While researching my Grandfathers actions during the Great War I gathered together a fair amount of detail on the Cavalry. I summarised it on my story of Jack’s involvement, but rather than trash the rest I’m publishing here as a blog, sharing my findings.
Much of this is cut and paste from original sources, so the language is not necessarily mine. There is also some repetition from the previous blog,
These are the events that happened one hundred years ago during the Arras offensive in northern France. Jack Greenwood, my Grandfather, was possibly involved. This is the story of his regiment the 3rd Dragoon Guards who claimed their main WW1 battle honours at the First Battle of the Scarpe. I can’t say he was definitely there he may have been injured, ill or detached to another unit. But this is the best story we have.
Jack had joined the Cavalry in York, probably in 1916, before transferring to the 3rd Dragoon Guards. Compared to the infantry on the front line, the Cavalry had a relatively easy life in France. Held in reserve, they waited for the right battle, weather and opportunity to engage the enemy. Viewed as one of several mobile elements, including tanks, armoured cars, aeroplanes and bicycle mounted troops, they worked with the infantry to support any breakthrough of the enemy lines. If this was not possible, then horsemen were expected to use their mobility and get to places quickly, dismount and provide sophisticated fire with their light Hodgkiss machine guns. It was not their role to deliver a headlong charge, . However, according to the reports, in this battle, a charge did occur. In the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel ‘War Horse’ a charge takes place, leading some commentators questioning the accuracy of the novel. It was not their role to deliver a headlong charge, despite this being portrayed in the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel ‘War Horse’. Although in this battle, a charge did occur.
It would be probably true to say that during the war the cavalryman was on the whole the best trained all-round soldier in the British Army. He could use a bayonet and he could throw bombs. His musketry was of a high standard. He was proficient in the use of his automatic rifle. He had his own machine gun squadrons. On many occasions he took his place in the front line and knew that he was often called upon to do so when the situation was critical.
In a word he was capable of performing and constantly did perform all the duties of the infantryman. Between the periods of fighting he was employed on constructing railway tracks, making roads, or digging reserve trench systems. He was lent to this Army and to
that to perform whatever task was most needed. He was expected to be ready at short notice to fight as a mounted man, and his training as a cavalryman continued though often under great difficulties.
He was taught to ride his horse and to look after it. He knew how to use his sword and was ready for shock action. There was a time when the training of ” Dragoons ” to fight
on horseback was judged absurd. But the war has proved the value of trained cavalry who can be used with equal effect as cavalry, as a mobile reserve, or in an emergency as infantry pure and simple.
Examples of the employment of cavalry in all these three capacities are to be found in the history of the 6th Cavalry Brigade.
The 6th Cavalry Brigade (6 Cav Bde) began to form in England on 19 September 1914, part of the new 3rd Cavalry Division. The first two regiments to join were the 1st R Dragoons (1D) and 10th R Hussars (10H), both from S Africa where they were stationed when war broke out, and they constituted the brigade when it embarked for France during the first week in October 1914. The following month they were joined by 3rd Dragoon Guards (3DG) and ten days later by the North Somerset Yeomanry (N Som Yeo). After about a week 10H were transferred to 8th Cavalry Brigade in the same division, and from then for over three years 3DG, 1D and N Som Yeo constituted 6 Cav Bde. In March 1918, shortly before the German offensive N Som Yeo were withdrawn and converted to a MG role; they were replaced by 10H. The brigade saw a great deal of fighting both mounted and dismounted – First and Second Ypres, Loos, Arras, Epehy, the March offensive in which heavy casualties resulted in the N Som Yeo being returned to the brigade, back in the mounted role, as reinforcements. The regiment was broken up and personnel distributed among the other regiments in the brigade which took part in the advance to victory, the Hindenburg Line fighting and the final advance.
The 3rd Dragoon Guards spent the winter of 1916-17 training and parading mainly at Aix-en-Issant, close to the french coast at La Toquet. Early in April 2017 they marched to Gouyen en Artois, around 5 miles to the west of Arras ready to be called forward as the offensive progressed. At that time there were 25 Officers and 515 other ranks in the regiments.
Compared to the way trench warfare usually went, the first day at Arras was a success. Three and a half miles of depth was taken, although gains fell short of the town of Monchy-le-Preux.
The 3rd Cavalry Division retired at nightfall and bivouacked north of the Cambrai road
and west of the Wancourt-Feuchy Line trenches and Orange Hill. No hot food was
available and the ground was too soft to picket so the men sheltered in shell holes
holding the horses.
Its capture was planned again for the morning of April 11, when four regiments from 3rd Cavalry Division supported the infantry attack. Vaughan’s 3rd Cavalry Division took up a position behind the infantry attack ready to exploit around the flanks of Monchy. Their objectives were Pelves Mill on the left, and Bois Du Vert and ‘Hill 100’ in the centre approximately 1000m (1100yds) beyond the village. At 7:10am 8th Cavalry Brigade learnt that 112th Brigade had a foothold in the western part of Monchy and reported this to 3rd Cavalry Division. 167 Later at 7:55am 6th Cavalry Brigade to the south passed on a similar report: “112 Brigade report Monchy has fallen, also considers it safe to say that La Bergère has also fallen.” Further patrol reports from the 3rd Dragoon Guards (6th Brigade) suggested that the village was not wholly in British hands but that it was at least partly captured. Brig. Gen. Harman of 6th Cavalry Brigade to the south ordered his own lead regiment, 3rd Dragoon Guards forward to conform with the 8th Cavalry Brigade move and cover their southern flank. These three regiments moved forward over prepared trench crossings in the Wancourt Feuchy line at around 8:30am. 10th Hussars and Essex Yeomanry of 8th Brigade on the left (north), intending to circle around between Monchy and the Scarpe, while 3rd Dragoon guards of 6th Brigade headed south of the village. Emerging south of Orange Hill they advanced at the gallop, in line of troop columns, with one troop advanced as scouts.
An advance in brigade strength like this was a rare enough sight to make a
significant impression on the watching infantry. Capt. Cuddeford of the Highland Light
Infantry (15th Div.) was witness to this advance:
“During a lull in the snowstorm an excited shout was raised that our cavalry were
coming up! Sure enough, away behind us, moving quickly in extended order
down the slope of Orange Hill was line upon line of mounted men covering the
whole extent of the hillside as far as we could see. It was a thrilling moment for
us infantrymen, who had never dreamt that we should see a real cavalry charge,
which was evidently what was intended.”
It was at this moment that a decisive point was reached in the battle. The objectives of
the cavalry advance lay beyond Monchy, and the squadrons had intended to skirt around
the village, but after their experience the day before, Bulkeley-Johnson had ordered that
if fire was encountered from north of the river the 8th Brigade should swing right and
head directly for Monchy.
The 3rd Dragoon Guards reached the Monchy-La Bergre road south of the village. Here they dismounted and took up firing positions with their Hotchkiss machine guns making a defensive line between 111 and 112 Infantry Brigades. They endured heavy artillery fire and were strafed by low flying aircraft, fighting as infantry to repel potential counter attacks. They left the horses behind them, huddled in the snowy weather.
6th Cavalry Brigade advanced as far as the Monchy-Wancourt road south of Monchy, with 3rd Dragoon Guards leading. The regiment advanced with B Squadron in front (Capt. Holroyd-Smith), with one troop of the squadron in line and the remaining three troops in line of troop columns behind, followed by C Squadron (Maj. Cliff). On reaching the road, the Dragoons came upon a party of Germans attempting to dig in, in front of four guns. These troops fled leaving the guns. Very few friendly infantry were to be seen and the Brigade came under fire from Guemappe 1000m (1100 yards) to the south-east, so they took up dismounted positions along the road, deploying their Hotchkiss guns, and supported by the Vickers of the attached MG section.
An attempt was made at around 11.20am by the Royal Horse Guards (Blues), with the
remaining four guns of 8th Machine Gun Squadron to try and reinforce the village but
this was forced back by the weight of fire falling around the village. Two gun pack
horses were hit and the guns lost in the snow. At this point Vaughan, in command of
3rd Cavalry Division, realised that no further progress was likely and a decision was
made for the division to “strengthen any position they now hold” using machine guns
and to try to withdraw the remaining horses. Those of 6th Cavalry Brigade (3rd
Dragoon Guards) to the south of the village escaped without great loss, but the horses of
8th Cavalry Brigade were heavily shelled, and many more were killed during attempts to
A further despatch from Whitmore in Monchy at 11:45am read ‘We are badly in need
of reinforcements and machine-guns.’ At 12 noon a 3rd Cavalry Division aeroplane reported that the enemy were entrenching on the line St. Rohart’s factory—Keeling
Copse—Pelves, and orders were received that the 6th and 8th Brigades were to send their horses back and hold the line they had then reached with Hotchkiss rifles and machine guns.
In response to this a second attempt was made at around 2:00pm by A Squadron of the Royal Horse Guards and the remaining subsection of machine guns to reinforce the village. No. 1 MG Section did make it into the village, although the accompanying squadron of the Blues was forced back, perhaps fortuitously as their additional presence in the village would probably have served only to provide further targets for the German guns.
Similar concerns were being felt by the 3rd Dragoon Guards on the right (6th Cavalry
Brigade) front. Fearing being outflanked to the south, where the line was held only by a party of about thirty infantrymen, survivors of the morning attack, a message was sent at around 2.30pm asking for reinforcements. One squadron of the North Somerset
Yeomanry (6th Cavalry Brigade), was despatched accompanied by four machine-guns,
and by regimental tool-pack horses.192 An initial attempt to advance mounted was met
with heavy machine-gun fire, but a second attempt on foot; leading pack animals only
was successful, reinforcing the 3rd Dragoon Guards on the Wancourt road.193
By mid afternoon it was appreciated at all levels of command that the attack around
Monchy had stalled. At 5.00pm, Kavanagh at Cavalry Corps H.Q. ordered the
withdrawal of the un-engaged parts of the corps; (2nd Cavalry Division, and the 7th
Brigade of 3rd Cavalry Division) to their former positions to the west of Arras. The
remaining brigades in Monchy were to withdraw “…when the situation permits”. 194
Indeed despite the fact that the Hussars, and Yeomanry in Monchy and the Dragoon
Guards to the south fought on into the evening, Advanced Cavalry Corps Headquarters
in Arras ignored them, closing at 6.00pm and withdrawing to Duisans, west of the city.
With the departure of this stay-behind party on 12 April the part played by the cavalry
in the Arras offensive came to an end On the night of the 11th Allenby had ordered all
the cavalry back to its billets of 8 April, to the west of Arras. After resting there they
were further withdrawn on 16 April. On 18 April, Haig ordered Kavanagh to keep two
brigades in readiness within 36 hours of the front line, but these were never called for
and cavalry took no further part in the battle.197
Other cavalry arrived in the village enabled the struggling infantry to establish a defensive firing line. They dug into shell holes, deployed machine guns and established two dressing stations. This stiffened the infantry’s resolve, the dismounted cavalry provided rapid reinforcements, leadership and organisational proficiency at a crucial time, before the arrival of tanks and infantry secured the village. 600 cavalrymen were casualties and many more horses died. The animals were tethered in the open, as their riders took cover, while attempts to take them to the rear during a ‘box barrage’ only increased the killing.
As the Arras offensive illustrated, Monchy-le-Preux highlighted the cost of using horses in close proximity to an established and static defensive position, where the enemy possessed artillery and aerial superiority. Yet it also underlined that cavalry could still play a decisive part with a clear understanding of its function, efficient tactical innovations and great courage.
The Capture of Monchy-le-Preux
The day also saw the capture of Monchy-le-Preux by the infantry of the 15th and 37th Divisions, aided by six tanks. The capture of the village was an unbelievable feat of arms. Astonishingly, many of the attackers had lain out in the cold and snow for two days and it is a credit to their training and the fighting determination of the British Army that their attacks were pressed with such resilience. Despite the undoubted success of the infantry it is the fate of the cavalry that Monchy has become synonymous with. With the village captured the cavalry were to advance east to the Green Line. However, they were forced back into the village by German machine gun fire where they were subjected to a ‘box barrage’ of artillery. Unable to escape, the narrow streets were clogged with horses and cavalrymen. The latter dismounted; seeking refuge in cellars but the horses could do nothing and were killed in great numbers as shells rained down. The streets of Monchy, full of horse carcasses and the foul residue of high explosive shells and animals are said to have run with blood.
3rd Cavalry Division as a whole took 598 casualties over the three days, and the regiments that held the line around Monchy suffered the greater part of these losses; over 400. Col. Whitmore estimated that by 11.00 am on 11 April the garrison of the village, (formed of the 10th Hussars, Essex Yeomanry, 8th MG Squadron and some infantry) had been reduced to “…considerably less than half its strength”.
This human loss, however, was overshadowed in the eyes of contemporary observers
relatively accustomed such losses, (Preston described the casualties as … “Regrettable
[but] proportionately no higher than in many infantry attacks.”) by the more unusual
sight of the equally massive loss of horses. Lieutenant Alan Thomas, an infantry officer
who visited Monchy on the evening of 12 April as part of the 37th Division described
the scene :
“Heaped on top of one another and blocking up the roadway for as far as one
could see lay the mutilated bodies of our men and their horses. These bodies torn
and gaping had stiffened into fantastic attitudes. All the hollows of the road were
filled with blood. This was the cavalry.”
This passage has been picked up by nearly every subsequent published account of the
battle, and serves as a graphic image of the scale of equine loss. Exact figures for
horse casualties are hard to determine (this question will be examined in more detail
later in this chapter), but may be estimated at somewhere between 500 and 1000. A 10th
Hussar survivor of the battle offered the higher figure, claiming that his regiment left
the village after dark with only 30 horses still in hand. Whatever the exact figure, the
loss was enormous, and the gains very limited.
It is tempting to look no further at the involvement of the cavalry at Monchy than this,
and to take Thomas’ final words “This was the cavalry” as an overall verdict on their
usefulness in the offensive. However while it is easy to characterise the offensive as a
whole, and Monchy in particular as expensive failures, when these events are viewed in
more detail, from the point of view of mounted troops, some facts emerge to the credit
of the cavalry and their commanders. Credit for the retention of the village in British hands for the remainder of the day falls to Col. Whitmore and the 6th and 8th Cavalry Brigades.
The accidental nature of the cavalry presence in the village should also be stressed. Monchy did not form the objective of their attack; a commander who deliberately placed nearly an entire brigade of cavalry in such a position, and left it there at the mercy of enemy artillery for the remainder of the day would be open to serious censure. However, in the confused situation of the morning of 11 April, the ability of the cavalry to consolidate (albeit at great cost) the work of the infantry earlier in the day, until proper infantry relief could be co-ordinated, probably turned the attack of 37th Division from a costly failure into a success.