The war the British mounted soldiers knew on the Western Front
This is an anonymously written recollection of a British cavalry officer (possibly of the 4th Hussars) from the first year of the Great War on the Western Front. We join the author at the First Battle of Ypres, upon the Somme and at the Battle Arras. After a rest period he returned to the front at Cambrai-Bourlon Wood and the defence of Amiens. The final chapters include the cavalry’s experience of the final offensive of the war as the allies were at last able to ‘put the Gee in gap’, and as the army reached the Rhine bring the conflict to a close. The author survived the war and describes Germany at the end of the war. An excellent First World War memoir written in a personable style and full of dialogue and anecdotes. The book contains illustrations reflecting the incidents described in the text as they appeared in the original edition.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
At the end of March preparations began for a move. No one knew where we were going to, but we guessed it was for another “gap.” On April 5th we marched to Hem, near Doullens. This particular day was fine, but for a week there had been nothing but snowstorms. There had been no frost, and the ground was in a fearful state.
On April 7th we went on to Gaudiempre, a village about ten miles from Arras. Here we were told that an attack was to be made on April 9th over the ground between the Vimy Ridge and Henin-sur-Cojeul. If certain objectives were gained by a fixed hour, the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions were going through to seize a line further east.
The 3rd Division was operating north of the Arras-Cambrai road and ourselves on the south of it. The objective of our division was a line drawn from Fontaine les Croisilles to Vis-en-Artois. The attack was timed for 6 a.m., when the Infantry carried the Vimy Ridge and Telegraph Hill, and everywhere made considerable progress.
We were not brought up until 1 p.m., when we marched via Wailly and Arras and formed up on the western slopes of Telegraph Hill. It was a vile day and as cold as could be. There were occasional snowstorms, and the wind was like ice.
As we emerged from Arras on to the flat piece of ground between the town and Telegraph Hill, we passed General Greenly and his staff standing by the roadside with a lance and pennon stuck in the ground to represent Divisional Headquarters. He wished all the officers good luck, and I really thought we were going to achieve something.
But we were not taken any farther than Telegraph Hill. The infantry objectives had not been gained and it would have been criminal to launch ten thousand cavalry against a trench line defended by wire.
The country in front of us was very open and consisted of gently-rolling hills. It was not, however, as flat as the Somme.
Patrols went forward to keep touch with the infantry, but that was all that we did that day.
The ground where we had been assembled came in for a little shelling, but there was very little damage. Had the Hun known what lay behind that slope, they would have shelled the place more heavily, for a division of cavalry massed makes a fine target.
By dark that night the infantry objectives had not been gained, and at midnight we were withdrawn to Wailly, a village some four miles south of Arras. The whole division had to go back by the same track, for it was not possible to get along anywhere else, owing to the wire and trenches. I fell into a trench once, horse and all, and the packs were always in trouble.
My tool pack pony “Billy” fell into a shell-hole and never caught us up till next day. Twice I lost touch and did not know where we were, but somehow or other we kept on the right track. It was absolutely pitch dark and you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. After about two hours we reached Wailly. where we were to bivouac. I was not sorry to finish that journey. It is no joke moving a large force of cavalry in the dark across broken country. The weather was terribly cold.
More snow had fallen and in addition there was a strong wind. I think that night was the most miserable I have ever spent. I slept behind my saddle, which gave a certain amount of shelter, but in the morning, I was covered with snow from head to foot. I had little sleep that night, and had to get up several times and walk about to keep warm. The horses had all been clipped out during the winter and had no rugs, so that they suffered terribly. Many died. The cheerfulness of the men under conditions like this is positively amazing: one never hears a murmur, except various uncomplimentary remarks about the weather. At dawn the next day I was woken up by two of them shouting some humorous remarks at each other at the top of their voices. A few fellows like that are absolutely invaluable.
At two o’clock next day we were brought up again and sent on to the jumping-off point which was between Neuville-Vitasse and Wancourt. This was an unpleasant journey. To reach the appointed spot we had to pass close to Wancourt village, which was still held by the Huns. The leading troops were met with heavy machine-gun fire from the village, which emptied some saddles and did considerable execution amongst the horses; but the chief danger was from the German gunners on the ridge behind, who had us in full view for several hundred yards before we reached the valley we were making for.
As it happened, a heavy blizzard came down just as the advance began, and this must have shielded the leading troops from view, but the rest of the brigade must have made a fine, if a fleeting, target seen against the snow. There was one cross-road which I shall not easily forget. A battery of field guns was beautifully ranged on to this, and this was one of the liveliest spots I remember. The brigade was scurrying down the hill at a fast pace with fifty yards’ distance between troops. I saw one troop receive a shell right amongst them; and for a moment they were lost in smoke.