Daily Archives: 11 April, 2010

Portsmouth Cavalrymen in the Great War

There is a popular myth about the British Cavalry of the Great War. That they were a hangover from the Nineteenth Century, that horses had no place in modern warfare. That the majority of Generals were cavalrymen, but that they played little part in the fighting. The Hussars, Lancers and Dragoons carried dramatic sounding names from a bygone age.

In reality there was little chance for the horsemen to fight on horseback. While every ‘big push’ was planned with a heroic cavalry exploitation in mind, the largely static warfare on the western front gave no chance for romantic gallops at a fleeing enemy. As a result, the Cavalry often fought dismounted as infantry, and took their turns in the trenches. Cavalry recruited regionally in a similar manner to the infantry, although – like the infantry – the needs of war led to a relaxing in usual peacetime recruiting boundaries.

The 10th (Prince of Wales Own Royal) Hussars began the war in South Africa. They were recalled to England, a became part of the 6th Cavalry Brigade in the 3rd Cavalry Division. Landing at Ostend on 8 October 1914, they fought on throughout the war. Sergeant Ernest Bradley was killed at the Battle of Arras on 12 April 1917, and is remembered on the Arras Memorial. Sergeant W.G. Edney died in the last days of the war, on 9 October 1918. He is buried at Busigny in France.

The 20th Hussars began the war based in the Garrison town of Colchester. Part of the 5th Cavalry Brigade, they moved to France at the outbreak of war. Private Percy Greenslade was killed at the Battle of Loos on 25 January 1916. He is remembered on the Loos Memorial.

The 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers began the war in Dublin. They became part of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and moved to France in August 1914. Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant A.H. Hepworth, of Gains Road, Southsea, died after the Armistice on 4 December 1918. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth.

The 12th (Prince of Wales) Lancers were based in Norwich when the war began. They too moved to France in August 1914. Private Fred Forsey, 34 and from Chapel Street, Buckland, was killed on 18 May 1915 during the second Battle of Ypres. He is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.

The 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards were based in Tidworth, as part of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. They moved to France on 16 August 1914. Private Victor Cassidy, 21 and from Arthur Street, Buckland, was killed on 28 January 1916. He is buried in Quarry Cemetery, France.

The 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales) Dragoon Guards began the war based in Aldershot. They also moved to France on 16 August 1914. Lance Corporal Leslie Henley, 24 and from Dorset, died shortly after the Armistice on 2 November 1918. He is buried in Caudry Cemetery, France.

The 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) began the war at Canterbury. They too moved to France in August 1914. Private Reginald Henning, 26 and from West Street, Southsea, was killed on 1 April 1918 during the German’s final Kaiser offensive. He is remembered on the Pozieres Memorial, France

The Yeomanry was the mounted arm of the territorial force. The local Yeomanry regiments had strong links with their recruiting area. Many men of the Hampshire Yeomanry were transferred to the Hampshire Regiment as Infantry when manpower began to dry up later in the war. In addition, one man – Private J.G. Grant – died whilst serving with the North Somerset Yeomanry.

Compared to the thousands of Portsmouth men who died fighting in the infantry, Artillery, Engineers and other services, the losses of Cavalry were relatively the small. This is partly down the the fact that few Portsmouth men seem to have joined the Cavalry, the Cavalry in the Great War was comparativey small, and the Cavalry did not find themself in harms way quite as often as the infantry.

Despite the clear evidence that the role of the Cavalry was changing, at the outset of the Second World War over twenty years after the Armistice the British Army was suffering the growing pains of the mechanisation of the Cavalry.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I often feel that in the twenty-first century we are in something of a literary wilderness. Whilst I am sure that there are some great books out there that I just haven’t found yet, I cannot help but feel that the burgeoning shelves of Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter wannabe’s will never been in the same league as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare or Chaucer. Happily, Birdsong is one modern novel which follows the best traditions of British literature.

Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens in North France in 1910. After embarking on a clandestine love affair that causes scandal and upheaval, after heartbreak we follow him to the horrors of the western front. By starting the story in pre-war France, and establishing the readers rapport with Stephen Wraysford well before the Great War, Faulks has ensured that this is a book that is about more than just war. It also gives the story longitude, and broader meaning. Unlike a lot of modern novels, I can also imagine sitting in a classroom, analysing this text for an English exam. There are all kinds of interesting metaphors, contrasts, and other tricks that colour a story.

The plot of writing a novel in two eras is a brave choice. Switching from one time period to the other within is even more risky – like a badly-sewn shirt, the seams might show. But Birdsong works. By introducing snippets from Wraysford’s descendants, but without spoiling the story, Faulks reminds us poignantly of how long-gone events have a resonance to us today.

The problem I often find with military historical fiction – and this is from somebody who has tried and failed to write myself, numerous times – is that the balance between the history and the fiction is often out of sync. You either read a historian playing at fiction, or an author playing at history. Faulk’s illuminating preface tells us of how he would sit in the Imperial War Museum’s Library and read accounts from the Great War, and it obviously had a great effect on his writing.

Birdsong is a modern classic, I found it a pleasure to read. The best books take no effort to read, and this is one of them. A TV adaption, or even better a feature-length version, is well overdue.

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Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, World War One