When the cavalry returned home, those who had been prisoners of war had to account for their actions, shown by these original letters.
The cavalry in the First World War did not play a large part in the fighting on the Western Front. But first-hand accounts of those that did see action in 1917 and 1918 are available at The National Archives at Kew.When officers were captured did they follow the lead of the nation’s stiff upper lip?
A.D Harvey explains what happened when officers were taken prisoners.
During the First World War 25 million tons of supplies were shipped from England to the army in France. More than a fifth of this was hay and oats for horses. This was slightly more in weight and considerably more in bulk than the ammunition sent to France for the artillery and the riflemen in the trenches. Some of the fodder was for horses involved in moving artillery and other haulage tasks, but a great deal was for horses of the cavalry in the First World War.
At the end of the First World War officers who had been taken prisoner were of course brought home from enemy prison camps, but were required to submit a written explanation of the circumstances of their capture. These explanations are to be found in the officers personal files, most of which are available for examination at Kew.
CAVALRY IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR: PRIVATE LETTERS
These were written for a potentially unsympathetic readership. Some offices were summoned to the War Office in London to be personally grilled by three former brigade commanders. These statements are quite unlike private letters or personal reminiscences of the war. They emphasise precisely the kind of details that the officer of the cavalry in the First World War would not have wished to share with their families.
On the morning of Dec 1st 1917 “D” Squadron Inniskilling Dragoons, of which I was Troop leader of “4” Troop, was ordered to proceed as advanced Squadron to the Regiment, the object being to occupy the high ground overlooking VILLERS-GUISLAIN & between that village & EPEHY.
Shortly after starting we came under intense M.G. [machine-gun] fire & I was hit in the l eft side, slightly, the squadron charged down the valley & came to a camouflaged Enemy trench held by M.G.’s. We fought our way through this, during which time I received three bullets in my left arm, one of which fractured the bone. On reaching the far side of the trench we were surrounded by Germans, my charger was shot & fell on me, stunning me. I recovered consciousness to find three Germans removing my horses body, & was taken to a dressing station.
Arthur Mansfield Niall was a twenty-nine-year-old sheep farmer from New South Wales. In this charge 112 men and 187 horses were lost: “D” Squadron was effectively wiped out. (WO 339/57282)
My Squadron re-inforced the 9 th Batn. R. East Surreys on the night of the 21st March 1918. We held a position in a ravine which had been evacuated by our artillery. Enemy renewed his attack at daybreak on the 22nd. Our flanks had gone when we received the order to withdraw sometime after mid-day. I was instructed to see the last man out of a shallow trench, which we then held, in the rear slope of the ravine. Following up in rear I came across a brother officer of my Squadron (Lt. C.MacKirdey) wounded. Intended to carry him away, but found he could not be removed without fatal result, as he was severely hit in the stomach, & heavy M.G.[machine-gun] & shell fire prevented careful removal. Hastily plugged his wound, and endeavoured to rejoin, but was cut off, surrounded, & captured.
[William Henry Jaggers, Second Lieutenant, “O” Squadron, 11th Hussars]
Jaggers was a thirty-two year-old bank clerk, commissioned in 1917. In this instance “O” Squadron was fighting on foot, to help plug a gap in the line during the great German offensive of March 1918, but their horses were being held ready further back.Charles MacKirdey, an undergraduate at Exeter College Oxford at the outbreak of war, was picked up by the Germans but died the same day. (WO 339/80340 and WO 339/14099)
The following is as the situation presented itself to me on the 9th Aug/18.
The infantry (Canadians) were held up in front of MEHARICOURT. The Squadron leader (A Sqn) of the 9th Lancers, decided to attack the enemy machine guns with the 1st, 2nd & 4th troops, or cut in between the said guns & the village, with a view of cutting off small parties of the enemy. On approaching the M.G.’s a change of direction was given & in consequence, my men became jambed [i.e. jammed together]. Being under direct M.G. fire I immediately became engaged in opening out my troop (this had to be done looking behind) during which my mare failed to clear a deep shell hole & fell on her head. I was rendered unconscious also hurting my left shoulder, leg &wrist. Time about 5.15 p.m.
Soon after 8 p.m. I came to (apparently the enemy had counter attacked & had advanced a few hundred yards) & about 20 minutes later, I was located by a man carrying ammunition up to the German M.Guns, who dropped everything and shouted, with the result that an officer & 5 men appeared on the scene & made me prisoner. I was then placed in the trenches until the early hours of the following day, when I had sufficiently recovered to walk.
2/c [second in command] 4th Troop
Samuel Gardner Brockwell, also thirty two, had been born in Canada but had been working as an accountant in the City of London before the war. The action he describes was in fact part of the successful British offensive at Amiens. Brockwell was one of only two men in his unit captured that day. (WO 339/57290)
There are literally hundreds of these statements by repatriated officer prisoners of war, some much longer than those quoted here, some possibly by relatives of some of you reading this now.
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