The Royal Welsh Fusiliers were a poetic bunch. Among their number, they could count both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, whose poetry shattered the jingoistic messages of 1914 and exposed the truth of war in all its grim horror. Neither escaped unscathed.
Siegfried Sassoon had enlisted in the army even before the outbreak of war. He joined the Sussex Yeomanry, but broke his arm so badly in a riding accident that he spent most of 1915 convalescing and only arrived in France in November of that year, as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (who would later become the Royal Welch Fusiliers). A few days later Robert Graves arrived. He had been with the 3rd Battalion since enlisting with the Fusiliers just after the outbreak of war.
With poetry in common, the two men became close friends.
Graves published his first volume of poetry, Over the Brazier, in 1916, but almost didn’t live long enough to see it in print. At the battle of the Somme, he took a shell splinter through the lung and was so badly wounded that he wasn’t expected to survive and was even listed in the official reports as having died of his wounds. There’s a letter in the Imperial War Museum’s collections from the poet and author John Drinkwater to Graves’ father, offering his congratulations for finding out his son’s reported death was not in fact true. His recovery was long and arduous, and although he did go back to France for a brief spell, most of the rest of his war was spent in England.
Sassoon’s poetry, meanwhile, grew darker and darker. He opened up the dark underbelly of the war, writing of rotting corpses, horrific injuries and men driven to suicide by the horror of what they endured. Paradoxically, he himself was a great favourite with the men under his command, and proved himself an extremely able and daring company commander. In July, 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross. Later he was recommended for the Victoria Cross (although it was never awarded).
Graves described Sassoon’s bravery as ‘suicidal’, and it does seem that as Sassoon’s despair at the horrors he witnessed increased, he drove himself to ever greater levels of self-sacrifice. In 1917, after a spell in hospital in England, he decided to make a stand. In Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration – a letter to his commanding officer, which was also published in newspapers and read out in parliament – he refused to return to duty. Some saw his stance as treasonous, but his sympathisers, Graves among them, helped ensure that instead of a court martial, he was officially diagnosed as suffering from shell shock.
He eventually returned to the Western Front, and was even promoted, but in July 1918 he was badly wounded, shot in the head by fellow British soldiers, who had mistaken him for a German. His war was over.
Although both Graves and Sassoon carried the physical scars of their time in the trenches their whole lives, perhaps the more enduring legacy was the effect it had on their work. It’s through that that so many others have been able to get a glimpse of the horrors they lived through and survived, but which claimed so many of their contemporaries.
Tagging of the diary of the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers is still at an early stage. Why not join us at Operation War Diary and follow the journey of these two remarkable men?
In the short time I’ve been working on Operation War Diary, I’ve been privileged to go behind the anonymity of our onscreen usernames and get to know some of our Citizen Historians a little better. There are people from all walks of life and backgrounds giving up their time to help preserve the legacy of the men who fought and died 100 years ago. For all of us, reading the war diaries can be a humbling, often deeply saddening experience, but many of our volunteers have served in the military themselves, and I’ve often wondered how their own experiences affected them as they worked on the project.
Kris Bancroft, a former U.S. Army Artilleryman and veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, was kind enough to tell me what it means to him.
I always wanted to be a soldier, so much that I joined the U.S. Army National Guard shortly after I turned 17 years old. A few days after I graduated from High School in 1989, I made the decision to go on active duty, and my life has never been the same since. Not long ago, I came across Operation War Diary. As a combat veteran with severe PTSD, I must admit that my first thought after reading and tagging a few war diary pages was that I was making a mistake. Instead, I discovered a connection that has kept me coming back night after night. I read about the harsh winter weather, and the hot summer days. I tag the names of soldiers who come and go, and even more who will never leave the fields and trenches. In short, I find that I relate to soldiers mentioned in the war diaries and all they have gone through. Thanks to Operation War Diary, I have been given a chance to do something meaningful to honor the soldiers of “The Great War”.
As well as the time and energy Kris invests in Operation War Diary, he also runs a popular YouTube channel, IKINA WANA (also known as Warfighters), which he created to honour all soldiers from all countries. In the past he’s used the profits from the channel to support veterans’ causes across the United States, including the creation of memorials to comrades who didn’t come home. Kris has also very generously offered to donate profits from the channel to the Imperial War Museum to help us preserve the past and we’re incredibly grateful for his support.
You can visit IKINA WANA here: https://www.youtube.com/user/justmekkb
Why not get in touch and tell us what Operation War Diary means to you? You can get involved at http://www.operationwardiary.org/
Nowadays, it’s widely believed that the first British soldier to fire a shot in anger on the Western Front was Drummer Edward Thomas, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who at 7am on the 22nd of August, 1914 spotted an enemy cavalryman ahead and opened fire on him.
The picture was not always so clear, however.
Eleanor Broaders, one of our eagle-eyed Citizen Historians, found an intriguing entry in the diary of the 3rd Division’s Cyclist Company, dated 12th of November, 1915. In it, the commanding officer, Captain Eric Swaine, writes:
In the Field Almanac 1915 (Official Copy) it states that “First shot fired between German and British Forces took place at 12.40pm August 23rd, 1915.”
This Company exchanged shots with German Cavalry before noon on August 22nd, 1915. One German Uhlan was wounded and his lance captured.
There are some obvious errors in Captain Swaine’s account. He records the year as 1915, for example, rather than 1914 and by 12.40pm on August the 23rd, the Battle of Mons was already well underway. However, if you allow for the fact that this entry was probably written in haste over a year after the events by a man in the midst of war, it still makes for some very interesting reading.
Whatever really happened, it’s true that, 100 years ago today, Captain Swaine’s Cyclist Company would have been amongst the first British units in action on continental Europe since the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. Lightweight and mobile, the cyclists made excellent reconnaissance troops and would have been amongst the first units to encounter the enemy. In fact, another cyclist, Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed on the Western Front the day before Captain Swaine’s Company captured their German lance, after he and a companion encountered a German cavalry patrol in the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons. It’s believed Private Parr stayed behind to hold the enemy unit off, while his comrade withdrew to warn the rest of the British troops that Germans were in the area.
With 100 years of history between us and the events of the 22nd of August, 1914, it’s easy to forget how confused things were in those early days of the war, when the armies were still mobile and the deadlock of trench warfare had yet to emerge. Why not get involved at Operation War Diary and uncover history as it was written.
You can read Captain Swaine’s diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00014ea
100 years ago, in the summer of 1914, the British Regular Army of just under 250,000 men was scattered around the Empire, with nearly half deployed overseas. On 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany after its rejection of the British ultimatum over the neutrality of Belgium. Mobilisation orders were issued and the war diaries were officially started. Day 1 of mobilisation was 5th August.
Some Units made an even earlier start on their war diary. The 1st Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s starts on 29 July, for example, with the entry “Precautionary Period. Det left for Sheerness, 10.45 pm, 9 officers, 340 R&F” (rank and file). Part of the plan for this precautionary period was for some units to be sent to key coastal areas in case of immediate invasion and this move was probably part of that plan. In succeeding days the battalion diary entries include “all officers & men recalled from leave” and “all men pending transfer to Army Reserve recalled”.
Most units had to recall reservists, men who had had some full time service and now retained an obligation for call-up if their country decided it needed them. The speed with which reservists returned to units, considering the limitations of the times, is impressive. 1 Berkshires were in Aldershot and their war diary records 103 reservists arrived on day 1 of mobilisation, 438 on day 2 and 33 on day 3. By 11.30 p.m. on day 3 (7th August) they reported that their mobilisation was complete and on 11th August the Battalion was inspected by the King and Queen which must have been a shock for returning reservists who might have been away from the spit and polish of the Army for nearly 5 years in some cases.
The war diary of 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery shows them in Kildare, Ireland in early August when the order to mobilise is received. Equipment is issued and reservists recalled to the Colours begin to arrive. The author comments that the reservist gunners are good but that the drivers are “indifferent .. unaccustomed to riding and driving for some years”. Presumably many had returned after service to civilian occupations that involved neither! 50 horses arrived, described as “soft and straight from grass .. and will probably gall easily” This Unit seems also to have lost a number of their NCOs who were promoted to fill gaps in other units and the diarist notes rather sarcastically that “In future the various grades of NCO for the Ammunition Column should be maintained in place”.
Units also did their best to carry out training for their newly arrived men. The war diary of 16 Field Ambulance RAMC describes an incident on a training exercise while the Battalion were still in Cork waiting for orders to move, where “two teams took fright and bolted .. due to the inexperience of the drivers and the untrained horses”. Damage was caused both to the Unit’s equipment and to a civilian cart (for which they had to pay £15) and one man was seriously injured jumping off a wagon.
Some reservists could have been out of the regular army for years and there was a degree of effort made to at least get them all to shoot a rifle before they went to France. Some didn’t get much chance. For example, 2nd Battalion the Welsh Regiment’s diary describes 5th August as their first day of mobilisation. By 7 August all personnel are present and over the next few days the rejoined reservists get to shoot just 20 rounds each on the ranges. They left by train for Southampton on August 12th and embarked for France the same evening.
Others were a bit luckier with their musketry training. 1st Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment reported that by 7th August they’d had 580 reservists rejoin then at Borden and that “Half the Battalion at a time proceeded to the range where the following practices were fired by every man, 100 yards (grouping) and 300 yards slow and rapid”.
Some Units which were already in England found they still had to transport their reservists the length of the country to join them. Trains were requisitioned under Emergency War Orders and individual reservists could show their ID at any Post Office to get 5 shillings travel expenses or go to any station to get a rail warrant. 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were in Plymouth on 4th August when at 5.20 p.m. the war diary notes “Order to mobilise received by telephone and acknowledged”. By 13th August they had received 547 reservists from their depot in Aberdeen and they then proceeded by train to Southampton and embarked for Boulogne where they arrived early on the morning of the 14th and proceeded straight to a rest camp.
During the mobilisation process there was of course a great deal of equipment to be issued both to the regulars and to the returning reservists. One of the most problematic issues, which would prove to be all too serious in the days of the retreat from Mons that would follow, was getting boots to fit the returning reservists and getting the boots broken in before they left for France. The diary of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment complains on 8th August about the “very inadequate allowance of boot oil allowed by the Regulations in the Mobilisation Stores” and says they have had to “purchase large stocks of castor and neatsfoot oil to ensure the reservists’ boots could be well dressed and softened” after getting reports from the Companies of problems on the short training marches they had been undertaking.
There seems to have been almost a holiday feel in the departure of some Units. The war diary of 1 Irish Guards, describes a parade in barracks on August 11th where they were inspected by their Colonel, Field Marshall Roberts who gave a farewell speech. Then on the following day they left on two trains from Nine Elms Station, one half of the Battalion at 7.15 and the other half at 8.30 and “The Band played the right half of the Battalion as far as Vauxhall Bridge and then returned to play the left half Battalion to the station”.
In the next few weeks, the roughly 80,000 men making up the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would take part in the Battle of Mons and become forever immortalised as the “Old Contemptibles”. Most of them expected the war to be over by Christmas and sadly for many of them it would be – although they would manage to stop the German advance at the Marne, losses would be so great that the pre-war Regular Army would effectively cease to exist and things would never be quite the same again.