After Néry…The Batteries of 1 RHA in the First World War

Last_gun_at_Nery

Two dramatic episodes from 1914 have been the centre of  commemorations for the Royal Artillery. E Battery were supporting the cavalry screen ahead of the BEF when they fired the famous first shot on 22nd August 1914. The role of L battery in the “Affair at Néry” on 1st September 1914 has caught media and public attention ever since 1914. The German surprise attack on the 2nd British Cavalry brigade was beaten off with heroic acts rewarded by three Vcs and two MMs to the men of L Battery, and led to the award of the Honour Title of “Néry”. These events have tended to overshadow the other actions undertaken by E and L battery during the First World War, and by other batteries of the current 1st Regiment RHA.(1)

The current batteries are A Battery (The Chestnut Troop), B, E, L (Nery) and O Battery (The Rocket Troop) . Their 1914 home stations and wartime deployment are summarised in the following table.

Battery Station in 1914 Deployment
A Ambala India Indian Bde RHA then XVIth Bde RHA 4 Cav Div/Army troops
B Ambala India XVth Bde RHA 29 Div
E Newbridge, UK 1 Cav Div then 3 Bde RHA – 2 Cav Div.
L Aldershot, UK 1 Cav Div then XVth Bde RHA
O Ipswich,UK Vth Brigade RHA 8 Div then Army troops

 

Each Battery was commanded by a Major with a battery captain, and three subaltern section commanders. Two Subsections formed a Section and in a six gun battery these would be designated as Left, Centre and Right Sections. A Subsection consisted of a single gun and limber drawn by six horses (with three drivers), eight gunners (riding on the limber or mounted on their own horses), and an ammunition wagon also drawn by six horses (with three drivers).

The 13 Pdr Nery gun on Display in the Imperial War Museum london
The 13 Pdr Nery gun on display in the Imperial War Museum london

RHA batteries were armed with the 13 Pdr Gun. The 13 Pdr fired a 13 lb shrapnel shell to a range of 5,900 yd (5,400 m). The 18 Pdr, which equipped the Field Artillery fired a projectile weighing nearly 50% heavier and for which an HE shell was in service by October 1914. It also out-ranged the 13 Pdr and had a range of 6,525 yd (5,966 m) and 7,800 yd (7,100m) with the trail dug in. During the course of the war all but E Battery were re-equipped with 18 Pdr.

The introduction of the dial sight had made it possible to operate in an indirect role. However the flat trajectory of the 13 Pdr and the limited signal equipment tended to restrict indirect fire to situations where the battery commander could position the guns behind cover and act as the observer from a position where he could see the guns and the target. There were no established forward observer parties, but as trench warfare developed and telephones and wire became more widely available, an observation post might be deployed at some distance from the battery or a liaison team sent to the infantry.

Although indirect fire techniques were known and practised, the RHA went to war with equipment better suited to operating in the direct role. The 13 Pdr had a flat trajectory and it would be difficult to find good indirect gun positions in broken country such as the industrial landscape of Mons. The only ammunition provided for the 13 Pdr was shrapnel, which is very effective against troops in the open, but almost useless against troops behind cover.

The part the Horse Artillery played in the opening months was not far removed from pre war expectations. British Cavalrymen were equipped with the same SMLE rifle as the infantry and marksmanship training, which gave them an edge of the carbine equipped Germans in dismounted action. However, it was the battery of 13 Pounders supporting each brigade which contained the major part of its fire power, and guns which would inflict the majority of casualties in the Fist World War..

Positioning a 18 Pdr Gun The Battle of Arras April 1917
Positioning a 18 Pdr Gun The Battle of Arras April 1917

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records 233 men as serving in one of the batteries. (2)  Given WW1 norms of two wounded for each dead, this would imply around 700 casualties during the war. The establishment of a 1914 RHA Battery was five officers and 200 other ranks, giving 1,025 for the five current batteries. This gives a conservative estimate of a fatality rate of just under 23% of the establishment across all batteries. The casualties were not evenly distributed. L Battery’s 78 fatalities implies a figure of killed and wounded well in excess of the battery establishment of 205. Nor was 1914 the year in which L Battery suffered its highest casualties.

 Current 1 RHA Batteries Fatalities 1914-1921
A B E L O All Batteries
1914 0 0 4 26 0 30
1915 1 12 1 9 3 26
1916 2 8 0 1 5 16
1917 3 30 9 30 17 89
1918 23 6 2 11 12 54
1919 0 2 3 0 1 6
1920 0 4 1 1 0 6
1921 3 3 0 0 0 6
Total 32 65 20 78 38 233

(Note that these figures are an indicative minimum.  The CWGC database does not always identify the unit in which a soldier served. . )

Even before Néry, the fortunes of war placed L Battery in a position to play a significant role in the battles of Elouges on the 24th and Le Cateau on the 26th. On each occasion they brought down fire on German troops attempting to outflank the army. Even without Néry curtailing their participation in the campaign, L Battery were one of the most actively engaged RHA Batteries.

The fighting in the early months of the First World War was very different to other campaigns on the Western Front, or even other campaigns of the war. The pattern of warfare was closer in some ways to that of the previous century. The battles were of short duration with one side disengaging. Mons, Le Cateau, Elouges and Néry can be identified by a single day. At Le Cateau the British Army even deployed anachronistically on an open plain with the guns drawn up in the front line as if it were 1815. It was not until the battle of the Aisne that both sides became aware of the power that C20th weapons gave to the defence. After the trench lines developed between September and November 1914 the character of the war changed to become one continuous engagement. There would be no more individual battle days as bloody as Nery, but a trickle of casualties throughout the four years of the war, with some days bloodier than others.

1915

In November 1914 O Battery arrived on the Western Front as part of the Vth Brigade RHA in the 8th Infantry Division’s artillery. . In 1915 The Chestnut Troop joined them on the Western Front as part of I Indian Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. They both took part in the battles in the Neuve Chapelle area 1914-15.

The rebuilt L Battery joined B battery in the XVth RHA Brigade as part of the divisional artillery of the 29th Division in 1915. This division was formed from regular army garrisons around the world and first deployed in the Gallipoli campaign. It would become known as the “Indomitable” 29th and would take part in more attacks than any other formation. There is no specific monument in Gallipoli for the artillery of the 29th Division. However, one of the first fatalities suffered by the reconstituted L battery was Bombardier Darbyshire, who only relinquished the layers seat of F Sub at Néry after his ears and nose bled from concussion. He was killed on 12th July 1915 and is buried in Lancashire Landing Cemetery at Cape Helles, along with nine other horse gunners from B and L Battery. A further seventeen are buried or commemorated elsewhere in Turkey, Egypt and Malta.

 1916

   After the evacuation from Gallipoli the 29th Division was brought back to the Western front, in time for the big push on the Somme. The Divisional symbol of the red triangle can be seen at Newfoundland Park, and tin triangles can be seen on the packs of the soldiers from the divisions filmed on the First Day of the Somme.  At 07.30 on the 1st July the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and 16th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment stormed the crater formed by the detonation of the Hawthorn mine. 2 Lt Grant-Suttie and a party of telephonists from B Battery advanced with the CO of 16th Middlesex into the mine crater, but were forced to withdraw, with Bdr Port wounded, and Bdr Brockett and Driver Indge missing.  Brockett’s body was found and he lies in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1, Auchonvillers.  Indge’s was never identified but might be one of the 68 unidentified graves in this cemetery. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

 O battery also took part in the battle of the Somme supporting the operations of the 8th Division on its disastrous first day, and in October in the battle of Le Transloy. Three O battery soldiers are buried on the Somme.  The lower number of fatalities in 1916 than in 1917 and 1918 might be attributed to the weakness of the German counter battery artillery in the Somme.  Nor were any of the batteries placed in situations were they were exposed to small arms or direct fire.  There were very few occasions in 1916 where sufficient ground had been gained to justify moving the guns forward. No German counter attacks threatened the guns.

 1917

Second Battle of the Scarpe: 24 Apr 1917 15 Brigade RHA action. (1) 50 Div Captures Wancourt Ridge.  (2) 15 Bdee deploys forwards. (3) German Counterattack recaptures Guemappe
Second Battle of the Scarpe: 24 Apr 1917 15 Brigade RHA action. (1) 50 Div Captures Wancourt Ridge. (2) 15 Bdee deploys forwards. (3) German Counterattack recaptures Guemappe

1917 was the bloodiest year for the 1st RHA Batteries, and can be attributed to the three major British offensives in that year. The 29th Division (B & L ) and V Brigade RHA (O Bty) took part in all three offensives. E Battery in two and Chestnut Troop in one.

18 Pdr guns under fire at the Battle of Arras 24 Apr 1917
18 Pdr guns under fire at the Battle of Arras 24 Apr 1917

The five week long Arras offensive 9 April – 16th May 1917 was one of the most intense the BEF endured. The daily casualty rate over the course of the battle was higher than any other BEF offensive. The initial attack was very successful, largely due to improvements in artillery technology and tactics,. German batteries were located by sound ranging and flash spotting, improved fuses increased lethality and enabled wire to be cut more easily. Aerial observation techniques and creeping barrages made it easier for the infantry to assault. In 1917 O Battery’s Vth RHA Brigade became an army artillery brigade and used to support whatever part of the line needed additional artillery support. On 9th April they supported the attack on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps.

When attacks were successful artillery would need to be redeployed forwards if the infantry were not to advance beyond artillery range. On 24 April B and L Batteries followed up an infantry advance into a valley just North of the Wancourt Tower. As soon as the success signal was given the guns galloped forwards. According to the infantry the advance of the guns was a magnificent and inspiring sight, carried out with great dash and skill.(3) Unfortunately a German counter attack drove the infantry off the ridge, leaving L and B Battery in the open within rifle and machine gun range of German troops. The operations on the Arras front between April and June 1917 cost the XVth Bde RHA 49 killed, (including the BC and another officer from B Battery and six other officers) 74 wounded (including officers from each of B and L officers) and a further 13 men evacuated with shell shock.

There is a memorial outside Langemarck to Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Great War whose and his comrades, took part in the the attack Langemarck on 16 August 1917.  B and  L Batteries supported fired on the fireplan Barrage map supporting the attack on .
There is a memorial outside Langemarck to Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Great War whose and his comrades, took part in the the attack Langemarck on 16 August 1917. B and L Batteries supported fired on the fireplan Barrage map supporting the attack on .

The 29th Division was used as an assault division twice in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, fought in a muddy artillery landscape. The artillery destroyed the drainage along with the buildings and vegetation. On 16th August the 29th division assaulted the Langemark area alongside the 20th Division which included the late Harry Patch and his pals. Seven weeks later 29 Division attacked again on 4th October towards Poelcappelle. The main memorial to this attack is the memorial to Private Fred Dancocks of the 4th Worcesters who was awarded the VC for his gallantry capturing a bunker near Namur crossing on the old Ypres-Staden railway line, which is now a footpath.

The 3rd Battle of Ypres was an artillery battle. The Germans held the ring of low hills around Ypres. As the allies advanced it was hard to find solid ground for gun positions around the muddy shell holes. Solid platforms might be constructed from wood or even boxes of rations. These made it easier for the German counter battery fire. During the campaign B, L and O battery would have spent a lot of time in their gas masks. The Germans unleashed a new horror on the battlefield during this battle, drenching gun positions with persistent blister agent – Mustard Gas.

Part of the predicted fire plan supportign the attack at Cambrai
Part of the predicted fire plan supporting the attack at Cambrai

After the 3rd Battle of Ypres petered out in the muddy ruins of Passchendaele the 29th Division was picked to reinforce the 3rd Army’s attack at Cambrai. This battle was a test for new technology and tactics. Instead of a lengthy preliminary bombardment, the battle of Cambrai would use 400 tanks and a short intense fire plan based on predicted targets. The fire plan was as innovative as the massed use of tanks. All of the batteries of the current 1 RHA took part in this battle. The initial attack, on 20th November created a breach in one of the stronger sector of the Hindenberg line, capturing as much ground in fifteen hours as in five months in the Ypres Salient. The Germans too had a tactical surprise in store. On 30th November they too launched an attack under a heavy predicted barrage, in their case led by storm troops which infiltrated into and then broke through British infantry on the salient caused by the British success. This advance threatened the army artillery massed behind the British infantry, with some Germans within 40 yards of the guns. L Battery was order to act the rearguard to allow the army artillery to escape. They and a mixed force of infantry and artillerymen inflicted around 150 casualties on the Germans before withdrawing. The eight L Battery soldiers commemorated on the Cambrai memorial are evidence of the cost of this operation. The official history includes praise for L Battery, a rare mention of an individual battery.(4)

Cambrai would be a good battle for a 1st RHA commemoration. This the one battle in the war in which each battery served. It allows for a focus on the tactical and technical innovation which has characterised the professional ethos of the Royal Regiment.

1918

This Walford watercolour captures the spirit of the actions by Chestnuts, D and O Batteries in March 1918
This Walford watercolour captures the spirit of the actions by Chestnuts, D and O Batteries in March 1918

At the beginning of 1918, the Germans had a chance to win the First World War before the American Army took the field in strength. The Germans redeployed troops released from the Eastern Front by the collapse of Imperial Russia. After three years of allied attempts to break the stalemate of the Western Front, the German offensives from 21th March initiated a eight months of mobile warfare.  Between March and June the Germans achieved a series of breakthroughs and forced the allies back.

All of the Batteries were involved in these battles.  The Cavalry divisions were deployed to plug gaps in the line. The majority of Chestnut Troop’s war dead are buried or commemorated on the Somme battlefields of 1918.  There is an account in the History of the Royal Artillery on the Western Front of how the observed fire from E and two other RHA Batteries held a German advance on the 22nd March for a whole day. (5) The BC of O Battery was given 600 infantrymen back from leave, eight lewis guns from No3 Kite Balloon Company to fill a gap in the line. (6)

These battles are rarely the subject of battlefield studies.  They are as significant as defensive battles as Mons or Le Cateau, but much larger.  These are the only major defensive battles fought by the British Army that approach the scale of the operations on the Eastern Front in WW2.

"British Artillery speeding along in pursuit of the fleeing foe." Did the NY Tribune publish a picture of E Battery in October 1918?
“British Artillery speeding along in pursuit of the fleeing foe.” Did the NY Tribune publish a picture of E Battery in October 1918?

The tide turned in August with the dramatic breakthrough at Amiens which repeated the techniques demonstrated at Cambrai, but on a larger scale.  450 tanks supported by a surprise predicted barrage by just under 1,500 guns and 800 aircraft broke through and destroyed a German army in what was the “Black day” for the German army.  Chestnut Troop, E and O Battery took part in these operations.

Menin Gate 1918. From positions on the Left of this view, B and L batteries fired  the barrage behind which the infantry cleared the Germans from Ypres ay the end of the war.
Menin Gate 1918. From positions on the Left of this view, B and L batteries fired the barrage behind which the infantry cleared the Germans from Ypres ay the end of the war.
The Menin Gate today
The Menin Gate today

After Cambrai the 29th Division was redeployed to the Ypres sector and fought in the defensive battle of the Lys and in the counter attacks in the summer On the 27th September 1918 B & L batteries, with the other batteries of 15 Bde RHA came into action outside the Menin Gate in Ypres.(7) The following morning they fired a creeping barrage in support of the 29th Division attack which recaptured the ground ceded in April capturing the village of Gheluveldt by the end of the day. L and B Batteries were deployed forwards to Gheluveldt on the 30th September, and supported the attacks over the River Lys in October.

1919 and Afterwards

The Armistice did not mean demobilisation.  The CWGC records war dead until 1921 as the regular army was deployed to respond to the messy aftermath of the War.  The CWGC records the deaths of Lance Naik Batu Khan of Chestnut Troop in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen (23 Dec 1918) and  Driver Noor Mohammed of B Battery in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Turkey (30 Jan 1920), and serve as a reminder of the British Army as an Imperial force and the Regular Army’s relationship with the Indian Sub continent.

The history of 1st RHA’s batteries on the First World War is that of the Western Front, its batteries were ubiquitous, “quo fas et gloria decunt”. Their actions took place among some of the familiar land marks of the Western front. Their battles tell the story of the development of technology and tactics during the wear and the part that the Gunners.  Anyone taking a professional interest in the develo-pment of artillery on the battlefield would be remiss if they restricted their interest to the 1914 battles.

These were also actions in which at least 233 men lost their lives and perhaps 500 wounded. One of the key themes of commemoration is Remembrance, which should include understanding what these men did and why.  The Centenary is an opportunity to visit the graves, memorials and the places where these men fought and fell. Of course,  we celebrate the achievements of the Bradbury, Dorrell and Nelson at Nery, worthy of the highest award for gallantry that Britain can bestow. It is proper that L Battery remembers these men and the others that were lost at Nery. But the Centerary ought to be the time to find out about some of the other men who served the guns and remember them.  Were the eight members of L Battery who fell on 30th November at Cambrai necessarily less brave? Were any of the men who fell any less mourned?

While many people are familiar with the battles and battlefields of the Western Front, far fewer have explored them from the Gunner’s point of view.  The actions by the 1 RHA batteries are ideal topics for battlefield studies, conveniently located from the UK.  The Centenary of the First World War is an ideal opportunity to undertake low level battlefield studies.

For more information on planning battlefield studies ands staff rides contact Gunner Tours  www.gunnertours.com

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 NOTES

[1]   This article is based on a talk given to the Officers of the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery on 8th April 2014.

[2]  www.CWGC.org  These are minimum numbers.  The CWGC also lists RHA  as “15 Brigade RHA,”  which may include soldiers who might or might not be members of B or L Battery.  They might have been members of Y Battery, the Warwickshire TA RHA Battery or the Brigade Ammunition Train.

[3]  Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on the Western Front

[4]  Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1917, The Battle of Cambrai  CH XV  HMSO  1934

[5]  War Diary D Battery RHA quoted in Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on nthe Western Front

[6]  Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, the German March Offensive and its preliminaries, CH XV  HMSO  1934

[7]  WO/95-2291 15 Bde RHA War Diary Entry September 1918

7 thoughts on “After Néry…The Batteries of 1 RHA in the First World War”

  1. Hello.
    I have just been forwarded this article by my Battery Commander.
    I am Sgt Rob Garrood of E Battery, 1RHA. I have undertaken a significant ammount of research this year with regards to the story of the first engagment by E Battery at Bray.

    There is no single, concise account in exisitance. I have been able to piece the story together using various sources and I have had it verified by 2 independant historians, both members of the guild of battlefield tour guides.

    Your brief account is factually correct but lacks the detail. If you would be interested in disgussing the story or viewing the material, please feel free to contact me in the first instance.

    Looking at your list of casualites for the Batteries from 1914-21, I can tell you, for E Battery, that is an incorrect figure. E Battery lost 6 men and 8 horses in one day, 8 SEPT 1914, when centre section was detached from the Battery.

    Kind regards

    Rob

  2. Please could you confirm that my grandfather William Frederick Stockwell or Frederick William, from Birmingham who served with RHA during WW1, I have trench art with Mons on the inscription. Thank you

    1. Sorry, but I can’t confirm he served in the RHA.

      A quick check on ancestry gives a pension record for “Frederick William Stockwell, of Gerrards Cross who jouined the army in Dec 1914 but discharged as physically unfit for service in 1916. It doesn’t identify his regiment or corps but he was a private not a gunner or driver RHA terms for private soldier.

      There is an entry the roll of individuals entitled to the Visdtory medal and British War service medal for T2/017404 Corporal Frederick Stockwell of the Royal Army Services Corps. The RASC could serve alongside RHA units. They also operated maintenance workshops, which had the lathes and tools to manufacture trench art! .
      http://wiz2.ancestry.co.uk/Records/LIHP_Reg~Records/7bd8617b-c6c4-427d-b8bb-1677d5d5841a#/SearchResults

      I hope this helps

  3. I’m trying to confirm my grandads movements in ww1.
    Rank number: Corporal Harold Harvey 31697 (R.A.)

    I think (but not sure) he may have been xv brigade RHA 29th division b battery, as we know he went to gallapolli then France. (And he talked about India)

    Any info would be good

  4. hi,
    My great uncle driver reginald fogarty service No 34905 “0” Bty 5th Bde was killed in action 14/08/1918 and is listed on the memorial Vis- en-artois. I assume this action was part of the Cambrai offensive. are there any war diaries for “0” Bty for this date? which may throw some light on my uncles demise.

    regards Mal

    1. Hi,
      The war diaries of the 5th Army Brigade RHA, in which O Battery served, have been digitised. Copies can be found in the National Archive as WO 95/455 – Army Troops

      If you click on the link a copy can be yours for the princely sum of £3.50

      The O battery war diary does not seem to be available on line. You could write to the battery which is part of 1st Regiment RHA in Assaye Barracks Tidworth, Wilts.

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