Sunday, 12 October 2014

The 1st Bedfords at the Front

Monday 12th October 1914: The battalion has passed an uneventful night at Essars, despite the battle going on some way to the east. Our contact with the battalion narrates the events of the day: “The Battalion marched off at 7.40 am and we crossed the canal and marched with the brigade through Beuvry almost to Festubert where we halted. Festubert was being shelled fairly hard and German aeroplanes were all over the place”. Word came to occupy the village of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée with the 1st Battalion, Dorset Regiment in la Bassée itself on the right and the 1st Battalion, Norfolk Regiment on their left.

“We got into le Plantin and D Company, my company, were ordered to take the village. Number 16 Platoon advanced in extended order across the Gorre to Festubert road and made for the village while I waited until they had crossed a part of the open ground with Number 15 and 14 Platoons to follow on”.

“Number 15 had just started when Number 16 came in for some heavy machine-gun fire from the village and the left flank as they were in the middle of the open. We were then in a ditch on the side of the road leading down to the canal. I thought I would try and see if I could work round the right flank under cover. Number 16 was then practically in the village but Number 15 could not move and were having some casualties. I crawled along the ditch and we were then spotted and the old machine-gun opened on us and slaughtered the bushes within a few inches of my head”.

“On the right I could see that by making a rush for about 25 yards I could get under cover of some houses and haystacks and get almost into the village. I did the rush alone and was chased by bullets going across. Here I found a covered way for the other platoons to come round by and they got round by it, one section being caught in the open by a machine-gun at very long range and peppered in the angle of the house. The bullets were nearly spent and so did little harm and it made us laugh to see them dancing about while the bullets bounced back on to us by holding up a newspaper we kept them off. Here we were well under cover and managed by moving through various gardens and under house walls to get up almost into the village”.

“The Germans – there could have only been a regiment of cavalry there – started to plough us with horse artillery shells but did no damage. On our extreme right we could see French troops advancing under fire”.

“We were then on the Givenchy-la Bassée road and by a bit of doubling got into the village on the right or canal side. I reached the church and shells were then beginning to fall pretty hard and fast into the village. I pushed on with the platoons right through the village and reached the Chapelle at the north end and here found a few old French soldiers all drinking wine by a haystack and some of the Dorsets. We lay down and started to dig in by the haystacks and the Chapelle and collected the rest of the company. The time was then about 2.30 pm”.

“Shells were then beginning to fall all over the village and houses began to catch fire and we were subjected to a lot of sniping from the front every time we moved. We dug some trenches about 100 yards in front of the village and Pope, with Number 15 Platoon, occupied the front trench by some haystacks with Sergeant Nolais on the left with Number 16”.

“I was in support with Numbers 13 and 14 Platoons. One of the houses just by us caught on fire and so we put it out and saved a large quantity of jam and other precious things! We were in a big farm which was filled with cows all waiting to be milked but there was no one to milk them and they began making a tremendous noise. We however got one of our farmer men in the Company to do it and the milk was most acceptable”.

“About 3 pm I had orders to take off Numbers 13 and 14 Platoons and try and advance against la Bassée in conjunction with the Dorsets. They were on our right stretching down to the canal. I therefore extended the platoons out in a field of mangolds on the right edge of the front of the village and got into touch with the Dorsets on my right. They were to start the advance and I agreed that when they moved I should send on my sections in rushes. We lay in the open field of mangolds a long time waiting for the Dorsets to move”.

“Suddenly the Germans spotted us and  - whiz – they sent a perfect hail of pip-squeak shells right down on both of our flanks – a most perfect enfilade – and simply peppered us from the front too. One shell passed over my back and burnt and tore my pack and burst right in Sergeant Haycroft’s groin who was lying next to me about a yard away. He got up and howled in his agony and somehow crawled away although it had taken most of his lower half away and we could do nothing. Shells continued to pour down mostly coming from the left flank and I saw that the only way out of it – as we were having very heavy casualties – was to risk it and advance in the teeth of it [1]”.

“I accordingly passed down the order that when I got up and ran forward the whole two platoons were to follow. In the din it was hard to make oneself heard but then I thought we could scarcely see as the smoke from the bursting shells was so thick”.

“Something hit me hard on the knee cap – a bit of shell and will make me lame for days – but we stumbled blindly on until after having gone about 150-250 yards absolutely exhausted, I held up my hand and fell flat and shouted out the order to dig in hard. I had no implement and while I pulled up mangolds with one hand, groped for the French driver’s knife with the other [see entry for 10th October]. I found it and with the portion that is meant to extract stones from horses’ hooves, dug myself in in record time about two feet down”.

“The fire had slackened a bit then and I looked round to find the Company and found that only about ten men were with me, the rest had thought better of it or had not got the order. We lay tight where we were and waited for the dusk and then I went off and got into touch with Pope in his trench on my right. Everyone was astonished to see us still alive. The rest of the platoons had a very bad time and of the section that I was with eight out of twelve were knocked out”.

When we contacted the adjutant, his account was much less dramatic: “Left Essars in the morning early and proceeded east. We were ordered to occupy Givenchy. We occupied the village and a rough trench east of it without much opposition except a few shells and a little rifle fire. Considerable shelling towards evening, of which a proportion was enfilade fire. The Dorsets are on our right. The line on the left was unable to advance as far as intended. Seventeen casualties were suffered during the day”.

We understand that two of the men have been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their actions today. Privates A E Bentley and B Pigott remained behind at their post under considerable German fire, helping to dress the wounds of three comrades whom it was impossible to move.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 25th December 1914

[1] Four battalion lost three men killed in action on this day. Curiously Soldiers Died in the Great War records Haycroft’s death as 13th October 1917. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records the entry correctly as 13th October 1914. He may have died overnight as the diary states “I went back to the farm and got a meal and discovered that Sergeant Haycroft was still missing so sent out a search party to find him but failed. He was discovered by a roller the next morning quite dead. Poor devil, he must have suffered agonies and had somehow managed to get back about 300 yards”. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the le Touret Memorial.

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