Using eye-witness accounts from some of the archive material that we hold, this month’s blog looks at the important role played by the Middlesex Regiment in a key battle of 1915 at Neuve Chappelle.  This month’s post takes us as far as the preparations to go over the top.

Middlesex Volunteer Reserve 1916

The Die Hards at Neuve Chappelle

The crucial battle of Neuve Chappelle had taken place in March 1915 with the Middlesex Regiment playing a critical role in the fighting over this strategically placed French village.  The local men who involved with this regiment were generally recruited from Teddington, Hampton, Hampton Hill, Hampton Wick and Twickenham.  Their role in the fighting was reported in the local paper, with news and first-hand accounts trickling through despite censorship of letters home.  The regiment was affectionately referred to as ‘the Midds’ or due to their grit under fire in battle and severe losses they endured ‘the Die Hards!’

Tracking this story through various editions of the Richmond & Twickenham Times it is possible to see how badly the regiment suffered through a censored letter that was published on 8th May 1915.  The letter is dated 30th April though the soldier is not directly identified:  ‘A Private of ‘A’ Company, 8th Middlesex’.  The newspaper has added the title:  ‘The Middlesex Regiment’s Ordeal’ to the soldier’s account.

It seems that this soldier survived this period of the war due to already being admitted to hospital with wounds.  During that time his battalion went into action, supporting the French who were occupying a trench and due to be relieved by the Canadians.

‘The Germans took the trench before the Canadians could get there and dug another trench in front.  The Middlesex were in the supports at the time and were called to retake the trench.  They charged, losing all their officers.  Just then the Canadians came up and drove the Germans back… capturing their trenches.’

A tremendous ordeal for the Midds

Territorial gains and losses on the battlefield in the new way of fighting trench warfare were incremental.  Every inch of ground was hard won or lost.  The hospitalised local private continued in his letter:

‘I hear that to take the trenches they had to go across open country.  The Germans turned fifteen Maxims on the two regiments and mowed them down like wheat in the field.  It was only through the doctor I escaped this.’

Although this particular soldier had some respite through hospitalisation he was only too well aware of the grim realities of his situation and his eventual return to frontline duties:

‘All of us fellows in hospital shook hands to think that we were safe:  but we have to go back some time or other.  Heaps of chaps have their nerves shattered and are left dumb through gas, while some have lost their memory.  Several RAMC chaps have got the ‘wind up’ as they call it out here, their nerves being so bad they cannot possibly do their work.’

Private ‘A’ also gave an eye-witness account of the battle effects around Ypres at that stage in the war, which although censored still conveys a stark portrait of total destruction:

‘I saw the town of Ypres; it is absolutely blown to pieces, and now all is on fire.  The 3rd Middlesex have only ____ men left, the 10th Canadians have ____, the 8th Canadians ____ and the Scottish Canadians ____.  The place is all covered with dead civilians, dead horses and Germans by the score.’ (The gaps here are the censors).

‘Almost crazy with joy’

The experiences of the Middlesex Regiment were also vividly described by Sergeant G. Davies of the 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment (Richmond & Twickenham Times 13th May 1915).  Sergeant Davis was seriously wounded and received treatment in King’s College Hospital, Denmark Hill.  He was the son and nephew of Corporation employees.  Ten days of pre-battle preparations and training for the troops from 1st March 1915 are described:

‘After we had arrived at Merville we found that instead of rest we had to run across ploughed fields and have route marches every day.  This went on until the 7th when we marched to Estaires… the great secret was revealed to use why we had had so much exercise.  The Germans were going to get a mighty wallop, and the place chosen to strike at and capture was Neuve Chapelle.  After we were told that we should have 400 guns at our back we thought it would be a walkover.  When we had explained to our sections what was going to be done they were almost crazy with joy.’

The ‘Marseillaise’

The Regiment received orders on the evening of the 9th March 1915 at 11 pm to move into position.  The Sergeant’s platoon was billeted in a large concert room attached to a public house or ‘estaminet’.

‘A corporal (poor chap he was killed) suggested that we have a smoking concert.  The best talent amongst us obliged with songs, the landlady’s daughter winding the concert up with the Marseillaise.’  (Sgt. Davis, p 3, Richmond & Twickenham Times, 13th May 1915).

The Midds were marched off up to the front at 11 pm that night, stopping for tea, bacon and bread at 1 am: ‘… the last meal for many a brave lad’.  It was a long route-march before the battle.

‘Marching in Indian file, we looked in the darkness like long black snakes. .. At last we reached the lines of breastworks close up together which had been prepared some time before.  We laid in these trenches cold, and with our nerves all on edge.  Had the Germans heard of our move? … About 5 am it began to rain and snow slightly, and we were thankful that it blew over. ..  The dawn of the 10th March appeared dull and grey…’

 

The Battle Dawn

According to the Sergeant, their spirits were not dampened because they were allowed a smoke as dawn broke.  His account includes references to support from the Air Corps, indicating the extent of new strategies being employed in what was now total war.  For example, they had used the Air Corps to take reconnaissance photos and he spotted one just at 7.30 am flying over the line to bomb the enemy prior to the battle: ‘… it is one of our own gone to wish the Hun ‘good morning’ by dropping a bomb in a trench.  He sails saucily over their positions and then turns back to our rear’

The next phase of battle involves the artillery:

‘Boom, boom, it is 7.30, the artillery have found the range and the most terrible bombardment in history commenced. Guns of all calibres are used.  The noise is awful.  It seems as if the earth was being beaten with some giant steam hammer.  We watch the shells exploding over; in the Huns’ trenches and we go mad with excitement’.

There is a reprieve of the ‘Marseillaise’ as the Midds then strike with grenades:

‘Our bomb throwers in the first trench start cake-walking and swinging their hand grenades Indian club fashion at the same time singing ‘Allemands!’ (Germans), come out and fight,’ to the tune of the Marseillaise’ (Sgt Davis, Richmond & Twickenham Times).

The local men were bracing themselves for the inevitable advance.

Find out more about the experiences of these men once they have gone over the top in next month’s post or visit the search room at Local Studies, the Old Town Hall, Whittaker Avenue, Richmond, TW9 1TP.