Royal West Kents, The - Actions in WWI (World War 1, First Great European War) to 1915
The quick, experienced, soldier-brain of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, which had directed the main attack at Paardeberg, was perplexed.
With his army corps, made up of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, he had been ordered to break the connection between the Germans and La Bassée, and so make it possible to capture that place.
On October 19th, 1914, he was within sight of his goal, but on the 20th it was as far away as ever.
The reason was that the Germans had rushed up a lot of fresh troops, and these were surging forward to drive the British into space.
To save his men, to say nothing of Calais and Boulogne behind them, the general had to make a new plan.
In these conditions a battle began, one which, like so many others in the Great War, was nameless. It took place between Givenchy and Neuve Chapelle, this being the “here” mentioned in the quote below, and it lasted for nearly a fortnight.
The British troops had dug trenches to protect themselves, and in some of these near Givenchy were the West Kents and the rest of the 13th Brigade, under General Cuthbert, all part of the 5th Division.
“Here the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kents made a stand for ten days that ranks amongst the highest achievements of British troops.”
Caption: Colonel Eden Vansittart, Officer Commanding 8th Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), entered the Indian Army in 1876, and served in the Mahsud Waziri Expedition (1881); Hazara (1888), and on the North-West Frontier, Samana, and Tirah (1897-98). In 1902 he was specially selected to raise and command the 8th Gurkha Rifles.
King George's Rival
The German attack began about the 20th. It was made chiefly by Bavarian troops, commanded by their Crown Prince - Rupert - who, so a few deluded folk used to say, was son of the rightful Queen of England.
On the 22nd it was fierce, and the 5th Division, had to abandon the village of Violaines, but two days later it was fiercer still.
This time the 3rd Division were the chief sufferers, and it would have gone badly with them but for the timely assistance of the West Kents and the Wiltshires.
These battalions dashed up just in time and, bayonet in hand, drove back the enemy.
This done, they went back to their own trenches, and on the 26th they were bombarded with a vengeance.
It seemed as if all the guns on earth were firing at them, so terrible was the din and so incessant the shower of missiles.
At the rate of a hundred an hour shells fell upon their parapets and in their trenches, sending up huge clouds of débris; at one time, it was reported, they arrived at the rate of ten a minute.
The damage done can be better imagined than described. The parapets had disappeared, and the trenches were blocked up with fallen earth; so, too, were the support and communication trenches, the result being that all ammunition and messages had to be carried over the open ground, where bullets from rifles and machine-guns were whizzing.
A curious story told of a West Kent man probably relates to this heavy bombardment.
A German shell burst near where he was standing with a comrade. His comrade disappeared, and no trace of him was ever found, but the Kentish man was found hanging head downwards in a tree, fifteen feet from the ground, and his rifle was there, too.
He was extricated from his predicament and, strange to say, was none the worse for his upward flight, except that for a day or two he could neither hear nor speak.
Towards the close of day the Germans landed some heavy shells plumb into the firing trenches of the West Kents, and then, expecting doubtless that there would be hardly anyone left to kill, they charged. But for them there was a surprise in store.
Caption: Major Francis John Joslin, 1st Royal West Kent Regiment became a Second--Lieutenant in 1895, a Lieutenant in 1897, and received his company in 1903. He was promoted Major in 1914. From 1904 to 1907 he acted Adjutant to his regiment. Major Joslin served through the South African War, receiving both medals with five clasps.
Some Kentish Fire
In spite of the awful bombardment the Kents had held their ground, sticking gamely to what was left of their trenches.
They had lost heavily, but there were enough of them left to check the oncoming enemy with a well-aimed volley of rapid fire.
The first attack was stopped, but other Germans came on only to meet with the same warm reception from men who ought, according to theory, to be dead or buried, or both.
Finally, the remnant of the gallant battalion leapt from the trenches and drove the enemy in confusion before their bayonets.
Lieutenant H.B. Haydon White received the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) for
“... bringing his battalion out of action after ten successive days in the trenches, during which time he showed great powers of leadership and determination of a high order.”
The story of this heroic stand soon spread through the ranks of the army corps, and those who saw the West Kents gave them a great reception, while General Smith-Dorrien said:
“There is not another battalion that has made such a name for itself as the Royal West Kents.”
Brigadier-General H. G. Fitton, C.B., D.S.O., A.D.C. to the King, was gazetted lieutenant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1884 ; he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel to the Royal West Kents in 1905. Gen. Fitton had occupied many important Staff positions, and seen much active service in the Sudan Expedition from Suakim (1885) ; at Giniss and elsewhere in the Sudan in 1885-86 ; in the Dongola Expedition (1896), when he was wounded and won his D.S.O. ; in both Nile Expeditions ; he fought at Atbara and at Khartoum, and was on the Staff throughout the South African War. General Fitton held many decorations.
West Kents' Turnbull Bags Six German Snipers
While the battalion was resting in November one of its privates was having a great time. This was John Thomas Turnbull, who night after night went out to get information about the enemy's position.
Although under constant fire, Turnbull returned safely with some useful facts, and not only that, but during his nocturnal rambles he found and disposed of six German snipers, bringing back their rifles to show to his comrades.
The 1st Battalion of the West Kents had been at the front for over two months when Lieutenant White led the men from the trenches.
Near another Condé they had made their way across the Aisne, and in the sodden trenches on the north side of that river they remained until they were transferred to Flanders in October.
They returned to the trenches early in 1915, and during the year remained holding on to their part of the front, but not taking a prominent part in the big actions.
When the Great War began the 2nd Battalion of the West Kents was in India, and there they remained for nearly a year more.
In the spring of 1915, however, it became necessary to send reinforcements to the army in Mesopotamia, and this battalion was among them.
Having landed and recovered from the journey, they were sent up the Euphrates as part of the force under Major-General G.F. Gorringe.
It was on July 4th that they reached the Turkish positions, near Nasiriyah, and the battle which took place there is usually called by that name.
Caption: The West Kents scored a brilliant victory over the Turks in the Persian Gulf, capturing Nasiriyah on July 24th, 1915. After a heavy bombardment a detachment made an irresistible charge and put the enemy to flight.
Incidentally an officer and twelve men were detailed off to clear out some trenches and take two towers, whence a heavy fire proceeded. The trenches had been covered with layers of chetai (sun matting), which the attacking force were compelled to root up to reach the enemy with their bayonets. After a sanguinary encounter the position, including the two towers, fell into British hands.
Mr. Turk in Flight
Let an officer who watched the advance describe it.
Allied fire was doing its best to cover the advance, but in spite of it the West Kents were up against a terrific fusillade,
“... and it was the most magnificent sight I have ever seen to watch those fellows going on under it, in spite of the casualties, just as if they were on a manoeuvre parade.”
Now for the final act.
“As soon as they got to the trenches they wheeld round to the right, do we had to stop our fire for fear of hitting them, and got into the trenches and then we lost sight of them. They got in with their bayonets, and all we could see from where we were was Mr Turk running as if the devil himself were after him, to our right, and we plugged him as he went.”
This fine regiment, the Queen's Own Royal West Kent, was first raised in 1756, the year when the Seven Years' War broke out, but it did not do much in the way of fighting for nearly forty years.
In 1793 the men were in Corsica, and in 1801 in Egypt, where they had some stiff combats; in 1807 they helped to besiege Copenhagen, and in the next year they went to Portugal, where so many British regiments won eternal glory. The West Kents, then the 50th of the Line, was one of these.
At Vimiera they broke a strong French column, and at Corunna they did their share in saving the day. The West Kents were in the Crimean War from the start. They fought at the Alma and at Inkerman, and led the assault on the Redan, and then went across the sea to put down the Mutiny in India.
Like the Royal Irish, they fought against the Maoris of New Zealand in 1864, and in 1882 they served in the Egyptian War.
They went down the Nile to the relief of Gordon, were on the Indian Frontier in 1897 and 1898, and then in South Africa fighting the Boers.