routine had little change. Off duty hours were, however, agreeably spent in Cairo at “Groppi’s, Sault’s, Cassino de Paris, the Egyptian Café, other resorts and the pyramids.

This routine of drill and stables soon became monotonous, but was relieved by the many attractions of Cairo. Where conditions remained very much as prior to August, it being the official policy to heavily play down the impact of war owing to the general unrest in the country.

 

On the 5th November 1914 Britain and France declared war on Turkey, the position in Egypt was not an easy one and the Khedive, definitely pro Turkish was deposed in favour of his uncle, Prince Hussein Kemal Pasha, who thus became the first Sultan of Egypt under the British protectorate. The state drive of the Prince to Abdin Palace from his mansion fronting the Nile and Shari el-Kubri was under escort of one squadron each from the Herts Yeomanry and the Westminster Dragoons waiting on Kasr-el-Nil bridge for Hussein to appear, with other squadrons of the two regiments lining the route dismounted. The drive was at a fast pace with drawn swords in the prevailing unrest, as it was feared an attempt would be made on the life of the Sultan.

In February 1915 due to the Turks launching an attack across Sinai and towards Egypt and the Canal, the regiment moved to Ismailia with the Herts Yeomanry and A squadron Duke of Lancaster’s Own to carry out reconnaissance’s in force with the Indian Cavalry, with the failure of the Turkish attack there was little to do and the Regiment returned to Abbassia to resume its routine of training.

In November the Regiment lost the Marconi Cavalry Pack field stations “A” and “B” given in 1910 by Lord Howard de Walden which were loaned to General Cox of the Indian Division and moved to the Suez Canal and stationed at Ismailia and at Kantara.

GALLIPOLI

On the 14th of August 1915 the Regiment set sail from Alexandria for the Gallipoli campaign which was under way, and the Regiment together with other yeomanry regiments, were dismounted to form the 5th Brigade of 2nd Yeomanry Division and embarked as reinforcements.

The Regiment was without one composite squadron of 'Home Details' of about a hundred who remained to look after the horses. When cavalry was dismounted the problem was of caring for their horses; in the case of the Gallipoli operation, dismounted cavalry regiments left over 50,000 horses behind — no small problem in caring for them.

On the 21st August the Regiment took part with the Yeomanry Division in the murderous advance across the dry open salt lake which resulted in the capture of Chocolate and Scimitar Hills.

Conducted by the 29th Division, the Scimitar Hill action was the final British offensive on the Gallipoli Front prior to evacuation in November 1915/ January 1916. Hills due east of Suvla Bay were to be attacked and captured as a subsidiary aim of the battle plan, but the so-called 'W Hills' Turkish position, plus Scimitar Hill further south, were to be placed into Allied hands as the main priority.

It was a two-pronged attack, using units to the southwest of the peak at ANZAC Cove and at Suvla Bay. Tried and trusted veteran troops were despatched from Helles on the southern tip of the peninsula. Success at the W Hills and at Scimitar Hill would link Suvla Bay with Anzac Cove, injecting fresh life into and consolidating the Allied peninsular campaign.

For the Yeomanry Regiments taking part in the battle, the first task was to cross from the waterfront at Lala Baba, to the base of Chocolate Hill across a salt plain. That meant covering one and a half miles of open terrain, overlooked by the enemy.

Turkish forces made good use of their advantage. The Turks fired shrapnel and high explosive shells onto the advancing yeomen (among them the W.D’s) as they crossed the salt plain. 

PASSAGE FROM A TROOPER'S DIARY OF THIS CROSSING

“Previous to us marching off a number of infantry Regiments had moved off, so that the mounted division brought up the rear. Over the top of the hill laughing and joking with a pick on our shoulder and our rifle slung ready for use. Our destination was to be chocolate hill, which from where we started was 2 miles distant and across an open plain with the wide expanse of Salt Lake (now dry) on our left.

The Turks with their guns soon spotted us, unfortunately you can’t hide a division of troops advancing in broad daylight. They gave us a terrible welcome, as many as 15 to 16 shrapnel shells were bursting over our heads at once. I soon gulped down the lump in my throat, jammed my helmet on tighter and prepared to go through with it.

I had quite prepared to go under, but I did not want agony with it. There was no doubt we were cannon fodder to draw fire while the Australians and new Zealanders were making a strong attack. It was not long before the Yeomanry came under that dreadful screen of fire, and I saw very soon that the Herts Yeo were losing a good many, their Colonel dropped and was burnt to death, while a high explosive shell demolished a troop (about 30 men). The men who were wounded, killed were now seen in dozens ever few yards and it was this sight that unnerved me for a minute or two.

We had now advanced nearly a mile and got the order to double. No confusion or shouting just a grim determination on everyone’s face, dripping with sweat and not a few with streams of blood and now and again a hoarse shout from our officer to extend and not get bunched up, although it made us farther to go, it was a wise thing, and we were glad afterwards. The running with our pack was difficult, across ploughed fields we went jumping over ditches and trenches almost falling on the other side falling exhausted amongst the dead and wounded. The shells and bullets were still raining fast and with wonderful luck I managed to dodge one which burst a few yards in front and the bullet from the shell even glanced off my helmet, while our Sargent just in front of me had his puttees blown to ribbons.

Presently another horror, a long belt of gorse and sand had caught alight with the shells, and which very quickly spread there was no help for it but to rush through and chance to luck, which I did and came out the other side almost choking with the smoke. An awful death trap this was and it claimed many victims, the poor devils simply dropped in dozens and were speedily burnt with the flames a sight I shan’t forget, two hundred yards more and we had reached the base of chocolate hill in comparative safety, we were pretty well done and not a few had to have medical treatment”

Casualties were generally high. This was where the now-traditional “Luck of the Westminster’s” made its first appearance. The WDs took very few casualties during the battle, with just one fatality and a relatively light butcher’s bill of wounded by the time they had reached their objective, the Chocolate Hill staging post.

From this point on, the Regiment (along with the rest of 5th Brigade) was held in reserve. From the WDs’ Regimental Diary: “Salt Lake … very heavy shelling, marvellously lucky. Started digging in behind Chocolate Hill. At 10 pm, ordered to stand by.

The rest of the Yeomanry Division had gone round each flank of Chocolate Hill About 11pm, orders received to wait further instructions. This was apparently very lucky as our Brigadier had received orders to advance in support round the right flank of Chocolate Hill, dig in at the foot of Scimitar Hill, and to charge and take it (Scimitar Hill) in the morning.

This must have been due to a mistake and general muddle as most of the infantry had retired into the trenches and only the lower part of this hill was in our possession. Finally, orders received at 1:30 am to retire to Lala Bala which was reached about 4am.”

This was followed by a fifteen-week period of entrenchment in appalling conditions of dirt, flies, lice, poor food and water under constant fire and midst mounting unburied dead. Dysentery caused many more casualties than enemy fire and these were sent back to Egypt for treatment.

When eventually the Regiment was pulled out at the end of the campaign and re-embarked for Egypt, it paraded just 9 Officers and 139 NCO’s and men truly staggering casualties. On returning to Egypt, re-equipping and training took place before the Regiment was sent to Libya to put down a rebellion stirred up by the Turks of the previously friendly Senuissi tribesmen. 

The role of the Regiment was patrolling for the protection of the lines of communication and was based at El Daaba. Whilst here a small detachment was attached to 1st Light Car Patrol at Amrir (shades of the future role) which made long distance sorties into the desert in vehicles which were mechanically most unreliable with frequent breakdowns and punctures (thirty per vehicle per day was average!). On the termination of this campaign, the Regiment returned to Cairo and it was about this time that a large number of O.R.'s were sent off for commissioning.

In January 1917, a force under General Chetwode advanced into Sinai with the intention of driving the Turks out of Palestine and removing the threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal; the Regiment formed part of the 5th Mounted Bde. The first objective was Rafa, and the second was Gaza which was not taken at the first attack but only later after the capture of Beersheba. By this time the Regiment was acting as XX Corp. Cavalry, a high honour indeed for a yeomanry regiment. 

After the second battle of Gaza, A Squadron, in bivouac at Wadi Sheria, became responsible for patrolling the divisional front, often out in no-man’s land. This work was both essential and demanding, though also mainly unexciting, tedious and dangerous. Over a period of months, casualties mounted, continually lowering the strength of the Squadron, which had never regained full strength after Gallipoli. In time, these patrols, rather than just showing a presence were tasked with reconnaissance, probing the Turks’ positions.

One patrol earned a commendation from Brigadier-General Pearson commanding 160 Brigade, 53rd Division: “for the cool and disciplined manner of their withdrawal under fire. The areas of recent reconnaissance’s by troops of this squadron have been previously reconnoitred by full squadrons supported by automatic rifles, and this mission has been carried out satisfactorily by troops of A Squadron.”

During June, the Squadron was issued with the newly introduced Hotchkiss rifle, one per troop. A Squadron, for various reasons, decided to have a separate dedicated Hotchkiss troop, which worked very well by all accounts. This is believed to be the British Army's first Hotchkiss troop. Certain trouble-spot’s developed, where patrols were frequently harassed by the Turks. So a plan was mounted to envelop those areas by a sweeping flanking movement. Whilst successful, with several Turkish soldiers killed or captured, the posts were re-occupied as soon as the W.D’s left. During late August the Squadron returned to the Regiment. Major Haig received the Distinguished Service Order, while the regiment was awarded its Gaza Battle Honour. During 1917, there was stalemate around the city of Gaza, with British forces attacking three times before it fell in November 1917, the third battle for Gaza having started on 31 October 1917, the same day as the battle for Beersheba. 

Palestine 26 March 1917 to 31 Oct 1918. As far back as 1915, the W.D’s in support of the Indian cavalry had carried out reconnaissance east of the Canal. The Regiment returned to the Sinai and then Palestine in January 1917, having been moved from its duties on the Western Frontier.

During this period, the W.D’s rarely saw service as a Regiment. Rather, each of the Squadrons was assigned to different task, often in the role of attached cavalry for various divisions and smaller units in this theatre or reinforcing larger formations. Another detachment was the Regimental Machine-Gun Section, which was attached to the 5th Mounted Brigade until the war's end.

The Regiment was active on a wide front, especially on the eastern flank of Palestine, including the towns Beersheba, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Those squadrons remaining in the Regiment, namely B and C, were tasked with supporting operations around Romani

June 1917 found the Regiment (minus A Squadron) at El Arish. One operation, under Colonel Morrison-Bell, made a sweep covering some 120 miles via Magdaba to El-Auja, with the aim of clearing Turkish regular and irregular forces that were making a nuisance of themselves from the area. This successful action lasted some four days. Finally, in August 1917, General Chetwoode appointed the WDs as his XX Corps Cavalry and the majority of the Regiment was reformed.

For A Squadron, it seemed an unwelcome order, but for others, it brought a sigh of relief. As corps cavalry the Regiment carried out extensive patrols at troop and squadron strength, on the right (Beersheba) flank, and had charge of numerous officer reconnaissance’s. They often operated over a wide, waterless area, accumulating detailed knowledge of the terrain. This proved extremely useful when, on the night of 30/31 March 1917, they helped guide some 40,000 troops into positions for the assault on Beersheba. 

Other tasks, especially as XX Corps approached Beersheba, included setting up “night outposts” what we would refer to these days as observation posts (OPs).

Finally, preparations were put in hand for the attack on Beersheba (of The Seven Wells fame), with the initial artillery bombardment starting on 31 October 1917. “By 0300 on the 31st October the Westminster Dragoons were in zero positions, south-west of Beersheba to cover the right flank of the 53rd Division’s attack. With XX Corps’ artillery opening up at 0600 on the defences south and west of Beersheba followed by the 53rd’s infantry attack, the ANZAC Mounted Division later in the day rode in from the East, with a final gallop over the Turkish troops in their trenches. Their bid to secure the wells from destruction was successful.” This was a truly remarkable feat.

During the battle for Beersheba, B Squadron moved to the left of the line held by the Regiment, becoming engaged with a superior number of enemy cavalry. Trooper Newberry was killed, and 17 others wounded, including Captain Harding (Squadron Leader) and Corporal Moles. Both refused to be evacuated and remained with the Squadron until the end of the engagement. As a result, Captain Harding was awarded the Military Cross and Cpl Moles the Military Medal, both awards being the first gained in the Regiment. After the fall of Beersheba, C Squadron under the command of Captain Rowe rejoined 53rd Divisional Cavalry and took part in the assault on Khuweilfeh, the wells there being of crucial importance since the seven wells in Beersheba were some 12 miles south.

Turkish resistance was stubborn, holding out until the third day of the attack. British forces continued to advance north during the following month, facing a stubborn enemy, in difficult terrain. As November wore on, the weather broke. That brought difficult conditions for men and horses. By the end of November, allied forces were closing on Jerusalem, after hard fighting. Jerusalem 7 to 9 December 1917 on 4 December, allied forces started towards Jerusalem along the Hebron Jerusalem Road. The Westminster Dragoons had the important task of flank protection over difficult terrain made worse by the weather. The eastern flank proved to be doubly difficult and exposed. 

However, relentless allied attacks, especially on the coastal plain, forced the enemy to withdraw. Supported by C Squadron Westminster Dragoons, 53rd Division moved towards Hebron. A troop under the command of Lieutenant Banham entered the historic town, the first British troops to do so, whilst in contact with the Turkish rear guard. In the meantime, A Squadron had moved six miles on towards Yutta, from which Turkish irregular forces were forced to retreat to the Bethlehem area.

On 9 December, the Regimental war dairy reads: “The regiment was ordered to be ready to move at 0500. At 0500, Lieut Col Morrison-Bell Cmdg. XX Corps Cavalry, reported to Brig.-General Money at El Burak for orders. ‘A’ Squadron under Major Haig furnished the advance guard to the 53rd Division marching on Jerusalem.

The regiment (less A Sqn) guarded the left flank of the 53rd Division and advanced over very difficult country to Beit Sufara. ‘C’ Squadron then pushed forward to Katamon, sending forward one troop towards Lifta to gain touch with the 60th Division. 

The Regiment (less A Sqn) then concentrated, moving to Div. H.Q. on the Bethlehem Road and were ordered to advance if possible up the Jerusalem Jericho Road. This however was cancelled, and the regiment ordered to stand-by. ‘A’ Squadron had advanced into Jerusalem City, reaching the north side of the holy city walls when it was heavily attacked by machine-gun fire from Turk positions on the Mount of Olives. ‘A’ Squadron kept the enemy busily engaged until relieved by the infantry of the 1/5th Welsh at 1730.” In addition to their contribution to the battles for Jerusalem, it is generally accepted that the WDs were the first body of uniformed men to March into the City on 9 December 1917.

Unfortunately, the end of the battle of Jerusalem did not end the campaign. The following day fighting took place with the Turkish rear-guard near the Mount of Olives and a charge was made by 'A' Sqn. against them: this was to prove to be the last mounted charge the Regiment was ever to make.

After the capture of Jerusalem, advances by the allied forces were slow. On 27 December the Turks started a major counterattack with the aim of recapturing the city. The Regiment moved out of Bethlehem in readiness for an attack on the right flank by Turkish forces. Some 700 Cavalry and supporting forces were seen approaching. Members of C Sqn engaged the enemy and conducted a fighting withdrawal, eventually falling back to the monastery at Ibn Obeid, in support of the Middlesex infantry stationed there. Together, the infantry and WDs repulsed this counterattack.

The next few months were spent in patrols and reconnaissance to the north of Jerusalem in terrible weather conditions which resulted in many casualties in men and horses, mostly from the bad weather. Thus ended the Palestine Campaign in which the Regiment had done so well, and in March 1918 was withdrawn to Alexandria.

It was here that the sad news was confirmed that the Regiment was to lose its horses, which was a bitter blow to cavalrymen, with the hand-in of equipment and horses prior to starting training as machine gunners and being re-named the 104 Bn. (W.D.) Machine-Gun Company — an era had come to an end in the history of the Regiment.

FRANCE

The situation in France in the early part of 1918 was indeed serious and a call was made on General Alleby, following his capture of Jerusalem and his holding of the line some 20 miles north from the Mediterranean coast to Amman, to release a large part of his forces for the reinforcement of General Sir Douglas Haig’s armies was vitally necessary.

The Regiment sailed from Alexandria to Marseilles arriving on the 1st June, after a few days moved on by train in converted cattle trucks to the Western Front, arriving at Etaples in June 1918 for more training in M.G. technique;

Being converted to machine gunners met with mixed feelings, although it was recognised that in the completely different conditions of warfare in France, machine-guns were of more value than horses.

Again, shades of the role to come since it was from the Heavy Branch of the Machine-Gun Corps that the Tanks Corps was later formed.

The canvas camp at Etaples was much subjected to enemy bombing, which meant digging in. The training which had begun in Alexandria was soon in full swing, the reconstruction period was difficult due to the large number of men going for commission and other’s being granted long overdue leave. At this time the designation of the regiment changed from “F” Battalion M.G.C. to 104 Machine Gun Battalion.

A new experience at this time was training in Gas Warfare (another link to later role), and to re-orient to the very different conditions of the previous three and a half years was no easy matter, from sun and sand to rain and mud.

Late in August with the training in an advanced stage, the Battalion moved up in reserve at Bollezeele.

During that month, officers and ORs alike were attached to various machine gun battalions in the front line to “get the atmosphere.” Here, the completely different style of warfare which now confronted the Regiment was harshly apparent. 

Even those who had been in the trenches at Gallipoli three years before were shocked. The utter desolation, incessant shelling, difficulties of communication and most markedly, the fatalism of those so long exposed to the fighting, who wished for a blighty wound.

The Battalion was mechanised with Crossley box-cars and other transport. This mobility was essential when the Battalion was attached to the 40th Division for the area of operations was around Ypres, where the enemy were in retreat. Sections were attached to forward troops, and within a matter of days the distance from the forward troops to Regimental reserves was some six miles. As in Egypt and Palestine the Regiment did not operate as a Regiment but as troops, with sections dispersed all over the front in the Ypres area. All were heavily engaged up to mid-September when they returned to billets in the Bollezeele area for a rest period.

The Regiment had been moved from Bollezelle to the front line again, this time supporting the advance of the 2nd Army through Courtrai. In the prelude, and during the battle itself, there were many instances of 'The Luck'. Unfortunately, with long periods in action, albeit against a weakening enemy, casualties mounted. The tide was now turning against the Germans and in November their resistance collapsed.

On the evening of the 10th November the duty officer Major N Harding and the duty signaller received the famous message that Germany had accepted the armistice.

“The German Government to the German Plenipotentiaries via all the Allies. The German Government accepts the conditions for an Armistice made to them by the Allies. November 8th”

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