The First World War

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The First World War, which followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the eventual invasion of The Low Countries by the German Kaiser’s armies, is well documented. All of the Regiment’s forebears were represented in huge numbers during the Conflict and they fought in nearly all of the campaigns. In this short Guide it is not possible to go into much detail of the Great War or to do justice to the scale of heroism and unflinching devotion to duty. The number of names on regimental war memorials tell the tale; for example, 8,000 Queen’s, 5,688 Buffs, 6,866 Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, 6,000 East Surreys, 6,800 Royal Sussex, 8,026 Hampshires and 12,694 officers and men of The Middlesex Regiment. The ranks of the regiments were swelled, as the war went on, by regular reservists, Territorials, Kitchener volunteers and conscripts, who all contributed to the eventual defeat of Germany. The first British infantry unit to open fire on the Germans, near Mons on the 22nd August 1914, was the 4th Middlesex, and on the day of the Armistice, the 11th November 1918, when the 2nd Middlesex, pursuing the Germans, reached practically the same spot, in the Battalion there were still some men of the original 4th Battalion who had fought right through, from the first shots to the last. In 1914, The 1st Battalion The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment was reduced, in just three months, from 1,000 on parade to thirty-two. There were many memorable episodes and hard fought battle honours added to the forebears’ Colours.

Ypres, the 23rd April 1915, became the Regimental Day of The East Surreys. Hill 60 was successfully defended from the 19th to the 21st April by the 1st Battalion. Within twenty-four hours, Lieutenant Roupell, 2nd Lieutenant Handley Geary and Private Dwyer all gained VCs and seven others were awarded The Distinguished Conduct Medal. Nineteen-year-old Private Dwyer leapt on to a parapet in the face of German grenade throwers and dispersed them with his own grenades. Earlier in the day, he had risked his life many times by going out of his trench to rescue wounded colleagues. This second battle of Ypres was to last five weeks and included the first use of German gas. The 2nd Battalion of the East Surreys also distinguished itself in the battle and the 23rd April was chosen as a special anniversary. The Buffs, Hampshires, Queen’s Own Royal West Kents and The Middlesex Regiment earned the same battle honour of ‘Ypres 1915’. The Queen’s, Royal Sussex Regiment, Hampshire Regiment, Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and The Middlesex Regiment gained a number of battle honours from the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, when the attempt was made to open another front against the Turks. The Hampshires were to remember Gallipoli Day on the 25th April each year, when the landing from the steamer River Clyde took place at Helles in the face of almost impossible odds. Men of the 2nd Hampshires were caught in the water and shot and drowned. The landing eventually succeeded, although the Battalion had sustained large numbers of casualties and the Dardanelles campaign itself ended in failure. The battalion took part in the more successful evacuation of the peninsula in December 1915. Eighteen-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Moor won the Regiment’s first VC of the war for most conspicuous bravery and resource during operations south of Krithia, Dardanelles. The Hampshires were to raise thirty-six battalions by the end of the war.

1916 was to mark the Battle of the Somme from July until November, and all of the forebear regiments were represented in the appalling slaughter which ended with 419,000 British dead and some 316,000 wounded. On the first day of the battle alone, there were 57,000 casualties, the highest losses that the British Army had ever suffered in one day. The manner in which ‘B’ Company of The 8th Surreys advanced on that fateful day was to become legendary. The Officer in Command, Captain Neville, and Private Fursey kicked footballs into No-Man’s Land to encourage the advance. Their objective of Montauban was taken, though the Battalion lost 446 men, killed, wounded and missing in the first ten minutes. The Queen’s, The Buffs and The Queen’s Own Royal West Kents took part in the same action. By 1916 The Middlesex Regiment had fifteen battalions in Flanders, which included new ‘Kitchener’ units such as the 16th (Public Schools) Battalion, the 17th and 23rd (Football) Battalions and the 18th and 19th (Public Works) Battalions. The first black infantry officer in the British Army, Lieutenant Walter Tull, served with the 17th Footballers’ Battalion, then 23rd Battalion of The Middlesex Regiment.

Less well-known than the Somme, was the preceding Battle of Boar’s Head. This was a diversionary attack to the Somme, in the Pas de Calais region, on the 30th June 1916. This was a particularly bloody battle fought by, amongst others, The 11th, 12th and 13th Battalions of The Royal Sussex Regiment; The Southdowns Brigade. The battle lasted less than five hours. Seventeen officers and three hundred and fortynine men were killed with over one thousand wounded or taken prisoner. Company Sergeant Major N V Carter was awarded the Victoria Cross. The event became known as ‘The Day that Sussex Died’. The Regiment’s forebears fought notably at virtually all of the battles of the Western Front and also gained battle honours from the campaigns in Palestine, Aden, Mesopotamia, India, Macedonia, Egypt and Italy. Four battalions of The Buffs were to form a key part of the final assault of The Hindenburgh line in 1918, which helped bring The Great War to a close. A perusal of the consolidated list of VCs won by The Regiment illustrates some of the sacrifices made. One typical example of outstanding courage was demonstrated by Lieutenant Colonel Dawson of The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. He was in the casualty list seven times with three bars to his Distinguished Service Order before he died of wounds at the age of 27 in 1918. The East Surreys inadvertently enlisted, reputedly, the youngest soldier of the War; Private Sydney George Lewis was just twelve years old, when he joined at Kingston in August 1915. Following an appeal from his mother, he was sent home and discharged!