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Royal Welsh Fusiliers, The - Actions in the European War (WWI, Great War, World War 1) to 1915

Updated on October 26, 2013

Royal Welsh Fusiliers Badge

The Royal Welsh Fusiliers' badge. 23rd Foot. Grenade in gilt metal; Prince of Wales's plume within inscribed circle. Took part in all battles in American War of Independence.
The Royal Welsh Fusiliers' badge. 23rd Foot. Grenade in gilt metal; Prince of Wales's plume within inscribed circle. Took part in all battles in American War of Independence. | Source

The 23rd on the Roll.

King Charles I. is not the only British King who has found his subjects in North Wales 'cordial to him and arming themselves for him'. King George V. had the same experience for Welshmen displayed no hesitation in docking to the Colours during the progress of the Great War.

This is not very surprising when looking at the records of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the special regiment of North Wales, for to know something of its deeds in the past is a call to arms which the most phlegmatic could hardly resist - and whatever their faults, the Welsh are not men of this kind.

Of the three Welsh regiments, the Fusiliers is the only one which was actually raised in Wales, the date of its birth being 1689. Its number on the roll is the 23rd.

Quote by Clarendon

"So that his Majesty ... returned through the north parts of Wales (where he found the people cordial to him and arming themselves for him) to Shrewsbury." - Clarendon "History of the Rebellion".

Welsh Fusiliers Fighting Record

The Fusiliers began their fine career of foreign service by fighting under William of Orange and Marlborough in Flanders. They were at Blenheim at Oudenarde - where they were chosen to open the attack - and at Malplaquet.

They lost heavily at the Siege of Lille, and after the Siege of Douai, in 1710, they had only two captains left fit for service. They fought at Dettingen, and at Fontenoy their casualties - twenty-two officers and three hundred and one men - were far greater than those of any other regiment on the field.

At Minden, too, the Fusiliers lost heavily, and then, after fighting all through the war in America, they were compelled to surrender at Yorktown.

They died of Yellow fever in Haiti, were shipwrecked off the Dutch coast, and served under Sir Ralph Abercromby in Holland and Egypt before they were sent to Portugal in 1811.

At Albuera they were part of the immortal brigade of Fusiliers which stormed the French position, and they lost fourteen officers and three hundred and twenty men in the attack; at Sovauren, in the Pyranees, they were vastly outnumbered, but not outfought. And then came for them forty years of rest.

The gallant Welshmen were at the Alma and at Inkerman, and the Army historian, John Fortescue said:

"The 23rd is the only regiment which can boast that it has taken part in the four sternest fights of the British Army during two centuries - Schillenberg, Minden, Albuera, Inkerman."

From the Crimea the Fusiliers went to India, and fought at Lucknow. Later they served in Ashanti, in Burma, and in South Africa.

It is difficult to imagine a finer record of service than the one briefly outlined above, but, it is possible, as the Fusiliers improved upon it during the Great War. Certainly they maintained their glorious reputation.

Of the two Regular battalions of the regiment, neither went to the seat of war at the beginning; but the 1st was not far behind the men who landed at Boulogne in August of 1914. It was brought home from Malta, and formed part of a division, the 7th, which was commanded by Sir Henry Rawlinson, being one of the four battalions in the 22nd Brigade.

Officers of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Officers of the 13th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
Officers of the 13th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. | Source

Back Row (left to right):

Sec.-Lieut. W.O.F. Ellis, Lieut. Leonard Stuart Ayer, Sec.-Lieut. C.E.L. Fairchild, Sec.-Lieut. F.U.J. Harris, Lieut. W.D. Parry, Sec.-Lieut. O.Jenkins, Lieut. John Gower Jones, Lieut. R.M. Wynne-Edwards.

Third Row (left to right):

Lieut. and Quartermaster W. Armstrong, Sec.-Lieut. J.S. Napthall, Lieut. D.B. Anthony, Sec.-Lieut. A.V. Jones, Sec.-Lieut. F.V. Jones, Lieut. F.G. Thomas, Sec.-Lieut. F.C. Broatch, Sec.-Lieut. O.V. Thomas, Capt. F.S. Lloyd, Sec.-Lieut. G.M. Jones.

Second Row (left to right):

Major O.J. Bell, Capt. and Adjutant J.R. Hardwick, Lieut.-Col. C.E. Willes, Major C.E. Wynne-Eyton, Capt. R.O. Campbell, Capt. J.L. Lock.

Front Row (sitting, left to right):

Sec.-Lieut. F.W. Hardwick, Sec.-Lieut. R.M. Williams, (dog, unknown), Sec.-Lieut. C.F. Morris.

Sir John French

Stalemate of the Armies

Welsh Fusiliers Fight Heroically

On Monday, October 5th 1914, the Fusiliers left Lyndhurst, in the New Forest, for Southampton, and on the following Wednesday morning they landed at Zeebrugge. The task of the 7th Division was to save Antwerp; but it was too late, and so orders were given that it should assist the retreat of the Belgians and join the rest of Sir John French's army near Ypres.

On the 7th October the battalion landed in Belgium 1,100 strong; on December 14th, nine weeks later, General Lawford, commanding the 22nd Brigade, wrote:

"The 1st Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers had particularly distinguished itself for gallantry and devotion, and for holding out against the enemy until it practically ceased to exist."

As a matter of fact, all this happened in a very few days. A few days of fighting - '... practically ceased to exist'. What happened?

From Zeebrugge the division had a difficult march through Belgium, meeting everywhere fleeing and terrified Belgians and brutal and victorious Germans. It stood and fought the latter at Thielt and Roulers, and then on the 16th got to Ypres.

The men had had no rest, but the position was serious, and they were ordered to march out at once towards Menin and seize a river crossing there. It meant 'dirty work' but the Fusiliers and their comrades were ready for it.

On Sunday, the 18th, they were fighting at Becelaere, and on the 19th the battalion showed great dash in attacking the enemy at a little place called Kleytheck. But in enormous and unexpected strength the Germans came on, and to avoid being surrounded the division was ordered to fall back and to throw up trenches on its original position between Zandvoorde and Zonnebeke.

This was the beginning of the great Battle of Ypres, and of its many heroic incidents the stand of the Welsh Fusiliers is perhaps the most heroic. The division was defending a line eight miles long, when it was attacked by about 150,000 Germans, determined at all costs to hack their way through to Calais.

On the 19th the position was more critical than at any other time during the first year of the war. The First Army Corps was hurrying up from St. Omer to help the 7th Division, and the question was whether the latter, with only about 1,500 men to the mile, could hold on until it arrived.

Humanly speaking, they could not; but they did, and Calais was saved. They stood up, one man against ten, through two terrible days - October 20th and 21st - and the Smith-Dorrien's troops came, as welcome as were the Highlanders at Lucknow.

General Sir Herbert Plumer

General Sir Herbert Plumer
General Sir Herbert Plumer | Source

Welsh Fusiliers Part in Saving Calais

It is casting no sleight against the other battalions in the 7th Division to say that the Welsh Fusiliers met and foiled the worst of this terrible attack, and to them more than to any others the Allies owe it that the Germans did not get to Calais.

They were at Zonnebecke, on the extreme left of the line, and just as the stand of the 7th Division saved the whole army, so the stand of the Fusiliers saved the 7th Division. If they had wavered, all would have been lost.

Try to imagine those forty-eight hours. They had been without sleep for five days, and there was no sleep to be had in the trenches. There were no reserves to come up and relieve them. Every man was in the firing-line and had to remain there, for how long no one knew. The bombardment was incessant, and time after time the Germans attacked.

Yet in spite of all, inspite of enormous losses, the Fusiliers just "held on", day and night alike, until they were relieved, when they were just, as someone said, like blocks of wood, so absolutely worn out were they.

But alas! it was not a battalion, hardly a company, that dragged themselves out of the trenches on October 21st, Trafalgar Day. Most of the men who had saved Calais were either dead or wounded.

In the past, regiments had held on until they had lost half their men, and all honour to them for it, but the Fusiliers held on although they had lost three-quarters of their strength. The few remaining Welshmen were moved to another part of the line.

On the 30th, some troops on the right of the Fusiliers were driven back, and the Fusiliers were attacked, not only from the front but also from the side. They were outflanked.

However, so accustomed were they to holding on, that again they preferred death to retirement. Die they did, and by the end of the day the battalion had "practically ceased to exist".

The general referring to the splendid behaviour of the Fusiliers "on all occasions", said:

"The battalion has wholly maintained the glorious traditions of the regiment."

He spoke the simple truth. For their traditions the Fusiliers paid a great price, and not Wales alone, but the whole Empire was their debtor.

Among those killed in October were:

Before the Battle of Ypres the 2nd Battalion of the Fusiliers had reached the seat of war, and in 1915 this was included in the new army corps, the 5th, commanded by Sir Herbert Plumer, being in the 82nd Brigade. The 1st Battalion was reconstituted, and took its place in the renewed 7th Division, early in the year.

On the night of November 24th, 1914, a few Fusiliers did a fine deed. Under Captain J.R.M. Ford, they assisted some Engineers to mine and blow up a group of farms just in front of the German trenches. These farms had been used by German snipers.

"Hill 60" Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The first Victoria Cross ever won by a Territorial. Second-Lieutenant G.H. Woolley's heroic defence of "Hill 60". Battle of Neuve Chapelle, withy a handful of men.
The first Victoria Cross ever won by a Territorial. Second-Lieutenant G.H. Woolley's heroic defence of "Hill 60". Battle of Neuve Chapelle, withy a handful of men. | Source

Sergeant-Major Barter, VC, Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Company Sergeant-Major Frederick Barter, 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Festubert.
Company Sergeant-Major Frederick Barter, 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Festubert. | Source

Sgt-Major Barter (again)

Frederick Barter VC
Frederick Barter VC | Source

Heroic Actions of Fusiliers at Festubert

Both battalions were at Neuve Chapelle in March, 1915, but neither was on this occasion in the front of the battle. However, on the 14th, the 2nd Battalion took a leading part in an attack which drove the Germans from the village of St. Eloi, and retook some captured trenches.

At Festubert, in May, they were again to the fore. On the 16th the 1st Battalion took part in an attack on the German position.

On the previous evening they had arrived fresh in the trenches, and as soon as the Allied bombardment ceased, their leading company was up the ladders and was making at full speed for the enemy's position. The other companies followed, and although the line kept getting thinner and thinner, there was no wavering.

They reached the gaps made by the guns in the German parapets, tore through, and used their bayonets with deadly effect in the trenches.

Then their difficulties began. The Germans got their guns to work, and the Fusiliers were bowled over by explosive shells and shrapnel. Some of them made a further rush for about three hundred yards, and then the few survivors, about sixty in number, of this band lay down in some shelter for about an hour.

While in this position they saw and seized a German machine-gun, and then they rushed into a cottage and at once turned it into a fortress. In spite of a heavy fire they held this cottage against all comers until the evening, when they were ordered to retire.

In this attack two Fusiliers specially distinguished themselves. The acting adjutant, John Brown Savage, who had been noted for gallantry at Neuve Chapelle, led his men to the German parapet, where he was severely wounded, but he continued to encourage them forward.

Sergeant-Major Barter, as soon as he was in a German trench, called for volunteers, and when eight came to his assistance he cleared the Germans from five hundred yards of trenches and took three officers and one hundred and two men prisoners. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Much more could be said about the deeds of the Fusiliers, but enough has been told to show that they are full worthy to bear on their colours the red dragon of Wales and the Prince's plumes.

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      Chaz 4 years ago from UK

      Comment received through e-mail:

      hi your piece on the RWF was very moving, due I think because my grandfather was there. He was captured the 20th October '14, spent the remainder of the war in a salt mine being beaten brutally by guards. He left the regiment in '19, because basically nearly everyone he knew since joining the battalion in 1911 were now dead. He re-enlisted into the 1/6 Essex in 1921 until 1945. I never met him, he died in '54. He was the 5th generation to enlist since 1807. I am the 7th and last to enlist; my children choosing different careers. That piece was beautifully written. Paul J. Darran