Daily Archives: 10 December, 2011

Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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ANZAC #8 – Driver Andrew ‘Snowy’ Melville

We are now two-thirds of the way through our look at the 12 Australian Soldiers buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth. We have heard stories of disease and illness, of battles and wounds, of far off lands in the Empire. All of these lads stories are touching, but so far I don’t think a story has quite grabbed me like that of Andrew Melville.

 

Andrew Melville was born in Ballarat in Victoria, the son of Andrew and Sophie Melville. Andrew Senior had died some years prior to the first world war, so it was in 1915 that Andrew junior, then just over 18 years old, had to gain the consent of his mother to allow him to apply to join the Australian Imperial Force. Melville initially applied for the prestigious Australian Light Horse, but this was quietly crossed out on his attestation papers, and replaced with the 24th Battalion of the Australian Infantry.

 

Upon attestation on 15 March 1915 Melville was 18 years old, and an un-apprenticed Butcher. His mother lived at Peel Street North in Ballarat, and his only previous service was via the cadets. He was relatively tall at 5 foot and 10 1/4 inches, and weighed 146lbs. His chest was 34 inches normal and 37 inches expanded, and he had a fair complexion, with blue eyes and fair hair. He was a member of the Church of England, and had four vaccination marks on his left arm, and moles on his right shoulder and the left side of his neck.

 

After joining the Army, Melville initially served at a Depot in Australia. On 10 May 1915, he embarked on the HMAT Euripides (A14) from Melbourne, bound for Egypt. Sadly Melville’s service records do not suggest precisely what he was up to between when he left Australia, and the beginning of 1916 – a gap of around 7 months. We do know, however, that the 24th Battalion was in action at Gallipoli, fighting in the Lone Pine sector from September until December 1916. After being evacuated from Gallipoli the Battalion was in Egypt, guarding the Suez Canal Zone. On 4 March 1916 Melville was taken ill with influenza – perhaps an early case of the later epidemic? – and was admitted to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Ismailia. He must have recovered, as on 20 March 1916 he was with the 24th Battalion when they embarked from Alexandria, to join the BEF.

 

Landing at Marseilles on 27 March 1916, the Battalion spent much of 1916 fighting in the Battle of the Somme, in particular at Pozieres in late July and early August and at Mouquet Farm in August and September. On 13 September Melville was remustered as a Driver, suggesting that he had taken on a role with transport within the Battalion. On 5 Oct0ber 1916, however, he reported sick with a septic buttock, and was quickly admitted to a Dressing Station, then a Casualty Clearing Station. By the next day he was in the 3rd Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. Two days later he was embarked on the Hospital Ship St Patrick, arriving in England the same day. Melville spent some time in the Shorncliffe Military Hospital in Kent, then at the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital, before being discharged to the ANZAC Depot in Weymouth on 4 November 1916. Whilst there he recuperated at a Depot in Wareham, near Poole.

 

Melville obviously required some recuperation and/or remedial training, for it was not until 24 January 1917 that he embarked again for France, on the Princess Clementine. The next day he arrived at the Australian Base Depot at Etaples, before finally rejoining his Battalion on 5 February 1917, after an absence of exactly four months. He was next ill on 22 March, when he was admitted to the 2nd Dressing Station and 2nd Australian Field Ambulance succesively with Trench Foot. He was discharged back to the Battalion on 2 April 1917.

 

Melville was only back with his Battalion for four days, however, as on 6 April he was admitted to the 45th Casualty Clearing Station, and then the 6th Australian Field Ambulance, with ‘Pyrexia of an unknown origin’. Two days later he was put onboard an ambulance train, and from there was admitted to the 10th General Hospital in Rouen. His records do not suggest whether his illness was resolved, but On 22 April he was well enough to be discharged to the 11th Convalescence Depot at Buchy. After several weeks there he was back at the Australian Base Depot at Etaples, before once again rejoining his Battalion on 13 May 1917, just in time to take part in the closing stages of the first battle of Bullecourt, part of Third Ypres. The Battalion later fought in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917.

 

Life was pretty uneventful for Snowy Melville, until 1 February 1918 when he was granted a rare two week leave pass to England. For whatever reason, he did not return as scheduled on 16 February, and was absent without leave until 18 February, for a total of two days. He was sentenced to 14 days of Field Punishment Number 2 (ie, shackled), and fined 16 days pay. His punishment over and done with, Melville was with the 24th when they were part of the desparate defence of the allied line during the Kaiser Offensive in the spring of 1918.

 

On 31 July 1918, Melville – by now no stranger to military medicine – again reported sick. He was admitted to the 6th Field Ambulance, and three days later to the 5th Casualty Clearing Station, where his condition was once again described as ‘Pyrexia of unknown origin‘ – obviously a recurrence, as the origin obviously not having been found since his last admission back in April 1917. By 5 August 1918 he was in the 16th US General Hospital in Le Treport, before being shipped to England on 11 August. He was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. His condition does not seem to have been too serious initially, but thirteen days after he arrived he suddenly began to experience acute abdominal pain. An abdominal section was performed, which revealed that his abdomen was full of fluid and food matter, but no perforation was found. He became worse, and Driver Andrew Melville died of what was later found to be a perforated gastric ulcer, at 10.15am on 28 August 1918.

 

Snowy Melville was buried in Milton Cemetery on 31 August 1918. The burial was officiated by the Reverend J.M. Young, with Mr. A.G.Stapleford being the undertaker. Melville’s friend, a Miss K. White of 90 St Marys Road in Portsmouth, attended. Melville was given a full military funeral, with a firing party, bugler, military pallbearers and his coffin as draped with the union jack. Wreaths were given by the nursing staff of the hospital, Miss K. White, Sister Smith of the Hospital, and comrades from B2 Ward. Large number of patients and sisters were in attendance, and the Last Post was sounded. It seems that Melville was extrermely well liked in the Hospital, by nurses, patients and visitors alike. A comrade and a visiting English lady reported that he never complained, and that the doctors and nurses tried very hard to save him, but to no avail. Reportedly all were saddened by his death.

 

Melville’s personal effects were sent back to his mother, and consisted of correspondence, 1 wallet, photos, 1 comb, 1 metal ring, 1 cigarette case, badges, 1 razor, 1 penknife, 1 safety pin, 1 disc, 1 nail file. Interesting, that most of the dead ANZAC’s possessions seem to have been very simple, personal comfort items. Melville is also the first to have had a cigarette case. Cigarettes overtook the pipe as a means of smoking during the war, given the ease of transporting and keeping cigarettes when compared to loose tobacco.

 

An interesting postscript emerged after the war regarding Melville.  Two bodies of unknown Australian soldiers were discovered near the Serre Road, around Pozieres where the 24th Battalion had fought in 1916. One of the bodies wore a watch, engraved with ‘227’ – Melville’s Army number. All of the men around the unknown soldiers were of the 24th Battalion, in an area where the Battalion had fought on the Somme. As we know that Snow Melville was buried in Portsmouth, it seems that he had somehow parted with his watch, which was buried with a comrade and possible friend. The two unknown soldiers were never identified.

Snowy Melville was an incredible, very young man. We have to remember that he was barely eighteen when he first left home for the war, and fought for almost three years on the other side of the world. Evidently well liked, he had fought practically everywhere – Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres, and the Kaiser Offensive of 1918. He had suffered from numerous illnesses, but showed a remarkable ability to keep bouncing back. Sadly, it seems that his luck simply run out, so close to the end of the war. Had he lived, Melville would surely have been something of a legend amongst his friends and family.

 

Snowy, we salute you.

 

 

 

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Filed under Army, Pompey ANZAC's, western front, World War One