Dorsets, The - Actions in Great War (WWI, World War 1, First Great European War) to 1915
The Enemy Bears Down on La Bassée
On October 13th, 1914, soon after Antwerp fell, the British Second Army Corps, after having marched from Abbeville to Bethune, was fighting its way towards La Bassée and Lille, obeying Sir John French's orders.
Two days previously, two of its divisions, the 3rd and the 5th, had crossed the canal.
However, they found that the Germans were much more numerous than had been imagined.
General Smith-Dorrien undertook a strategic manoeuvre, ordering his men to occupy positions away to the right, the object being to stop the enemy from reaching La Bassée.
The Germans were expecting this move; they had hidden their guns on the high ground, and for the next couple of days desperate fighting took place around that point.
"He (i.e., Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien) particularly mentions the fine fighting of the Dorsets, whose commanding officer, Major Roper, was killed. They suffered no less than four hundred casualties, one hundred and thirty of them being killed, but maintained all day their hold on Pont Fixe." - Sir John French.
Dorsets' Daring Heroes
The 1st Battalion of the Dorset Regiment was in the 15th brigade of the 5th Division. Starting from Festubert, the Dorsets advanced towards Givenchy, to a position near Cuinchy, where the Pont Fixe bridge crossed the canal. Here their difficulties began.
A portion of the brigade fell back because the shell fire was too strong; but the Dorsets remained. They could not go forward, and they would not take a step backward, so they just dug themselves into trenches and clung on to them, for all they were worth.
Throughout the day the Germans came on, utilising their much greater strength of numbers in men and guns, but by nightfall the Dorsets had not been ousted from their position.
Their losses on this one day were terrible:
one hundred and thirty killed, and
nearly three hundred wounded.
But the Dorsets were not out for the count; the Germans soon received their comeuppance.
In good order they left their trenches. A platoon under Sergeant E. Snashall covered their retirement; but they did not retire more than a few paces. Here the survivors of the battalion halted, forming the Front line which the British held throughout the winter of 1914-1915.
Sergeant Snashall deserves mention for one of the many deeds of heroism undertaken. On the 14th and 15th October, he lay in an exposed position, preventing enemy patrols from reaching the bridge, thus preventing them from crossing the canal.
Another act of distinction was rewarded also with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.), gained by Sergeant-Major Vivian, as it was largely owing to his daring and coolness that his company, facing great odds against them, managed to get away safely.
Wounded Warriors Arriving at a British Seaport Town.
Dorset Glories Won in India
If you know anything of the history and traditions of the Dorset regiment, then you will not be very surprised by this gallant stand at Pont Fixe.
Its 1st Battalion, the old 39th, was raised in Ireland in 1701, at first being called Cootes' Regiment. In 1709 it was in Portugal, and in 1747 it went to Flanders under "Butcher" Cumberland ; but its chief glories were won in India, and its colours bear the proud motto, "Primus in Indis" [“First in India.”]
It 1754 the regiment reached India to assist the British East India Company against the French “Compagnie Française pour le Commerce des Indes Orientales “ [“French East India Company”], and at Plassey it held the centre of Clive's line.
In 1756 the 54th Foot, by 1914 the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsets, was raised. Since then the battalions battalions have served in the Peninsular War, in Burma, in India, in the Crimea, in the Tirah Valley, and in South Africa. Albuera, Vittoria, Orthes, Sevastopol, and Ladysmith, being among the names on their colours.
In 1881, the 39th and the 54th were united to form the Dorset Regiment.
Battle of the Mons, 1914
Ordeals at 'Hill 60'
At the beginning of the Great War, the 1st Battalion was sent from Ireland to France. At Mons, they were helping to defend the canal, on the August Sunday when the Germans met the British face-to-face.
On August 26th, whilst the Dorsets were in the retreat, they fought in the fierce Battle of Le Cateau. Having overcome the worst of the German attacks, they marched off towards the Marne. On one of these terrible days they marched an incredible forty-two miles in twenty-four hours.
Next they held on to a narrow strip of ground between the river and the heights when they found themselves under heavy fire from the Germans entrenched on the hills above the Aisne.
They remained in their trenches through two weeks of pouring rain, before they, and the rest of the army, moved away to positions between Calais and Lille. Then they showed their real mettle at Pont Fixe.
By this time, just like the Welsh Fusiliers, the Dorsets had "practically ceased to exist." They had lost twenty-seven officers and eight hundred men. There were not many left of the one thousand or one thousand one hundred who sailed from Ireland in August.
But drafts arrived, and with the remaining Dorsets, these stood up to the Germans near La Bassée in October, especially during a fierce attack on the 22nd October. A machine-gun section, under Sergeant Gambling, did exceptional work during these winter months.
Those winter months were long, cold, wet, and tedious, but the Dorsets had no hard fighting to undertake, until in April, when the Germans used asphyxiating gas, they were on 'Hill 60'.
On May 1st, one of their trenches was reduced to an officer and four men, the others having been poisoned, but the remainder held firm, in spite of these severe losses. Lieutenant R. V. Kestell-Cornish, the officer remaining, rallied and encouraged the four to hold on throughout the night, until reinforcements arrived.
Four days later, on the same 'Hill 60', another subaltern, H. G. M. Mansell-Pleydell, took charge of a company which, under his able leadership, regained a lost trench. A small impact on the overall scheme of things, but seen as massive victories by the men, and for morale.
Gasaanvallen bij Leper (Ypres)
The 2nd Dorset's Against the Turks
That was the 1st Battalion on the Western Front, but the Dorsets had a 2nd Battalion, the old 54th, fighting in the near east. In November, together with three Indian battalions, they landed at Fao, at the head of the Persian Gulf, and a few days later, attacked the Turks.
The Turks were entrenched among some date groves, with a bare plain in front of them. The Dorsets took slight notice of the inconvenience, crossing it in short rushes. The enemy did not fancy making acquaintance with their gleaming bayonets, and removed themselves from their trenches. The battle was won.
During the advance, when there was no cover whatsoever, a number of the Dorsets dared almost certain death by carrying up ammunition to the firing-line, and by aiding the wounded. About one hundred and thirty of them were hit, among these two officers were killed:
Major A. A. Mercer, and
Captain F. Middleton.
On March 3rd, 1915, a few of the men went on a reconnoitre to discover something about the enemy's strength. They were caught in an ambush, surrounded by thousands of Turks. Gradually they manoeuvred themselves back. Two men of the Dorsets:
Lance-Corporal E. A. Finch, and
Private H. Barrett,
distinguishing themselves by protecting the wounded from the 'kultur' of Germany's pupils and allies. Five other Dorsets won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.) by assisting some Indian soldiers in their retreat.
"Primus in Persis"
On April 14th, near Basra, the Dorsets led the British line in another pitched battle. The conditions were not dissimilar to those in November.
The Turks were entrenched among some woods. Between them and the Allied troops was a bare level plain. On this hot day, with the sun glaring mercilessly down, these troops pressed on for five hours, rushing, then lying down, at short intervals.
On the final charge, the Dorsets leading the way, they entered the enemy's trenches and cleared them out at the point of their bayonets. As a sample of the fighting, twelve men led into action by Sergeant-Major Warren, eight were hit. Lieutenant-Colonel H. L. Kosher, the battalion's commander, was among those killed in this engagement.
There for the present ends the record of the Dorsets.