THE GREAT WAR: 1914

FROM THE LIFE OF EDWARD LOUND (1884-1971)

You will recall that Edward Lound grew up in Great Yarmouth and after working for ten years in the entertainment industry he joined the army at the age of 24. He was recruited into the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment (The Sherwood Foresters) at Normanton Barracks in Derby. On completing his basic training he was promoted to Lance Corporal and was posted to Ireland. We now briefly take up his story in his own words.

On 2nd July 1908 we arrived by train at Fishguard and boarded the Great Western Railway’s S.S. St George.  We had a lovely smooth crossing and arrived in Rosslare late in the afternoon.  We were now in the Emerald Isle,  and as we approached Fermoy on the train it looked like a huge emerald standing out from the ocean.  The rail journey from Rosslare to Fermoy was just over 90 miles. The barracks was not far from the railway station. There were two buildings, one on each side of the road. The New Barracks was occupied by the 2nd Bn the Durham Light Infantry and the Old Barracks was occupied by the Foresters. We marched straight onto the Parade Ground and were posted to Companies “A” to “H”. I was posted to “H” Coy. Then it was time for bed.

Edward Lound’s autobiography breaks off at this point, but we are able to continue the story of his war experiences from a number of sources. There is a tape recording he made in the last year of his life, and there is also the War History of the 2nd Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters [1]. As a senior NCO he is mentioned by name several times in this book. Also of great interest is the War Diary which is available online from the National Archives. This was a daily record of each battalion, its casualties and actions. Other details like the weather and inspections by senior officers are also included. A number of citations for gallantry medals may also be mentioned.

Although his arrival in Ireland as outlined above was several years before the outbreak of the First World War, Edward Lound was again in Ireland in August 1914, just prior to War breaking out. Late at night, shortly after midnight on 5 August the Government had issued this statement: “Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium will be respected, His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11p.m. on the 4th August.”

The troops had already been mobilized earlier in the evening of the 4th, in anticipation of the declaration of war. The members of the 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were part of the 6th Division. All that part of the regiment who were in Ireland were immediately got ready for a return to England. By the 18th of August the 6th division was in camps around Cambridge. The 2nd Battalion was under canvas on Midsummer Common in the town.

On September 7th the Battalion marched to Newmarket to entrain for Southampton. It was a very hot day, and the men had full packs on their backs, but the Foresters did well compared to other units. The Sherwood Foresters embarked at Southampton on the 10th  at 2.30 p.m for the 15 hour journey to France. To be a safe distance from the advancing German Army their destination was St Nazaire on the mouth of the river Loire. After waiting  in the roads for a berth all day it was in the evening of 11th September that the 2nd Battalion began to disembark in from the S.S. Georgian, a cargo vessel with only open accommodation on deck for all ranks. (The Georgian from the North Atlantic run was sunk by a German U-boat off Crete in 1917.) Unloading the wagons from the ship proved to be a time-consuming exercise, and it was not until noon on the 12th that it was completed. Orderly-Room  Clerk E. Lound  was one of the senior Senior NCOs who disembarked with the men.

By the time that the 6th Division had disembarked at St Nazaire the Battle of the Marne had already been fought and had halted the German advance through Northern France and Belgium. The German army was thrown back over 50 miles from Paris, but this meant a lot of tiring forced marches for the English troops in pursuit of the retreating Germans. Meanwhile the 6th Division (including the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters) were entrained at St Nazaire; they spent the night at Coulommiers to the east of Paris. The next day they continued north where they were billeted for the night. Without much rest they pushed on to the river Aisne at Bourg-et-Comin, where the retreating Germans were to make a stand.

The Foresters were now very near the front line and they were held in reserve in the small settlement of Troyon. [Troyon was a hamlet before the First World War but is now merely the name of a farm.] By the 20th September the weather had turned decidedly cold with heavy hail showers, and it was at dawn that the VII Reserve Corps of the German Army launched a general attack. While they were being held in reserve the First Battle of the Aisne had already been raging for a week. The part of the battle in which the Foresters had their first casualties of the war is known as the Engagement on Chemin des Dames, the road where it took place. The French North Africans to the right of the British line were driven back and in the fog of war the British troops moved up to cover this flank. They were promptly fired upon by their Morrocan allies who had rallied and were attempting to advance once more.

Great War

Sherwood Foresters in the Great War

With Germans taking many British prisoners from the West Yorkshire Regiment, the 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters had already moved up from their Reserve position to see what could be done to retrieve the situation. They incurred heavy losses with men injured and killed and were fortunate that the Germans did not press home their advantage. After holding their position for two days under heavy German bombardment the Foresters fell back to Brigade reserve at Troyon. In this first engagement of the war 48 members of this regiment were killed and 173 were wounded.  After this damaging introduction to the realities of war the Battalion was withdrawn from frontline action for about a fortnight while its numbers were restored to full strength.

On Friday October 9th the battalion was just over 1000 officers, NCOs and men. They entrained at St Rémy and went via Calais to St Omer. From there they marched just over a mile to their billets at Arques. The next morning they marched a further 4 miles to Wardrecques where they were loaded into some 200 motor lorries for the journey of about 7 miles to Hazebrouck. On Monday they reached Vieux Berquin a few miles further east where they established contact with the enemy but no engagement took place. They continued their advance for a week when they relieved the Durham Light Infantry at Ennetières. Heavy shelling with rifle and machine gun fire began almost immediately and continued to 1 a.m. on the 19th. The Sherwood Foresters were dangerously exposed in shallow trenches on the spur of land leading to the village and their lines were over extended.

In the German attack which followed on the 20th October the Sherwood Foresters, supported by the Durham Light Infantry and the West Yorkshire Regiment, were vastly outnumbered. The building housing the Battalion HQ was destroyed in the shelling. Being the object of particular German attention it had been evacuated just before it was completely demolished, and the Battalion Headquarters was moved a nearby school. All the papers belonging to the HQ were lost, and this made the task of counting casualties very difficult. Writing after the war in 1921 Major Leveson Gower, then the Lieutenant commanding the Battalion (he was wounded on the 5th August 1915) wrote: “before the attack the men had no rest for a day and 2 nights, digging at night and (being) shelled by day”.

After some heroic attempts to hang on the order was given to retreat; unfortunately by then the salient had been surrounded on all sides. After the war it was confirmed that just one battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (with a few reinforcements) were opposed by the might of the 25th Reserve Division and the 52nd Infantry Brigade of the German Army. In this, their second engagement of the war, none of the four companies in the Battalion was still commanded by the same man who had commanded them during the first engagement, and only two commanders were left in charge of their platoons.  At the end of the day out of the 1000 men in the Battalion, 723 were listed as missing; it later transpired that over half of these were taken prisoner. Over 100 of these missing men were brought in wounded during the following 24 hours, but this still leaves up to 150 soldiers dead. Because of the loss of all the documents referred to earlier, it is impossible to be more accurate. Those men remaining in the 2nd Battalion on the 21st October included only 4 officers, one of whom was the medical officer who was killed by shellfire on the 25th, 49 NCOs and 253 men, just 306 soldiers in all. This figure embraces transport and headquarters staff (including Orderly-Room Sergeant Edward Lound), stretcher bearers, medical orderlies and those stragglers who returned later in the following days. The number of front line  soldiers who returned from the Ennetières trenches on the 21st October was only 2 officers and 49 other ranks, both NCOs and privates. In this, the First Battle of Ypres, the Battalion had been almost entirely wiped out. Other detachments of the British Army – for example the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment – suffered a similar fate.

With such devastating losses the remaining men were kept out of the front line for three weeks. However, because the 6th Division was so short of men to hold their wide front, and as the enemy attacks were so frequent, the men were retained in close support, despite their meagre numbers. Their base was at Bois Grenier, a small settlement near the front line, which remained in British hands throughout the war. The effects of the conflict were however disastrous for the village; of the 1,200 inhabitants before 1914 only just over 500 remained at the end of the war. It was not until 1981 that the population returned to its earlier level.

On 14th November the Battalion received 40 men and by  the  21st a larger detachment of 550, but of the 19 officers present only 8 were actually members of the Regiment, the others having been drafted in. The first battle of Ypres  had come to an end on 11th November. The rest of the year was partly spent in the trenches are part “resting” in their billets. Sniper fire was a constant danger for the men in the trenches, but at this time most days were quiet with not much happening. The weather was appalling and the War Diary records on November 19th that “it snowed all day”. Then after two weeks of frost a thaw set in. The trench parapets became a sea of mud which the men continually had to shovel out of the trenches. This kind of warfare was a new experience for all, and the ways of attempting to deal with it were being learnt only by doing. There were no materials to build up the trench revetments, and even sandbags were in short supply. Wellington boots were not issued to the troops at this stage in the war, nor were helmets. The men had just ordinary peaked caps to protect them from shrapnel fragments – i.e no protection at all. The Battalion claimed the credit for developing the trench periscope. These were made from the pieces of broken looking-glass lying about the village and they enabled the sentries to keep a look-out for the enemy without putting their heads above the parapet.

In the middle of December there was some attempt to launch a renewed attack and the Foresters were moved across into Belgium, but the movement of troops on the muddy ground was difficult, and the rapid deployment required for operations was impossible. The plan was abandoned. The 2nd Battalion returned to the French side of the border.

That first Christmas of the war is remembered for the unofficial “Christmas truce” which had the opposing sides coming out to fraternize across no-man’s land. Unlike the 1st Battalion the Sherwood Foresters, who were in trenches on the front line on Christmas Day, the 2nd Battalion were billeted behind the front line and took no part in the “Christmas armistice”. There was a hard frost on Christmas Day, but the men of the Battalion were living in comparative comfort in a factory in Armentières. At least their loved ones at home showered them with gifts, especially Christmas puddings. Divine service at 10 a.m. was voluntary but most of the Battalion attended. On Boxing Day the 2nd Battalion was again ordered into the trenches.

The final days of the year were taken up with time in the trenches alternating with time behind the lines. The time when they were not on operations was used in having baths, hair cuts and getting their boots mended. Uniforms needed attention too. It was particularly difficult to maintain a smart appearance in almost incessant rain, yet this was expected of the troops.

Thus ended the first four months of the war that would drag on for nearly another four long years; the early confidence that it would be “all over by Christmas” had evaporated.  The 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters had been on or near the front line from the third week in September, through increasingly cold and wet wintry weather. Of the two engagements they had taken part in, neither was a British success, and the second was an unqualified disaster, albeit against overwhelming odds. Already the members of the Battalion who had crossed to France on the 11th September had been reduced to a mere handful through death, injury and imprisonment. Edward Lound was one of the few soldiers who had set out for France in September who still remained in post at the end of the year;  he was 30 years old.

[1]  Colonel H. C. Wylly, The 1st and 2nd Battalions The Sherwood Forester In The Great War, Naval and Military Press. No date.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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