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WW1 Centenary
The 1st Cheshire Battalion in the Great War Part 1 1914
The Cheshire Regiment or 22nd Regiment of Foot was formed at Chester in March 1689 by Colonel Henry Howard, 7th Duke of Norfolk and is one of the few Regiments never to have been amalgamated. Immediately before the Great War the 1st Battalion was stationed at Londonderry, part of 15th Infantry Brigade, 5th Division. Together with the 3rd Division this made up the 2nd Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir James Moncrieff Grierson, who was to die at 7.00am on August 17th of a heart attack, on the train near Amiens taking him to the front, aged 55. As a fluent French speaker he would have been a great asset in the initial difficult days with our allies, who on numerous occasions withdrew their forces without notification of or agreement with their fellow combatants. His replacement was General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien a personal friend of Lord Kitchener, one of the more enlightened generals in the First War. A survivor of the Zulu wars where he escaped in January 1879 from the massacre at Islandwana (the battle prior to Rorke's Drift) on a baggage pony chased for over 20 miles. It was his first overseas deployment as a transport officer. All 1,300+ redcoat troops were killed just 11 days after arrival. He was to lead the Corps at the Battle of Mons and the stand during the retreat from Mons at Le Cateau. Posted to East Africa in late 1915 he contracted pneumonia and returned home. The unrest in Northern Ireland and possible civil war in Ulster had kept the 15th Brigade occupied, but it was obvious by the end of July 1914 a European war was inevitable. Mobilisation started on the 4th of August and was complete on the 6th day after arrival of 560 reservists and the battalion entrained for Belfast early on the morning of the 14th August and embarked on the SS "Massilia" with two companies of 1st Norfolks. Only then were sealed orders opened and the destination of France revealed, the Battalion disembarking at Le Havre on the 16th. The 1st Battalion were part of the original "Old Contemptibles" a name accredited to Kaiser Wilhelm II who purported stated "what, that contemptible little army" upon learning the BEF were in the field around Mons in Belgium. Then by train to Le Cateau, and in reserve at Bois de Bossu when the German attack opened on the 23rd. The battalion moved that afternoon 1.5 miles east and were relieved by the Manchester Regiment as the German attack re-opened, and moved off to Dour Station. About 11.00am the following day they moved in the direction of Elogues with orders to hold there, unaware that a general retirement was in progress as the British Expeditionary Force continued its retreat from Mons. The battalion deployed around 11.30am and came under immediate attack with little opportunity to dig in; stooks of corn forming the only shelter. A support attack by the 4th Cavalry Brigade met the German wire and suffered considerable loss. The 119th Field Battery was also forced to retire. Around 3.00pm it was discovered the Norfolk Regiment on their right had retired following orders received at 2.30pm and not received by the Cheshires, and their right flank was "in the air". An immediate retirement was ordered but 'A' Company and part of 'B' Company on the left did not receive the orders and were only aware of the situation about 5.00pm by which time they were completely surrounded and, after an unsuccessful counter attack, surrendered around 7.00pm. The battalion had in effect fought two German Army Corps in aiding the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force, and the 24th August is still celebrated as a second Regimental Day. At roll call at Les Bavai that evening only 6 officers, a Warrant Officer and 199 other ranks (of 27 officers and 934 other ranks) answered the call. A battalion which had fervently drunk to the King's health in the Officer's Mess in Londonderry in celebration of the outbreak of war, within 3 weeks, had virtually ceased to exist. During the first few months of the war, official diaries were hand- written, some later typed up, when there was less activity. Extract 10.11.14 to 14.11.14 Ypres area. Diary (part) on the 14th records "30 NCO's and men killed, wounded and missing. Two German patrols of 15 & 7 men were shot down just outside our trenches" The following day a 24 mile march back through Le Cateau and bivouac at La Sotiere, and after only one day's respite they stood to arms again at 3.00am next morning to cover the retreat of the rest of the Brigade. The retreat was to continue for the next 2 weeks facilitated by Smith-Dorrien's decision to stand and fight at Le Cateau in what was to be one of the last one day set piece battles of the war, temporarily stopping the German army in it's tracks on the 25th at a cost of 7,812 casualties, the Cheshires only on reserve, being in no real condition to fight. By the 5th of September the retreat was over, and in a small orchard near Tournant, a mere 18 kilometres from Paris, the battalion again turned north as the Battle of the Marne commenced, but were fortunately spared any major engagements. By the 11th of October the battalion found itself in Béthune after a meandering march northwards with only a few minor engagements. On the 17th the battalion moved towards Festubert then took Volaines later that evening at the third attempt, miraculously with only one man killed, one missing and four wounded. Two days later 3 days of successive attacks were made to try and take La Bassee without success and nearly 100 casualties. A strong enemy counter attack on the 22nd drove the Cheshires out of their trenches at bayonet point, over 200 men missing after the action (most of the 248 re-inforcements who joined less than a week before) The remnants of the battalion returned again to Béthune where they remained for 3 days. The last few days of October were to see the Cheshires in support action at Neuve Chappelle (to be a major engagement in 1915) with light casualties, mainly from sniping. After 4 days in reserve near Dranoutre in early November, the battalion marched to Ypres in Belgium where they took over 350 yards of trenches from the 2nd Bedfordshires, and daily casualties from shell-fire became the norm, until they were relieved on the 20th leaving behind 35 killed and 99 wounded and an unknown number missing over that period. The deaths included that of (attached) 2nd Lieutenant Gerard Rupert Laurie Anderson, world record holder for the 400 yards hurdles (56.8 seconds set at Crystal Palace in 1910) and competitor at the Stockholm Olympic 1912 who died of wounds on the 11th - exactly four year before the Armistice; ironically he was from Chester Street in London. The Belgian town of Ypres was to be the centre of 3 major engagements - the "Salient" was near surrounded and shelled constantly for most of the war. At the end of the war it was said a man on horseback could see across the city and despite Churchill wanting to leave it as a permanent memorial it was painstakingly rebuilt after the war including construction of the famous Menin Gate where the "Last Post" is sounded every night at 8.00pm since 1927. In November 1914 the town was held, just, literally with kitchen staff taking up rifles as a last resort. The town had no strategic importance whatsoever, but psychologically it was decided it should not be taken - it never would. From then until the end of the month in billets in Bailleul, where they paraded for H.R.H. the Prince of Wales on the 26th, Commander-in-Chief Sir John French the following day and Smith- Dorrien the day after, capped by a church parade on the 29th. The battalion remained at Bailleul until the 18th of the next month with a final inspection of no less than King George V on the 3rd. 64 reinforcements arrived on the 6th shortly after parading for "divine service". That day (18th) they moved into trenches near Neuve Eglise and a large draft of 4 officers and 444 NCO's arrived on Christmas Eve, the new troops now significantly outnumbering the remnants of the original battalion. A quiet December was rounded off with an uneventful Christmas Day in the trenches where they were presented with "their majesties presents and Xmas cards" before returning to billets in Bailleul on the 28th, finally treated with a route march on New Years Eve. So ended 1914 for the Cheshire 1st Battalion and the B.E.F. and all thoughts that it would be a short war had been long forgotten. A war fought by a relatively few professional soldiers, and commanded by generals with little experience of mechanised warfare or modern tactics, would expand in the following years into a true world war. Britain would begin to draw on her Empire and soon troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada & Newfoundland and India would fight and die many miles from their homelands, and of course, the Pals battalions of volunteers; Kitchener's first million would start to arrive in France and other theatres of war. The 1st Cheshire Battalion had played a very small, but vital, part in what was to become a very big war, but can undoubtedly be credited with assisting in saving the B.E.F. in its long retreat from Mons but at great cost. Article by Noel Headley of Llanferres. You can contact Noel via the  contact page
©: G E Conway, 2010
General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien
The 1st Battalion leaving Derry 14th August 1914
La Bassee canal 1914 and below as it is today
Devastation at Ypres
©: G E Conway, 2010
©: G E Conway, 2010
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